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The Gravity of Steph Curry’s Knee Injury

The face of the Warriors franchise is expected to be out of commission through the first round of the playoffs. What does his MCL sprain mean for Golden State in its final regular-season stretch? What does it mean for the league at large?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Stephen Curry suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain to his left knee in the Warriors’ 106–94 win over the Hawks on Friday. The Warriors announced on Saturday that his recovery progress will be reevaluated in three weeks, which is when the playoffs are set to tip off. But Grade 2 MCL sprains have, on average, sidelined players for roughly six weeks in recent years (as it did last season for Kevin Durant), and coach Steve Kerr said on Sunday there’s “no way” Curry will play in the team’s first-round series. “We have to be ready to play without him and see how he’s coming along,” Kerr told reporters.

An injury to the MCL puts biomechanical restrictions on all athletes, but it’s especially difficult for a perimeter player. The MCL flexes as the knee bends during the type of quick lateral movements and changes of direction that guards like Curry use to create space. Things weren’t the same with Steph the first time we saw him fight through a knee injury in the postseason: Curry lacked his typical elite shiftiness and burst after a Grade 1 tear to his right MCL forced him to miss two weeks of the 2016 playoffs. Curry still put up big numbers after returning, but even a slight decline in agility can be the difference between creating a shot against anyone and getting locked down by Kevin Love.

Plus, there’s always a chance for reinjury for any player returning from an extended absence — never mind for a guy like Curry, who has endured multiple ankle injuries that have caused him to miss 17 games this season alone. Curry said on Thursday that there’s “nothing” that can be done between now and the end of June that can get his ankles to 100 percent. Maybe six weeks on the mend will help, but odds are the issues aren’t going away.

The Warriors still have Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, so no fan is weeping for them. But that trio has also recently battled its own share of injuries (Durant has an incomplete rib cartilage fracture; Thompson has a fractured right thumb; Green has a pelvic contusion). Western Conference foes will be licking their chops at the chance to battle a vulnerable Warriors roster lacking their best offensive player. The Warriors’ season once felt like an inevitable coronation, but it’s starting to resemble a bad dream with an endless amount of outcomes.

Durant Is the Captain Now

Curry’s combination of playmaking and scoring efficiency with and without the ball is unmatched in the league today. His mere presence significantly raises the state of play for his teammates. The Warriors outscore opponents by an amazing 14.3 points per 100 possessions when Curry is on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. But they don’t fare quite as well without Steph. Even when at least one of Durant, Green, or Thompson are on the floor without Curry, they outscore teams by only 2.6 points per 100 possessions. In other words, they go from dominant with virtually any lineup involving Curry to merely good without him.

On-off data can be shaky due to small samples, but Curry’s effect on his team’s scoring efficiency is a trend that has persisted over the course of Golden State’s reign the past few seasons. It’s probably not a coincidence that in Curry’s lone unhealthy playoff run, they blew a 3–1 lead, but had fairly commanding victories in their other two Finals.

In a way, the Warriors have long been prepared for this situation. Acquiring Durant in the summer of 2016 was the ultimate insurance policy. But Golden State is a different team when Durant steps in as the undisputed no. 1 option. Sometimes it’s as if Durant holds onto his isolation habits formed during his formative years with the Thunder. Durant is responsible for 43.1 percent of Golden State’s total isolations and 25.7 percent of its post-ups, per Synergy, a stark difference compared to the rest of a squad that built its success on ball movement. Isolations are an important source of offense, but it makes him an outlier when he’s logged nearly triple the amount of isolations as Curry, and four times more than anyone else on the roster.

The game undeniably changes without Curry; the Warriors’ ball movement isn’t as crisp, their assist totals dip, and they settle for more midrange jumpers. Only 28.9 percent of their shot attempts come from midrange with Curry on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, compared to 42.9 percent when he’s off; they essentially go from shooting the second-fewest in the league (after only the Rockets) to the fourth-most without Curry. Team style inherently changes when a league-defining star isn’t on the court, but Golden State’s transformation without Curry is especially drastic.

Now the onus will be on Durant for however long Curry is out. It’s a chance for Durant to change the narrative surrounding his decision to join the Warriors. Fair or not, the stain on Durant’s career, in the eyes of many, will be how he rode the coattails of a historic 73-win team on his way to his first title. But a truly great postseason can change everything. Durant can become the superstar who led his hampered team through a gauntlet Western Conference on its way to a title.

There has never been more pressure on Durant than there will be now, especially if Curry is out for the full six weeks or is limited once he returns. Durant has fashioned himself as a two-way player (and certainly will receive consideration for first-team All-Defense), but now he’ll need to support Green on defense and be the man offensively much like he was in December during Curry’s first extended absence. Without Curry, Golden State’s offense won’t be able to reach the same heights. They’ll need to be dominant on defense; Durant will need to play like the real MVP.

