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A Star Is Needed: Which NBA Teams Need Their Injured Players Back the Most?

In one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory, an untimely absence could derail a team. Whether it’s the Warriors or the Pacers, these squads need their players back.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

An unfortunate number of NBA stars are already in recovery mode, and it’s only November. In the weirdest season in some time, one when the Magic are in the playoff standings and the Clippers are the top team in the West, teams can’t afford for their best players to miss time with injuries for even the shortest of stints. But who needs their star back the most?

Golden State and Steph Curry

The Injury: Curry has missed the Warriors’ past 10 games with a groin injury; the team’s gone 5-5 without him.

A lethal, 49-point game by Kevin Durant on Monday was the most Golden State’s had to rally around since Curry’s exit. He was clutch in every area late in the game, drawing a crucial foul, assisting Klay Thompson on a 3, and then hitting one of his own with 22 seconds left. It was enough to erase a 17-point halftime deficit against … Orlando.

That’s right. It took 49 points from Durant to beat the Magic by six, just as it took his 44 points the game prior to top the Kings by one. Neither team is nearly as sorry an opponent as they were last year; Orlando entered the contest having won eight of its past 12 games. But these are the defending-champion, dynasty-defining Warriors we’re talking about. Even without Curry (and Draymond Green, who has missed the past six games with a toe injury), Golden State has one of the best scorers in history in Durant and one of the best shooters in Thompson.

Taking away Curry corrodes the team’s identity. His individual shooting and crafty distribution on the court can’t be understated—he was recording career highs from the 3-point line (49.2 percent) and the field (51.5 percent)—but his presence is about more than just buckets. Curry’s energy might make him the league’s most high-profile glue guy because of all the Warriors tension this season. (The title used to belong to Green, but given the latter’s team-dividing argument this month, it doesn’t seem appropriate at the moment.)

Curry is expected to practice Tuesday and could return Thursday against Toronto.

Utah and Donovan Mitchell

The Injury: Mitchell has missed the Jazz’s past two games with a rib contusion; the team’s gone 1-1 without him.

Utah wasn’t playing spectacularly well even with Mitchell, who didn’t return after halftime against the Lakers on Friday. In 11 minutes, his shot chart was already scattered with red, as Mitchell went 2-for-9 from the field (including four long misses) with as many makes as he had turnovers. The game was representative of his season, another slow start—which seems to be habitual with Mitchell, tracing back to college—that has meant a slow start for Utah as well.

Utah’s offensive shortcomings are starting to become more apparent, too; as a unit, the Jazz’s shooting has been horrendous outside of Joe Ingles and occasional Alec Burks minutes. Nothing’s coming easy for Utah, not even taking advantage of forced turnovers. Despite Mitchell’s uninspiring open, the second-year guard is coach Quin Snyder’s best chance for a rebound. At the Jazz’s best, the offense runs through Mitchell and for Mitchell. Ricky Rubio’s playmaking, Rudy Gobert’s improved finishing, and Ingles’s shooting are all highly effective complements when the 22-year-old is on fire.

There’s currently no timetable for Mitchell’s return.

Indiana and Victor Oladipo

The Injury: Oladipo has missed the Pacers’ past five games with a sore right knee; the team’s gone 3-2 without him. (He played the first five minutes against Atlanta before leaving the game and missing the next four, so I’m counting it.)

As with Mitchell, when Oladipo’s team is playing well, it’s because he’s the first, second, and third option. The Pacers could never hope to replace his presence with a grab bag of guards and wings. Though unlike Utah, Indiana sought some insurance this summer and signed a couple of players who are preventing the offense from completely drying out without Dipo.

Doug McDermott scored 21 against the Jazz on Monday; Aaron Holiday, who hadn’t played more than four minutes prior to Oladipo’s injury, is averaging 13 points over the past five games; and Tyreke Evans, despite rather inauspicious shooting of late, has led the bench multiple times this season. Paired with Bojan Bogdanovic and Domantas Sabonis (who arrived in Indiana with Oladipo in the trade from Oklahoma City), there’s less reason for concern than for the Warriors or the Jazz.

Plus, Dipo appears to be on the mend. He traveled with the Pacers on their four-game road trip and was listed as questionable against the Jazz. Coach Nate McMillan said Oladipo will “have to go through a couple of live practices” before returning.

Cleveland and Kevin Love

The Injury: Love has missed the Cavaliers’ past 15 games with a toe injury; the team’s gone 4-11 without him. Yikes!

Cleveland dropping more than two-thirds of its games without Love sounds bad, but losing might be in the franchise’s best interest. The newly reformed lottery rules give the worst of the worst lower odds of landing the top pick, but there hasn’t been a better time for Eastern Conference tanking in a while. The Magic and the Nets are competent, and the Knicks and the Bulls are occasionally mildly exciting.

The Cavs, meanwhile, are spiraling downward. Tyronn Lue was fired six games into the season, and there doesn’t appear to be a plan to replace interim coach Larry Drew. J.R. Smith has left the team after demanding a trade, the young players Cleveland wants to build on are producing bland box score after bland box score, and the team’s most promising trade asset might be Kyle Korver.

This offseason, Cleveland signed Love to a four-year, $120 million contract in the hopes that he would become the future of the team. That future may be brightest if Love is sidelined for the present.