With the news that Kevin Durant is out at least four weeks with a Grade 2 MCL sprain and bone bruise in his left knee, the Warriors suddenly have some things to figure out just as they were cruising into the home stretch of the season and gearing up for another Finals run.
Our experts weigh in on how much Durant’s absence will effect the Warriors both short and long term, and what their priorities should be over the next month.
1. The Warriors are losing one of the best players in the world, but they still have three superstars. How much different do you expect Curry, the Death Lineup and the Warriors overall to look over the next month?
Matt Moore: That’s up to them. Do they focus on defense, which is honestly the biggest thing they’re going to miss without KD, and grind teams down with their athleticism while outpacing them with shooting? Or do they fall into bad habits of looking for “kill shots” by going for the big, dramatic 3-pointers and trying to hoist them up? That’s what gets them in trouble, and with Durant out, that possibility goes up. If they bear down on defense, manage the flow of the game,and just continue to play unselfish Warriors basketball, they’ll be fine.
Basically, if they chase big plays, they’re going to get in trouble.
Also, the death lineup become less death-y. I’m sure some of my colleagues will disagree, but you can’t just plug in Ian Clark or Patrick McCaw and execute at the same level. You lose offense and defense. We’re talking about Kevin Durant. He unlocks a lot of what they can do, and it’s not just Durant’s skill; the size he provided was an exaggerated version of what made them so dangerous with Harrison Barnes at the four. They don’t have a replacement and I’m skeptical of Matt Barnes, at age 36, being able to seamlessly step in, though you can bet he’ll still somehow shoot above 40 percent after shooing 32 percent from deep with the Kings.
Curry’s in an interesting situation here. After the Christmas loss to the Cavaliers, the Warriors and Curry focused on getting him more involved. He went supernova, and Durant kind of faded into the background (while still averaging over 20 points per game on insane efficiency, because he’s Kevin Durant). Does this put Curry back into 2016 Curry mode? And if that’s the case, does that make them better? What if they’re better that way? This season, the Warriors have been dominant, but never seemed like the magical team they were last season until Game 5 of the Finals. What if this opens the door for the return of that team? And what would that say about Durant and his place with Golden State? These are all really fascinating questions.
James Herbert: Offensively, they’re going to run the same stuff they always have. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will have higher usage rates, I guess, and opposing defenses will try to blitz Curry to get the ball out of his hands more often. In general, they’ll look more like last season, and Curry will have no excuse not to take the deep, off-the-dribble 3s that make the Warriors the Warriors. Bench units will probably suffer, but overall this could (and maybe should?) still be the best offense in the league.
I suspect Golden State will run into more difficulties on the other end. Durant has been almost as incredible as Green as a defender this season, both protecting the rim and guarding perimeter players. He’s also leading the team in rebounding, and that’s one boring reason why the Warriors will miss him. Green can still grab boards and start fast breaks on his own, but Durant is one of the top few transition players on the planet.
Colin Ward-Henninger: Any time you replace Kevin Durant with a 36-year-old Matt Barnes it’s a significant loss. You know Barnes will bring intensity, defense and hustle, but if he’s unable to make corner threes consistently he’s going to significantly hurt the Warriors’ spacing.
Another downside to all of this is the timing. If Durant missed a month (or more) at the beginning of the season, he would have had plenty of time to integrate himself into the team before the playoffs. Instead he’s removed from the team just as he and Steph Curry were getting comfortable playing together. Offensively, the load will fall back onto Curry’s shoulders -- which he is more than capable of bearing -- but what happens when Durant returns in the middle of the playoffs or just before? Will Curry and KD be able to get back the chemistry and synchronicity they worked so hard to cultivate over the first four months of the season?
Everyone immediately thinks of offense, but defensively the Warriors could suffer even more from the loss of Durant, who is nearly 7-feet tall with a wingspan of about a million feet. When Draymond Green was off the floor, the Warriors defense could sustain itself because of Durant’s length and newfound rim protection. But with no Green and no Durant, the Warriors are going to struggle to protect the paint, even with the addition of defensive-minded Barnes.
2. Should Golden State be relieved that he’s only out for a month, or is there a real concern that this will affect the team’s chase for a championship?
Moore: Relieved, obviously, because the feeling on Tuesday night was doom and gloom. His recovery time is four weeks, there are six weeks until the playoffs, and realistically, the Warriors can comfortably rest Durant through the first round. Neither Denver, Portland, Dallas, Minnesota, or New Orleans pose a real threat, even with Durant out, and Golden State should be able to coast.
The concern is that this is a replay of last year with Steph Curry, where he suffered the knee sprain and wasn’t the same when he came back. He had his big dramatic moment vs. the Blazers (“I’m back!”) but he never regained his ability to create separation. If Durant’s not 100 percent, that can be more problematic than not having him at all, as crazy as that sounds.
