After a fitful night of encroaching fear and held breath, the Golden State Warriors and their fans got some good news on Wednesday morning. Kevin Durant suffered only a Grade 1 sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee when Zaza Pachulia collided into it during Tuesday’s loss to the Washington Wizards, and while he’ll be out for at least a month, he could be back before the end of the regular season and is expected to be back in the fold for the playoffs.
And while you never root for injuries — or, at least, you really shouldn’t, guys — the rest of the teams in the NBA’s playoff picture got some good news on Wednesday morning, too. Kevin Durant’s on the shelf, and now, things get interesting. Now, even if it’s only a crack, the door’s open.
Yes, the Warriors will still probably be fine. They still employ Stephen Curry, the two-time reigning Most Valuable Player who, despite struggling with his shot the past two games, is still averaging just under 25 points and 6.5 assists per game this season on 47/40/92 shooting splits. After months of questions about whether making room for the addition of Durant sapped some of the magic that made his unprecedented unanimous 2015-16 MVP campaign so soaringly historic, it’s worth noting that, quiet as it’s kept, Curry has produced at damn near last year’s levels when KD’s off the court.
Curry is averaging 31.3 points and 6.7 assists per 36 minutes of non-KD floor time over a 501-minute sample this season, according to NBA.com’s new “impact” lineup data. His field goal percentage and efficiency have taken a dip, but he’s still posted a strong .596 True Shooting percentage (which takes into account 2-point, 3-point and free-throw accuracy) while “using” a higher share of his team’s offensive possessions (34.2 percent) than James Harden does for the Houston Rockets. The MVP’s still in there, still waiting to rise and fire coming off a high screen from Draymond Green, and we could see a lot more of him over the next 15 to 20 games while the Dubs await further word on Durant’s healing.
Factor in the All-NBA talents of Green and Klay Thompson, and the fact that Golden State hasn’t had many problems scoring with Durant off the floor this season — 107.4 points per 100 possessions, a steep decline from their league-leading full-season mark of 114 points-per-100, but still a top-10-caliber rate of offensive efficiency — and it’s reasonable to believe that the Dubs won’t have any trouble pouring in buckets on the competition. How their defense holds up is another story; Durant has evolved into an All-Defensive Team-caliber game-changer as a rim protector and help defender, and lineups featuring Curry, Thompson and Green without Durant have hemorrhaged points to the tune of 109.4 points per 100 possessions, a bottom-five defensive efficiency mark on par with the permissive likes of the Phoenix Suns and Brooklyn Nets.
By and large, though, the Warriors will probably be fine over the final six weeks of the season. This is the nice thing about having four All-Stars; when you lose one of them, even if he is one of the most amazing players on the planet, you still have three more.
Based on team’s difference in net rating with a player on/off court, Durant is the Big 4 member the Warriors can MOST afford to be without. pic.twitter.com/fFkUv4QQ5C
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 1, 2017
And yet, “they’ll probably be fine” doesn’t mean nothing has changed. The clear best team in the NBA just lost a first-team All-NBA-caliber contributor for at least four weeks and, if past return-to-play timelines tracked by Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes for NBA players who suffered Grade 2 MCL sprains, probably at least a bit longer than that.
The Warriors will be replacing Kevin Durant with some combination of rookie Patrick McCaw, reserves Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Ian Clark, and the just-added Matt Barnes on the wing. They will be hoping that Green, Pachulia, David West, JaVale McGee, James Michael McAdoo and Kevon Looney can, while not coming close to matching Durant’s production, at least soak up the balance of KD’s minutes at the four and five spots. These aren’t fatal options, but they’re clear downgrades, a weakening of what had been positions of just about unparalleled strength.
The Vegas odds haven’t shifted much, but they’ve moved a bit …
Warriors “drop” from 5-11 favorites to win NBA title to 1-2 via the Superbook
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) March 1, 2017
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) March 1, 2017
… and as good as the remaining Warriors still are, their misfortune will only serve to energize the opponents who’ve been chasing Golden State since the season’s opening tip.
The Warriors still hold a four-game edge over the San Antonio Spurs for the top spot in the West, and have a slightly easier season-ending slate than the Spurs. But San Antonio has been pulverizing people lately, winning nine of their last 11 games while holding opponents to a microscopic 95.4 points per 100 possessions since the end of January, a stretch that has coincided with the elevation of spring-heeled, rim-protecting dive man Dewayne Dedmon into the starting lineup. The big man he replaced, Pau Gasol, is now back from his broken hand and reportedly cool with coming off the bench, giving coach Gregg Popovich and MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard some needed extra punch off the pine.
