The Warriors are hurting. The latest bad news came over the weekend, when the team learned that superstar Stephen Curry, who was just returning from a six-game absence because of a tweaked right ankle, sustained a Grade 2 MCL sprain to his left knee. He joins three other hurt Golden State stars who are currently riding the bench: Kevin Durant has a rib fracture, Klay Thompson has a fractured right thumb and Draymond Green has a pelvic contusion.
Coach Steve Kerr has already ruled out the idea of Curry returning for the first round of the postseason. But these other guys will be back. So, how will the Warriors’ offense function without Curry when the postseason starts up? And how should it?
To some, these questions might seem pointless, considering that Durant, a fellow superstar, is also on the roster. After all, the possibility of a Curry injury was among the best arguments for signing Durant: Even if Curry goes down, there’d be two other stars (Durant and four-time All-Star Thompson) to count on.1 But any changes to a powerhouse lineup like the Warriors’ has some impact: Defenses now will have more resources to clamp down on Durant. The challenge then for Golden State is to navigate the increased attention on Durant while not making any wholesale changes to the offensive plan with only nine games left in the regular season. After all, the Warriors want Curry to hit the ground running when he returns, using the same pass-happy system that was in place when he left.
There are a handful of things we can likely expect once the other banged-up Warriors rejoin the lineup as expected. The most important: It’s a safe bet that most of the key role players will shoot at least slightly worse without Curry in the picture — a majority of them have performed worse on offense in times when Curry’s been out and Durant’s been playing (compared with their performance when sharing the court with both Curry and Durant).
|Player||With Curry, w/o Durant||With Curry and Durant||With Durant, w/o Curry|
Durant’s offensive performance has also suffered when Curry isn’t playing. Despite being a top-three player in the world, Durant occasionally finds easy looks as a result of the fear that defenses have of Curry getting open along the arc. One indication of the boost Durant gets: Green has completed 16 alley-oops to him over the past two seasons — many of which were sprung while Curry was distracting defenses with fake backscreens. But those were all with Curry on the floor. Without Curry, Green hasn’t found Durant for a single lob during that time period, according to data from Second Spectrum and NBA Advanced Stats.
Durant is still a dynamite scorer without Curry, though — as evidenced by his 45 points per 100 possessions (on 48 percent shooting and 42 percent from 3-point range) in the four games he played mostly without Curry recently. But the downside without Curry is that the free-flowing offense grows more stagnant as Durant isolates more to find his shots. The Warriors go from having 106.0 possessions per 48 minutes when Curry orchestrates the offense to 100.6 possessions per 48 minutes when Durant is on the floor without Curry. And the total number of isolations per 100 plays increases 43 percent, from 10.1 to 14.4, when Durant spearheads the attack without Curry, according to Second Spectrum. The high-octane club goes from scoring almost 122 points per 100 possessions with Curry and Durant to 108 when Durant plays without Curry.
A few caveats: Those pace and offensive efficiency numbers, while down considerably, would still rank among the highest in the league. If anything, this merely speaks to how otherworldly the Warriors are at full strength, or at least when Curry is running their offense. Without Curry playing, they would still be favored against just about any team out West, perhaps except for Houston.
The Warriors know that, too, and based on their recent history with knee sprains, it seems a foregone conclusion that they’ll take things slowly with Curry’s rehabilitation. Curry of course missed two weeks of the postseason in 2016 after suffering a less severe Grade 1 MCL sprain. He had a 40-point game in his return against Portland but then struggled in the finals (he later suggested that he wasn’t anywhere near 100 percent that postseason after the injury). The team took a different approach with Durant last season — and saw different results. He returned from a nearly six-week absence and Grade 2 MCL sprain to outplay LeBron James and earn the finals MVP.
While Durant and the rest of the Warriors await Curry’s return, there are several tactics they could take to both take advantage of the line-ups they will have on the floor and to make sure that Curry can re-enter the offense seamlessly. For one, Golden State would be smart to push the tempo and to screen more on the ball using either Green or Andre Iguodala to set picks for Durant. (The Warriors set about 10 fewer on-ball screens per 100 possessions when Durant is running the offense without Curry.) Both Green and Iguodala are playmakers and are more likely to keep the ball moving than Durant. He’s a good passer but calls his own number for 1-on-1 scenarios far more often than most players do.
This is why running more simple screen-and-roll sets could help Durant: Such plays give him a clearer opening for an occasional jumper when he wants one. But they also allow him to share the ball with confidence that he can get it back in perhaps his most lethal position: off the catch, where he shoots a far-higher percentage than when he dribbles several times before launching an attempt.
It’s worth noting that the Warriors have generated more points per play out of Durant pick-and-rolls with Green setting the screen this season (1.18) than they have with Curry pick-and-rolls in which Green is the screen-setter (1.08), according to Second Spectrum.2
For context, the Durant and Green combo ranks second in efficiency among NBA pairs who’ve run at least 100 direct pick-and-rolls, trailing only the unstoppable duo of Curry and Durant.
So, no — there’s obviously no true way to replace everything Curry brings on offense. But playing a style that isn’t far removed from what he’s used to could help keep the team in rhythm for when he returns.
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