Will the Warriors Make It to the Boss Round?

The Warriors’ path to the Finals has never been harder and their supporting cast has never been worse. That’s the dirty secret about their season: Their once vaunted bench has completely lost its luster. No one on the team is a consistent 3-point shooter besides Curry, Durant, and Thompson. Aside from that trio, Golden State has a 32.7 3-point percentage, which would rank last in the NBA.

None of their big men can space the floor, aside from Green — and even then, he’s a player defenses are all too happy to let shoot, given that he’s converting only 30 percent of his 3-pointers on the season. Shaun Livingston doesn’t shoot them at all. Andre Iguodala and Pat McCaw are both shooting below 30 percent. Relying on Nick Young (38.5 percent) in a playoff situation is probably asking for a lot.

The Warriors can maximize their spacing by using small-ball lineups with Green at the 5 and Durant at the 4. But that’d be a burden on both players considering the demand they’d have to handle in Curry’s stead. Warriors coach Steve Kerr would probably be better served saving those lineups for the later rounds. Early on, the Warriors need Green or Iguodala to heat up like they have in past playoff runs — at least to a point where defenses can’t sag too far off them behind the arc. Otherwise, their team spacing and ball movement will suffer, limiting attacking lanes for Durant, who will already have so much on his plate.

Matchups will matter more to these handicapped Warriors than they did in past seasons. Virtually every potential opponent in the first or second round will be a tough out. Jimmy Butler said last week that he expects to be back for the playoffs, and Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns has historically been a load for the Warriors, even without Butler. The Spurs are a stout defensive team and Kawhi Leonard could still return; against a weaker Warriors team, their formula from Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference finals could be effective. The Thunder have already presented problems for Golden State this season using their size, and they’re starting to find their stride as a team built for the postseason. The red-hot Jazz led by Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell will be a stiff test for anyone, and Anthony Davis would arguably be the best player on the court in a series against the Warriors.

If the Warriors make it to the Western finals, a worthy challenger will await. If it’s the Rockets, it sure would be nice to witness those two behemoths going toe-to-toe at full strength for an epic series.

Shoot Your Shot, Quinn Cook

All of the wear-and-tear injuries that the Warriors stars have are concerning. Kerr would ideally be able to manage their minutes in the early rounds. But it’s hard to rest your stars when you’re a shooting-oriented team that lacks reserves who can step in and not sacrifice too much of that perimeter identity. The Warriors could still dominate to their sheer talent advantage thanks to Durant, but to help their odds, someone will need to raise their game. Those contributions might come from unexpected places.

As of late, point guard Quinn Cook has excelled in Curry’s absence. The G-League call-up is averaging 21.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.5 assists with a 69.3 true shooting percentage over the past four games, while showcasing a skill set that can coexist with Curry’s once the Warriors star returns. His sharpshooting isn’t a fluke: Cook is a career 39.2 percent shooter on nearly 500 triples in the G-League. He has developed as a decision-maker since his four years at Duke. At a minimum, Cook has a chance to earn himself a lot of money once he hits free agency this offseason if he continues excelling until Curry returns.

A Change in the Award Tour

There are only six guard positions in All-NBA voting, but there are nine possible candidates: Curry, Thompson, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, DeMar DeRozan, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, and Victor Oladipo.

Curry has played only 51 games this season (nine fewer than Irving, who will also miss the rest of the regular season with a knee injury), so it’s conceivable that health will be used against him with the vote. Curry already signed his five-year, $201 million supermax extension last offseason, so there are no financial implications if he doesn’t get named to one of the three teams.

Curry’s absence would open the door for a new face to join esteemed company. Harden is an obvious first-team lock (and should be the MVP in a landslide), and DeRozan will be named to one of the teams due to his impact on Toronto’s success. Lillard will be too, if the Blazers can hold onto home-court advantage heading into the playoffs. Same goes for Westbrook, who needs to grab 100 rebounds in his final eight games to once again average a triple-double on the season. That’d leave five players — Curry, Thompson, Irving, Paul, and Oladipo — for the final two spots. I’d bet that Irving misses the cut for a third consecutive season, and Oladipo won’t make it either due to a lack of exposure for local voters.

That’d leave three big names on the two best Western Conference teams. There are three weeks to go, but my hunch is that Curry and Paul make it. It’s a shame that some truly great players having truly great seasons won’t make the cut, but it’s a good problem to have, isn’t it?

This story was updated on Sunday evening to reflect new information about Curry’s recovery timeline.