The good news for the Warriors is that Kevin Durant injured his knee on February 28, instead of during the first round of the playoffs, like Steph Curry did last season. Curry was never the same after suffering a Grade 1 MCL sprain in Game 4 against the Rockets, and his slow recovery looms over Durant’s Grade 2 MCL sprain, which he suffered in the opening minutes of a loss against the Wizards on Tuesday. In their initial announcement, the Warriors said Durant is out indefinitely and would be reevaluated in four weeks. In a best-case scenario, he would return in early April and shake off any rust before the start of the playoffs, though the Warriors will err on the side of caution before bringing him back.
What It Means for the Warriors Stars
Golden State has more than enough talent to survive without him in the regular season; the Warriors have a net rating of plus-6.6 in the 920 minutes Durant has been off the floor. Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green all have lower usage rates in 2016–17 than they did in the 2015–16 campaign, and they will all get an opportunity to pick up the slack without Durant. Curry, in particular, will likely put up huge scoring numbers over the next month, now that he has the freedom to hoist shots with abandon and play more like he did en route to becoming the two-time MVP. The Warriors will likely move Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup, and he’s one of their best passers and least aggressive scorers on the team, so he will focus on boosting the averages of the Warriors’ three remaining stars. Shaun Livingston should also see an increase in his offensive responsibility, as he will be given freer rein to run the second unit.
What It Means for the Warriors Subs
As is often the case when stars go out, the biggest issue won’t be the guys replacing Durant, but the guys replacing the replacements. Instead of Jose Calderon, whom the Warriors had originally planned to sign once he cleared waivers, Golden State will bring in Matt Barnes, who was let go by the Kings to help facilitate the DeMarcus Cousins trade.
Barnes, who had a stint in Golden State as part of the “We Believe” team almost a decade ago, is almost 37 years old, and nowhere near the player he was in his prime. He is averaging 7.6 points per game on 38.4 percent shooting this season, but those numbers should improve now that he’s playing on a much better team. The main benefit of adding him is bringing in a veteran who should be able to pick up Steve Kerr’s defensive schemes quickly, move the ball, and knock down open 3s in the corner.
Kerr will have other avenues to fill the hole in the rotation created by Durant’s absence. He can play rookie Patrick McCaw and fourth-year guard Ian Clark more minutes, or play bigger lineups with Draymond Green staying primarily at power forward and giving more run to David West, JaVale McGee, and James Michael McAdoo. McCaw played 24 minutes against the Wizards on Tuesday, and at 6-foot-7 and 185 pounds, he is a long and athletic player with a good feel for the game. If McCaw can consistently knock down 3-pointers (he is shooting 34.9 percent from 3 on 1.7 attempts per game) and use his quickness to make up for his lack of strength on defense, he could emerge as a solid 3-and-D player over the second half of the season. Getting McCaw more comfortable before the start of the playoffs could be the silver lining for the Warriors in the injury.
What It Means for the Warriors Defense
For as great as Durant is on offense, the Warriors will really feel his absence on defense. In his 10th season in the league, the 28-year-old Durant is in the sweet spot where his understanding of the game has caught up with his athleticism, and he is playing the best D of his career. Durant is leading the team in blocks (1.6 per game), helping to make up for the rim protection Golden State lost with Andrew Bogut’s and Festus Ezeli’s exits. Zaza Pachulia is a strictly ground-bound player, and McGee is not disciplined enough to take full advantage of his prodigious physical gifts. Bogut and Harrison Barnes are gone, so the Warriors won’t be able to play defense nearly as well without Durant as they did last season, whether they are staying big or going small with Draymond at the 5.
What It Means for the Western Conference Playoff Race
The only team with any chance to challenge the Warriors for the no. 1 seed is the Spurs, who are four games back. Keeping the top seed is a big deal for Golden State, not for home-court advantage purposes, but because the drop-off between the no. 7 seed (the Thunder) and the no. 8 seed (the Nuggets) is massive. The Thunder improved their roster by trading for Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott at the deadline, and they may be able to move up in the standings, as they sit a half game behind the Grizzlies and one and a half games behind the Clippers. A matchup between Golden State and any of those three teams would be a war, especially if Durant isn’t at full strength. There are six teams still in the running for the no. 8 seed, but whichever team gets it will be well below .500. There’s a big difference between bringing Durant back slowly and getting him a lot of rest after a four- or five-game first-round series and needing him to play 35-plus minutes a night in a six- or seven-game first-round grind. That was Steph’s problem last season, as the Warriors couldn’t afford to get him the recuperation time he needed to get back to near 100 percent.
If you go by the winning percentage of their remaining opponents, the Spurs have the toughest schedule of any team in the West. They will play teams with a 54 percent winning percentage, compared with 52 percent for the Warriors. However, that is balanced out by San Antonio having four more home games than the Warriors. Golden State’s remaining schedule isn’t particularly difficult, with only one remaining extended road trip, which wraps up this week. They have two games at San Antonio, one on March 11 and the other on March 29, and those clashes could loom large in the race for the no. 1 seed. Split those and the Warriors should be OK. Lose both and it could be a race, although San Antonio isn’t likely to overextend its older players too much during the regular season. The big stretch to watch for Golden State happens at the end of March, when the Warriors play Memphis, Houston, San Antonio, and Houston again.
What It Means for Durant
Knee injuries are always tricky, and there’s no way to know how Durant’s body will respond to rest and rehabilitation. He is 7 feet tall, and any injuries to the lower extremities for a person his size are dangerous. A Grade 2 MCL sprain means he suffered a partial tear, although one not complete enough to require surgery. Even if he does come back on schedule, he may not have the same type of explosiveness and burst that has made him one of the best players in the league. For the moment, we have to be a lot more cautious about penciling in the Warriors for their third consecutive trip to the Finals than when they were on pace to win nearly 70 games. No one roots for injuries, but every team in the West has to be feeling better about its chances than it did 24 hours ago.
If the Warriors take a step back, the Spurs, who have the NBA’s top-rated defense, and the Rockets, who have the second-rated offense, are in the best position to pounce. However, the Jazz and Clippers, who are currently in the no. 4 and no. 5 seeds despite struggling with injuries all season, wouldn’t necessarily feel intimidated going up against either of those two teams, while the Grizzlies and the Thunder have the playoff experience to be a threat as well. A healthy Warriors team was always going to be an overwhelming favorite in the West; a hobbled version could make things interesting.
If it takes Durant one or two rounds to get himself fully comfortable, Golden State will have a much tougher road to the NBA Finals, and that could be the most important outcome from this injury. The Cavs benefited greatly from the Warriors’ grueling seven-game series with the Thunder in last season’s Western Conference finals, as Golden State seemed to run out of gas by the end of the Finals. It’s never wise to underestimate LeBron James, and the Cavs are still looming as the biggest threat to the Warriors, even though getting through the East should be tougher than it has been the past few years. The Warriors are still the favorites to win the championship, but it’s not going to be as easy as we all assumed at the start of the season. As Zaza well knows, in the NBA playoffs, nothing comes easy.