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How Injuries To Steph Curry And Chris Paul Affect The Playoffs

It’s been a bad couple of days for MVP-caliber point guards.

On Monday afternoon, Warriors fans waiting for the results of the MRI on Stephen Curry’s right knee got their answer: Curry will miss at least two weeks with a Grade 1 MCL sprain, according to the Warriors’ PR Twitter account.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Clippers were hit with even worse injury news Monday night. Chris Paul broke his hand and will likely miss the remainder of the postseason.

The good news for Golden State is that Curry hasn’t been ruled out for the rest of the playoffs, particularly if the Warriors advance beyond the second round. The bad news is that he’s out for the time being. So for each team still active in the playoffs, let’s game out the chances they’ll win the title depending on various (hypothetical) levels of Curry participation over the rest of the playoffs.

For this exercise, I’m going to use the plus-minus metric that drives our CARMELO projections1 to generate Pythagorean ratings for the Warriors based on Curry’s availability. With Curry in the lineup, for instance, the metric says the Warriors possess roughly 67-win true talent (per 82 games) based on plus-minus; with Curry absent, that number falls to 53 wins. Those numbers can then be used to generate expected probabilities of advancing in the playoffs, all the way up to winning the NBA title.

(Obviously this ignores all the ways in which matchups matter, as well as the dynamic effect of teammates’ playing together that isn’t captured by plus-minus. But as a rough cut, this method ought to do the trick.)

Here’s how each team’s title odds would change if Curry played at full strength and had never been injured (specifically, logging 81 percent of the Warriors’ available minutes — the rate at which he played in last year’s playoffs), if he misses “two weeks” (which we’ll define here as being out until the conference finals), and if he doesn’t play at all:

ODDS OF WINNING TITLE WITH …
TEAM FULL CURRY NO CURRY CURRY OUT 2 WKS DIFF., 2 WEEKS AND FULL
SA 16% 39% 22% +6
OKC 5 14 9 +4
CLE 23 35 25 +2
TOR 2 3 3 +1
ATL 1 2 2 +1
CHA 0 1 1 +1
LAC 0 0 0
MIA 0 0 0
HOU 0 0 0
IND 0 0 0
POR 0 0 0
BOS 0 0 0
GS 52 5 38 -14
Which teams benefit from Curry’s absence?

Source: ESPN, Basketball-Reference.com

Regardless of how long Curry is out, the biggest beneficiaries of his injury are obviously the San Antonio Spurs. Their title odds jump by about 23 percentage points if Curry doesn’t play from here on out and 6 percentage points even if he is back in action after the conference semifinals. One reason is simple: The Curry-less Warriors pose far less of a threat to the Spurs than the 73-win superteam San Antonio battled all season. But the Spurs also benefit disproportionately from an increased chance, however small, that Golden State could be knocked out before ever facing San Antonio.

Before Paul’s injury, the Clippers were in position to profit from Curry’s absence. If Curry missed the entire second round and CP3 had been healthy, LA’s chances of winning the title would have roughly quadrupled. But without Paul, the Clippers have very little chance of going all the way, regardless of Curry’s status — the latest in a string of missed opportunities for the franchise over the past few seasons.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the second-biggest leap in title probability if Curry is absent for the rest of the playoffs belongs to the Cleveland Cavaliers, whose chances of winning the championship go up 12 percentage points even though they couldn’t be affected by the injury until the NBA Finals. (For those curious, the plus-minus-based system I used in this article is higher on the Cavs than something like our Elo ratings, because plus-minus thinks Cleveland is more talented than how it’s played the past few seasons.)

Of course, all these calculations can change if Curry is able to return — and play like himself — at some point in the Warriors’ playoff run. The sheer gravity of Golden State’s presence in the bracket has been enough to derail the Spurs’ and Cavs’ claims to favorite status all season long. So best-case, the Warriors weather the second round against the Blazers or depleted Clippers and then pick up where they left off with Curry back for the conference finals. But if his return is delayed or scrubbed entirely, the Warriors’ chances of defending their title will look more fragile than Curry’s knee.


VIDEO: Neil Paine on the Warriors’ and Spurs’ title chances

Check out FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 NBA Playoff Predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Specifically, I’m using a 50-50 blend of ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus and Basketball-Reference.com’s Box Plus/Minus, according to research by FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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