This piece was updated after publication with additional information about the knee injury Kevin Durant suffered on Tuesday night and its effect on the Warriors.
Kevin Durant limped off the court Tuesday night after Marcin Gortat rag-dolled Zaza Pachulia to the ground and into Durant’s left leg. The Warriors announced on Wednesday morning that Durant had suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain and a tibial bone bruise.
According to the release, Durant “will be out of action indefinitely and will be re-evaluated in four (4) weeks.” Although a regular-season return hasn’t been entirely ruled out, the start of the playoffs is only six weeks away.
After the loss to the Wizards, the Warriors locker room was somber and head coach Steve Kerr could not have been described as optimistic. Golden State planned to sign free-agent point guard Jose Calderon, but it quickly changed gears, instead opting to sign forward Matt Barnes to a rest-of-season contract (while still honoring the agreement with Calderon).
Barnes wrote about his impending return to Golden State on Instagram, “next to the birth of my children this is the happiest day of my life!!” But it’s not a happy day for Durant or the rest of the organization. The Warriors already have the league’s best record and offensive rating — and second-best defensive rating — but this hurts whether Durant is out for four weeks or four months.
Many fans right now are playing the world’s smallest violin for the Warriors, since even without Durant they’re still a top team in the NBA. Their roster has more than enough to keep itself atop the league. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson can pick up the slack, and Draymond Green’s role will increase. Barnes will provide raw energy, versatile defensive ability, and spot-up shooting. Younger reserves like Patrick McCaw and Ian Clark could also get more chances.
Cry me a river, right? The Warriors outscore teams by a monsterous 22.6 points per 100 possessions when their Big Four is on the floor, per NBA.com. When Durant is off the floor, that number drops all the way down to a still-ridiculous 12.5 points per 100 possessions, but there’s a significant decline in defensive rating, from 98.2 to 109.4. Durant is an MVP candidate because of his offense, but he’s having a career-best defensive season, too. Durant is an excellent helper, locks down multiple positions using his long arms, and leads the team in both defensive rebounding and blocks. The Warriors will be fine for the regular season, but things could be different in the playoffs.
The Rockets made an impactful addition in Lou Williams. The Spurs are still the Spurs. The Thunder are rising; Russell Westbrook smells blood in the water. The Clippers, Jazz, and Grizzlies present a threat, too. The Cavaliers just got stronger by signing Andrew Bogut. Every personnel move and every injury that occurs will matter in April, May, and June, when teams are competing for loftier goals. The margin for error is slim when it comes to winning individual games, never mind chasing a championship.
The gap is tighter, which should make for a more interesting rest of the season. The Trilogy between the league’s giants — Cleveland and Golden State — isn’t as much of a guarantee as it seemed.
Injuries are a reminder of the fickle nature of sports. Curry’s various injuries during last year’s playoffs, from a tweaked ankle to a swollen elbow to a sprained MCL, had an impact on his performance all the way through the Finals. Durant’s injury could too. If Durant is out until the playoffs, there could be issues integrating him at that stage of the year. The Warriors are still in a chemistry-building phase and any games lost takes away from that process. There’s limited practice time during the busy NBA season and each game can essentially be viewed as a time to learn each other’s habits. No matter how talented a roster is, most superteams take at least a year to click at an optimal level. The Celtics’ Big Three might’ve won a title in their first year together, but their chemistry reached its highest levels the following two seasons. Miami struggled to integrate Chris Bosh at first before becoming a force, just as LeBron’s Cavaliers have had to adapt to Kevin Love’s game and temperament. The Warriors aren’t at the level today that they will be in June 2017, to say nothing of June 2018 and beyond.
The reality that the Warriors are still developing as a team explains why they’re vulnerable and have had an unusual frequency of off nights. There could be more to come with Durant sidelined.