It could have been a lot worse for Golden State. Steph Curry’s ankles have been his Achilles’ heel his entire career, so the Warriors held their breath when one turned the wrong direction in the final seconds of their win over the Pelicans on Monday. They were able to exhale Tuesday: An MRI revealed no structural damage to the ankle, only significant swelling. The Warriors said they will reevaluate the injury in two weeks, and they will likely be extremely cautious in bringing back Curry. They have no reason to rush. They are the only team in the league who can replace one MVP with another.
The roles of Golden State’s two superstars were reversed last season, when Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury in late February. He ended up missing a little more than a month, and Curry reminded everyone of what he could do as the leading man. Now it’s Durant’s turn. This is new territory for him. He has played in only three regular-season games without Curry since coming over to the Warriors, and he rarely gets full control of the offense without his point guard by his side. Steve Kerr doesn’t stagger their playing time much. Durant has played 77.5 percent of his minutes with Curry on the floor this season.
Durant has become a different player in Golden State. Unlike in Oklahoma City, where he and Russell Westbrook took turns dominating the ball, the Warriors play a more motion-friendly offense where the ball moves from side to side and their best players screen for each other. Taking a step back on offense has allowed him to dedicate himself to the defensive end of the floor, where he has a career-high block rate of 4.6 percent. Durant is blocking more shots than his former teammate Serge Ibaka. With Curry out, can he find a happy medium between the two extremes? Durant could establish himself as the best two-way player in the league over the next few weeks.
How the offense will look with Durant in charge will depend on who replaces Curry in the starting lineup. Shaun Livingston is the only other point guard in the rotation, but he plays a different style of basketball than Curry does. He operates out of the post and has taken only one 3-pointer all season. If he shares the floor with Zaza Pachulia, there will not be as much room for Durant to attack the rim and take advantage of his size inside. Kerr rarely plays two nonshooters at the same time: The two have played only 23 minutes together all season. If Livingston starts, the importance of Durant spacing the floor and threatening the defense off the ball will only increase.
The other option would be to make Durant and Draymond Green the de facto point guards and play a wing in Curry’s position. That was what happened in the Warriors’ loss to the Kings last month, when Durant and Curry were both out. Second-year guard Patrick McCaw got the start at point, and he had 16 points on 5-of-8 shooting, seven assists, three rebounds, and four steals. No matter what Kerr decides, McCaw will likely be the big winner in terms of increased playing time. The no. 38 pick in the 2016 draft, McCaw has impressed everyone in Golden State with his defensive versatility and feel for the game, but a crowded wing rotation has meant he is playing less than he did as a rookie.
In limited minutes this season, McCaw has shown two things to indicate he could succeed as a complementary point guard. He is shooting 40.6 percent from 3 (albeit on only 32 attempts), and he has 33 assists and only 10 turnovers, a sign he is making good decisions when he has the ball. If he can space the floor for the Warriors’ remaining stars and attack closeouts when the ball is swung his way, playing him at the 1 would add a new element to their defense. Golden State could become a significantly longer and more athletic team without Curry: At 6-foot-7 and 185 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, McCaw towers over opposing point guards and could switch almost every screen.
Curry is one of the best point guards of all time, and there’s no way to replace what he brings to an offense. The most interesting thing the Warriors could do in his absence is play without a traditional point guard. They are already moving in that direction: Curry is the only player under 6-foot-6 in their rotation. Durant and Draymond are excellent ball handlers and passers, while Zaza and David West are capable of facilitating from the high post. Giving them greater responsibility on offense would allow the Warriors to play more defensive-minded players in the 32.6 minutes per game Curry normally plays. Golden State has the no. 1 offense in the NBA and the no. 7 defense. The offense is going to slip without Curry, so the Warriors’ best chance of staying even until he returns is to improve their defense.
Golden State doesn’t have many options to replace him in the backcourt. They have doubled down on wings and big men this season, and the team had to call up Quinn Cook from the G-League just to have a second point guard behind Livingston. The team has devoted six roster spots (Pachulia, West, Kevon Looney, JaVale McGee, Jordan Bell, and Damian Jones) to players who can play only at center in their system. Cook isn’t even technically on the 15-man roster. He’s on a two-way contract, and he can spend only 45 days with the team before Golden State would have to put him on the roster and cut one of its existing players. If Curry’s injury lingers into 2018, that could mean the Warriors have to cut ties with one of their big men. The most likely candidate is Jones, who has spent the entire season in the G-League.
There’s no way to know what exactly Golden State will be without Curry. For a player who struggled with ankle injuries early in his career, he has been remarkably durable over the past five seasons. He has missed only 16 regular-season games in that stretch, and the only serious injury he dealt with was a knee sprain in the 2016 playoffs. The Warriors were vulnerable with a limited version of Curry in that postseason, but they also didn’t have Durant to replace him. For the first time this season, there’s some intrigue surrounding them. They basically run on autopilot when they are healthy. As long as Curry comes back at 100 percent, they will be the overwhelming favorites to win the title. This at least gives us something new to watch for a while.