There’s a reasonable chance the Warriors will be the West’s worst team during Curry’s absence. They are already in the midst of a retooling year, with forward Kevin Durant gone to the Brooklyn Nets and guard Klay Thompson sidelined as he recovers from an ACL tear suffered during the 2019 NBA Finals. Even with Curry, Golden State stumbled to a 1-3 start while possessing the league’s worst defense and an offense that had fallen out of the top 10 after ranking first for four straight seasons.
The Warriors have consistently struggled when Curry has had health problems, even during better times. Over the past three full seasons — which covered Durant’s tenure in the Bay Area — Golden State went 158-41 (.794) with Curry on the court and 24-23 (.511) when he was sidelined. Put another way, the Warriors performed at a 65-win pace with their franchise centerpiece and at a 42-win pace without him. Things should be significantly bleaker without either Durant or Thompson available to fill the scoring and offense-initiation voids.
Without Curry, the Warriors have no choice but to place an enormous playmaking burden on D’Angelo Russell. Their wing rotation is lacking in proven scorers and creators, and their frontcourt rotation was designed to complement Curry’s strengths rather than replace them. Every possession will be a chore, and the minutes when Russell rests are bound to be unsightly.
Coach Steve Kerr can’t exactly reshape his roster around a defensive identity, either. Former defensive player of the year Draymond Green was stripped of key complementary defensive pieces such as Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston this summer, forcing unproven youngsters to step into major roles. What’s more, centers Kevon Looney and Willie Cauley-Stein have both been sidelined with injuries in the early going. Kerr is left with a M.A.S.H. unit filled with players who have largely appeared to be in over their heads.
“It’s been a tough start for us on many levels, so we’re just trying to find our footing,” Kerr admitted Wednesday. “This puts us in a tough spot. … It’s a great opportunity for these young guys to play, but it’s also a little bit too much. You want to bring along rookies as best you can, and we’re just putting so much on their plate, but we have no choice.”
Hypothetically, a two-month absence for Curry would cost him 30-plus games. That lost time is easily enough to end the Warriors’ seven-year playoff streak — thereby opening a spot for teams such as the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves — and it could theoretically keep Curry out of the All-Star Game in Chicago. Should the perennial fan favorite miss the cut or require additional recovery time, his absence would aid aspiring first-time selections Luka Doncic, Donovan Mitchell, CJ McCollum and Devin Booker.
More importantly, this Curry-less interim period should prompt serious internal deliberations about the franchise’s best course of action going forward. With major contracts already on the books for Curry, Thompson and Green, Golden State’s front office might conclude that maximizing the quality of its 2020 lottery pick is the best path forward out of a tough situation. To get there, the Warriors would simply take their time bringing Curry back, limit his minutes upon his return and shut down Thompson for the remainder of the season.
The Warriors could also contemplate even more drastic tanking scenarios, including trading Russell and/or Green. Curry and Russell did not find an immediate on-court chemistry, and Green’s defensive versatility and leadership skills are best suited on a team with title aspirations.
While there is a compelling argument to keep both players and simply hang on until next season, strong counters exist, too. Russell is talented enough to serve as a lead playmaker on his own team outside Curry’s shadow, and the 29-year-old Green might generate real trade interest given that his arrival could help put a 2020 contender over the top. There is also the grim financial considerations to consider: Curry, Thompson, Russell and Green are set to earn a combined $128 million next season, a total that exceeds the projected salary cap and drastically limits Golden State’s ability to add quality supporting talent. Something likely has to give.
Whichever approach the franchise takes, Curry’s injury is a reminder that Golden State’s dynasty is firmly a thing of the past. The effortless, dominant, joyous Warriors are gone, replaced by an overwhelmed alter-ego whose short-term plight will test the patience and resolve of everyone involved.