But all of this is still arguing about luxury. The Warriors still have three All-NBA players, a two-time MVP, will get Durant back for the playoffs, and a pretty easy road. They’re going to be fine. They’re just “less fine.” That’s all.
Herbert: I’d say 80 percent relieved, 20 percent concerned. It’s never good when a post-game locker room is described as “somber” during the regular season, and Durant left the Verizon Center before the buzzer even sounded. The Vertical reported Wednesday morning that everybody around him was “bracing for tough news,” so this timetable isn’t so bad.
There are real concerns, however. There’s a big difference between Durant coming back in four weeks, five weeks or six weeks. Golden State would obviously love to have him play in a few regular-season games before the playoffs begin, but that’s not guaranteed. Knee injuries are nothing to trifle with, and no one knows how long it will take him to shake off the rust when he returns. The Matt Barnes signing is significant because the Warriors can still play the Death Lineup with somebody who can credibly defend power forwards, but they can’t really work on the stuff they’re trying to improve with a fill-in. Big picture, Golden State still had to iron out a few issues, including its crunch-time offense, and this gives Durant, Curry and Co. fewer chances to sort things out.
Ward-Henninger: The Warriors should definitely be relieved. From the talk on Twitter Tuesday night, it sounded like the Warriors were getting ready to attend a funeral. They were probably going to start looking to rest Durant more anyway, but this isn’t the way they wanted to do it. Look, the good news is that Durant will likely be back for the start of the playoffs, and luckily the NBA playoffs last a long time -- Durant isn’t going to be forced to join the team right in the middle of the Finals. He’ll most likely have enough games to play himself back into shape before the Warriors truly need him to be at 100 percent.
The question is what will KD be when he returns? If he’s not the physical force on both sides of the ball that he’s proven himself to be, it could be devastating for the Warriors’ title hopes. We saw what happened last season when Curry returned from a playoff injury but still wasn’t quite right -- there’s no guarantee that Golden State will get back the same Kevin Durant that they lost on Tuesday night.
3. The Warriors are in the middle of, to use Steve Kerr’s term, an insane road trip. Does this change how they should approach resting players, and how focused will they be on getting the No. 1 seed now?
Moore: Realistically, they’re still going to wind up with the 1-seed., their magic number is 20 for the 1-seed. Even if they lose two games to San Antonio, if the Spurs lose three games the rest of the way, the Warriors would only have to go 17-5, which is still a great record, but not especially for them. They have a sizable lead and San Antonio is very likely to rest players along the way. They should be able to secure that 1-seed.
The rest issue is where this gets tricky. Does anyone doubt their ability to go on the road into San Antonio in a Western Conference Finals and win? Anyone? Or the Clippers, Jazz, or Grizzlies? No. They can win with the two-seed. Again, it’s a luxury issue. How much do they want the comfort of home-court throughout? But I think Steve Kerr will take the same approach and not be affected by Durant’s injury when it comes to rest. The training staff has biometric readings which evaluate players and determine when they are fatigued and need rest. When they need rest, he’ll rest them. When they don’t, he won’t. They’ll keep to the same process, which has, you know, won them 190 games in 2.75 seasons.
Their focus, as always, should be on a title. They saw what regular-season success got them last year, and I think they’ve learned their lesson. Their most likely outcome is the 1-seed and home-court throughout the playoffs regardless.
Herbert: It shouldn’t change anything. Golden State wants the top seed, and I’d be shocked if Steve Kerr rested anybody in the two remaining games against the Spurs. In general, though, he will listen to the training staff and try to keep the stars’ minutes low, with occasional rest days. This was always the plan, and the Warriors are fortunate to have a four-game lead over San Antonio. They’re not chasing 73 wins this time — no need to panic now.
The bigger question is whether or not this iteration of Golden State will build big leads often enough to sit Curry, Green and Klay Thompson in fourth quarters. That’s not the same as giving players full nights off, but it has been a major part of how the team has kept their workloads down over the past few seasons.
Ward-Henninger: In any other year, getting the No. 1 seed wouldn’t mean much, but this year is different. There’s a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds in the West, both in terms of win total and talent. There’s no question that the Warriors would rather face a playoff newbie like the Nuggets or Pelicans in the first round rather than a highly charged Russell Westbrook-led Thunder team or a tough “grit-n-grind” Grizzlies squad. That could be the difference between a first-round sweep and a taxing six-game series that takes its toll on Curry and possibly a just-returned Durant.
That being said, health is the most important thing. If Steve Kerr thinks that a player needs to rest, he’s going to rest him. The top seed would be great, but it’s not worth sacrificing the health of another one of his stars. The Warriors have a four-game lead on the Spurs, so it’s likely that even while resting players the Warriors will be able to hang onto the No. 1 seed.