As a rule, losing a superstar player to injury in the NBA means a team’s title chances are history. That means every NBA title run is, in a real way, a matter of luck. A team has to be better than its opponents through four seven-game series, but it also has to dodge largely random injuries to its most important players. A team can be as good as it wants, but there will always be a certain, irreducible chance that it loses its star, and its chance at a title, at the worst possible time. That is, unless it finds a way to tilt those odds.
Kevin Durant is familiar with ill-timed injuries. Over his final four seasons in Oklahoma City — the seasons after James Harden was traded away to Houston in 2012 — the Thunder’s playoff runs were marred by injuries in all but one season (Durant in 2015, Russell Westbrook in 2013 and Serge Ibaka in 2014) . They made the Western Conference Finals in 2016, and held a 3-1 lead over the defending champion Warriors, sure, but they never returned to the NBA Finals after 2012. The Thunder had one of the most talented lineups in the league, but without Harden, they’d sacrificed an advantage that, to some, had looked like a weakness: redundancy.
The Warriors understand this need better than most. Last April, after the Warriors had won an NBA-record 73 regular season games, league MVP Stephen Curry left Game 4 of the team’s first-round playoff game with a Grade 1 MCL sprain, after having missed Games 2 and 3 with a sprained ankle. Golden State limped through the remainder of that series and the beginning of the next without Curry, and fought through a tough matchup with Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals. But that glimpse of life without Curry in the postseason, and that Curry never really regained his MVP form afterward, made it clear that even the best regular season team in history is vulnerable to injuries at the top of the roster.
To insure against this kind of thing happening again, the Warriors pursued redundancy, signing Kevin Durant in the offseason. On Tuesday, Durant was the one who went down. The Warriors announced Wednesday morning that Durant has a Grade 2 MCL sprain and a tibial bone bruise, and will be re-evaluated in four weeks. The team has not ruled out a regular season return, to say nothing of the postseason, so the Warriors may well end up at full strength by June. (Bookmakers have already updated their NBA championship odds, and Golden State remains the favorite.) But losing a player as good as Kevin Durant, even just for a month, is never a good thing. However, the Warriors are uniquely equipped to handle such a loss, because they’re uniquely stacked.
Last season, according to data from Basketball Reference’s count, the Warriors were 22.2 points worse per 100 possessions without Curry. (Strangely, in the playoffs, the Warriors were 2.7 points per 100 better without him on the floor, possibly because Curry was diminished by injury.) This season’s Warriors are worse by 15.6 points without Curry and by 6.7 points without Durant. Those are still big numbers but far more manageable than the massive gulf last season.
And they still have Curry, of course. One of the things that separates great NBA players from merely very good ones is the ability to take on workload without sacrificing too much efficiency. In fact, that’s been one of the defining characteristics of Curry’s rise to NBA superstardom. Without Durant, Curry is likely to recover the drop in his usage rate, and he’s shown in the past that he can thrive while taking on added work. Having players who can take on more possessions when necessary is a nice luxury; having ones who can step into the lead role on a championship-caliber team minus an All-NBA teammate is an advantage few teams have ever had.
But Durant’s absence will be felt. While his presence insulated Golden State from an injury to a player of Durant’s caliber, he also provided coverage for a different sort of issue: regression. The Warriors offense runs on shooting, and this season’s roster isn’t as rich in gunners as last season’s. Golden State has just four players who have taken more than a handful of threes who are making them at better than a league-average rate, compared to eight such players last season. As a team, their 3-point percentage has gone from 41.6 to 38.5.
This goes deeper than a mere shooting slump from Curry, or Durant taking a lot of threes and hitting “only” 37.8 percent. Draymond Green attempted 3.2 threes per game last season and made 38.8 percent; this season he has attempted 3.4 per game and made 32.6 percent. Andre Iguodala’s overall 3-point percentage has held steady around 35 percent, but his percentage on corner threes — the threes that come to him most naturally in the offense — has fallen from 43.1 percent to 31.5 percent. And the bench, which last season had gunners such as Brandon Rush (41.4 percent from three), Leandro Barbosa (35.5 percent), Ian Clark (35.7 percent) and Marreese Speights (38.7 percent), this season has only Clark (39.3 percent) shooting well, instead running with midrange specialists such as David West and Shaun Livingston.
The offense has worked because Durant and West are excellent all-around players; they rank third and fourth, behind Curry and Green, for assist percentage on the Warriors. But without Durant around to cover for regression from players like Green, or for deficiencies in the roster created to make room for Durant himself, the Warriors will need improvements from a few key contributors. That could be Green and Iguodala hitting shots they hit last season, or it could mean continued improvement from JaVale McGee in a thin and aging frontcourt.
So the Warriors are in a tough spot for a while, as any team would be with the loss of a player as good as Durant. But if after four weeks it looks as if Durant will have to miss a significant portion of the postseason, the Warriors will be in better shape than just about any team in NBA history to carry on without their star and make a run at the title.
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