Examining the impact of Kevin Durant's injury on Western Conference playoff race
Could things shift in the West after Durant's injury?
The news for the Golden State Warriors that Kevin Durant will is about as good as you could hope for. The , and he should be able to return to the team to help with the playoffs. But getting there will be interesting. Without Durant, the Warriors are still a super-team. They’re still loaded with three All-NBA players. They’ll still be favored to win the title. But what does their road to the postseason look like?
Here are several ways Durant’s injury impacts the Western Conference playoff race:
- They’re still likely to retain the 1-seed. Their magic number for the top seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs is 20 with 22 games to go. That seems crazy high, but remember that’s wins as well as losses for San Antonio. So if the Spurs lose just three more times, the Warriors can lose one of the two games to San Antonio and still secure the top seed by going 17-5. That’s an outrageous number for most teams but not for Golden State, obviously, after winning 73 games last year with this core (and a different -- and better -- set of bench players). They have a number of tough games, but all of them are winnable, and that’s if the Spurs don’t rest and continue to push at a high level.
- OK, but that assumes they push to the end to get the 1-seed. Can they rest? Say they go 15-7 to finish. The Spurs would have to finish 19-5 or worse. Doesn’t seem impossible, but San Antonio is capable of that. That’s the big question: Do the Warriors surrender some games to get rest? This is where their depth helps so much. Against teams like the Sixers and Magic, they can rest one of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson or Draymond Green, and still get the win. They only need two of the four to beat those teams, and they can manage it. However, that takes planned rest scenarios, and the coaches have rarely gone that route. That’s going to be the real debate.
- What does this mean for the West? If you’re the Spurs, this complicates things, because you have a real shot at chasing down that 1-seed. Gregg Popovich will stick to rest designs, we know that. But they can still keep the pedal a little bit down to try and nab the 1-seed. You’re going to need every advantage if you’re San Antonio in a possible matchup with Golden State, and the benefits of getting to the 1-seed are more than just home court. By landing the 1-seed, you secure that the Warriors have to face the Rockets, who have to scare the Spurs just a little bit, while landing a better second-round matchup with the Clippers, Jazz, Nuggets or Thunder. You also wind up with a much easier first-round matchup, with a terrible 8-seed team no matter who gets it, against one of those other squads mentioned. There’s real reason for the Spurs to try and chase it down.
- If you’re the Rockets, you’re basically not able to tank down to the 4-seed anyway, but if things got crazy in a hurry, do you think about it if it looks like the Warriors are going to be the 2-seed? Houston won’t think this way, it’ll just play it out, but a second-round matchup with San Antonio is much better than a full-strength Warriors team. Or is it? Do you hope to catch the Warriors earlier, with the idea that Durant might not be 100 percent yet, opening the door for an upset? I tend to lean toward “stay away from the Warriors at all costs.”
- A team to watch in the scenario that Durant isn’t 100 percent? The Grizzlies. If they can find their way into the Warriors’ bracket, they’ve beaten them twice this season, and while regular-season performances are mostly meaningless, the Grizzlies also pushed Golden State two years ago and have always given Durant problems. The Grizzlies would be able to exacerbate problems for K.D. and that might improve their odds, despite being out-gunned.
- This has impacts on the 8-seed, too. If you’re the Nuggets, Blazers, Pelicans or Mavericks, and you can take two games from the Spurs, you feel good about your future. Maybe the Spurs sweep them, but the Spurs also don’t obliterate teams like the Warriors do.
So there are a lot of impacts here. The most likely scenario is that the status quo remains, and the Warriors secure the 1-seed. But a tired team, with a recovering Kevin Durant? That opens the door for a team to make a run at them. You have to have faith in the Warriors until they fail (or go up 3-1), but the Durant injury opens up a host of fascinating, and complicated scenarios, unfortunate as it is.
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