With the exception of point guard Tony Parker, who’s working through a quad injury, the Spurs are healthy and rolling, and they get Golden State twice over the next month — both times at AT&T Center, where San Antonio is 11-2 since Christmas — with the Dubs on the second game of road back-to-backs for both games. It’s likely that Golden State will retain firm possession of the No. 1 seed in the West come the start of April, but with San Antonio holding a 1-0 edge in their head-to-head season series thanks to their opening-night destruction of the new-look Warriors, it’s far from a sure thing — especially if Golden State responds to Durant’s injury by deciding discretion’s the better part of valor in terms of rotation management:
The key for GS is to not overplay everyone else. Take some losses. Rest the other stars more, don't let them burn out making up for KD.
— david b. thorpe (@coachthorpe) March 1, 2017
By May they will be rolling and fresh.
— david b. thorpe (@coachthorpe) March 1, 2017
“Health is probably the most important, but [playoff] seeding is right up there,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said Wednesday, according to Sam Amick of USA Today. “I know we’re going to try to win as many games as we can. … We will do our best to keep the positioning we have now, but it’s not going to be easy.”
If the Warriors do drop from No. 1 to No. 2 by the postseason, they’d be in line to face a pretty stiff challenge in Round 1. Just two games separate the fourth and seventh seeds in the West, and every team in that mix might have reason to believe it’s got a puncher’s chance against a version of the Warriors that’s still reintegrating a not-quite-100-percent Durant as the playoffs begin.
The Utah Jazz have size, length, depth, a brutalizing defense and an emerging All-Star in Gordon Hayward who ranks among the league’s most efficient and effective scorers. The Los Angeles Clippers have been Golden State’s punching bags for nearly three years now, but they just got Chris Paul back from thumb surgery, Blake Griffin has been absolutely lights out — 24.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.2 steals in 33.8 minutes per game, shooting 50.7 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from 3-point land — since his midseason injury scare, and they still feel they can go toe-to-toe with anyone when they’ve got their core four on the floor (even in spite of evidence to the contrary).
Barring Chandler Parsons suddenly getting new cybernetic legs, the Memphis Grizzlies don’t look like they’re going to be quite the team they hoped they would entering this season. But they’ve quietly been a top-10 offense over the past two months, they have an elite two-way one-two punch in All-Star center Marc Gasol and should’ve-been All-Star Mike Conley, and they’re tenacious enough defensively to make life very uncomfortable for Steph and Klay for two solid weeks. And the Oklahoma City Thunder, now bearing reinforcements in the form of grinder Taj Gibson and shooter Doug McDermott? Well, something tells Russell Westbrook might welcome the chance to go nuclear on the still-wobbly Warriors.
The Warriors would remain overwhelming favorites against any first-round opponent, but squaring off against one of those four teams rather than a comparatively weaker (and probably sub-.500) adversary in whichever team takes the West’s eighth seed would likely mean a tougher challenge, more energy exerted and maybe a pound of flesh sacrificed along the way. The two-seed path would also line up Golden State for a second-round matchup with the Rockets, who have split their first two meetings with the Warriors this season, who just added instant-offense igniter Lou Williams at the trade deadline, and who have made no bones about their intention to damn the torpedoes to try to overwhelm the Warriors with a steady diet of Harden pick-and-rolls and long-range bombs.
Stopping that wouldn’t be easy — at some point, you might just have to hope Houston starts missing — especially with a still-working-his-way-back Durant. Get through that, and you could be looking at a two-week grind against Kawhi and the Spurs. Get through that, and you’re facing a rubber match with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who by that point will hopefully have reintegrated the injured J.R. Smith and Kevin Love, as well as buyout-market acquisitions Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut, into an attack led by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, who spent the better part of last June dismantling the Warriors to the point that they felt the need to go out and add KD in free agency.
Yes, having three All-NBA players and a relatively deep bench and one of the best coaches in the NBA make the task of weathering those storms easier, but that — all of that — is hard, man. The harder each step gets, the lower Golden State’s odds of winning a second NBA championship in three years get, and the greater the chance that we see everyone’s projected titlist fall short of the crown for the second straight year. Entering Tuesday’s slate, we felt reasonably sure we knew how the next three months would play out; 24 hours later, the range of potential outcomes has increased, allowing hope to spring up in several locker rooms that might not have really believed they had a shot at the brass ring.
Whenever Durant comes back, and in whichever form he’s capable of taking the floor, the Warriors still sit atop the NBA. But his injury has introduced an element of chaos, and chaos is a ladder. Now we get to spend the weeks and months ahead seeing whether anybody’s got what it takes to make the climb.
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