While everyone would prefer it didn’t happen, it’s hard to argue that Stephen Curry’s right ankle sprain hasn’t made things a little more interesting for the Golden State Warriors. Now that we know the issue isn’t as serious as it initially seemed, the next two weeks or so will serve as an intriguing experiment of how the Warriors function without the straw that typically stirs their drink, and give us our first look at Kevin Durant running Kerr’s offense.
For the first time in 2017, Curry’s extended absence — his first since Steve Kerr took over as head coach — leads to a number of unanswered questions for Golden State.
1. How effective is Kerr’s system without Curry?
Whether or not you believe Kevin Durant is a better overall player than Curry, there is no denying that the way Curry affects opposing defenses is the most integral part to the functionality of Kerr’s pass and move system. Steph’s ability as a legitimate threat from 30 feet out stretches the defense to absurd lengths, and creates passing lates and space in the middle of the floor that Golden State exploits through cutting and ball movement.
“We’re faced with a real challenge. Steph is the guy that makes us go,” Kerr said. “We have great players, but Steph is the engine. Everything we do revolves around him.”
Curry unique ability makes him a threat even when he’s not playing particularly well, and a reason he has lead the league in the plus/minus statistic three of the last four seasons. 2017 has been no different, with Curry currently second in the NBA in real-plus minus. What’s more, the Warriors’ offense is 12.4 points per 100 possessions worse with Curry on the bench this season, and were 13.4 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the bench last year.
Even with Durant sidelined with a knee injury at the end of last season, the Warriors ripped of 14 consecutive victories with Curry running the show. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and it will be interesting test to see how much of the fluidity of the Warriors offense has to do with sticking to Kerr’s principles, and how much has to do with the effect Curry has on the defense.
2. How does a KD led offense compare with a Curry led offense?
Based on last night, it sure looks like they won’t miss a beat. The concern with Durant taking over is that he would resort to the isolation heavy offensive game he was known for in Oklahoma City, and throw a wrench in the ball-movement heavy offense the Warriors have hung their hats on. Instead, Durant put on his LeBron James capon last night, dealing 10 assists, and earning a 35-point triple double, his first of the season.
With both Curry and Draymond Green out against Charlotte, Durant didn’t seem to have any trouble running the show, and doing so without sacrificing the principles that make the Warriors offense unique. Without Durant last year, the Curry led Warriors outscored teams by 9.5 points per game. If Wednesday is any indication, it looks like the Durant led Warriors are capable of doing the same.
3. Will less margin for error improve the team’s focus?
The start of the 2017-18 season has been uneven for a Warriors team coming off a 16-1 playoff run. The reasons for this are understandable. At this point, Golden State realizes the regular season is an 82 game tune up for the playoffs. They are still far and away the best team in the NBA, and after three consecutive trips to the finals, and a preseason trip to China, it’s hard to fault them for not exactly maintaining a championship level of focus through the season’s first few months.
Quite frankly, the Warriors don’t have to be all that focused to win, as the two 20-plus point comebacks have shown. Golden State can beat at least half the teams in the league by just playing one half of focused basketball. This may not be the case with Stephen Curry off the floor, and with less pure talent to lean on, Golden State’s margin for error will be smaller, and the team will be far less equipped to overcome long stretches of lazy basketball. This is what Kerr was referring to when he said that Curry’s injury could actually be good for the team.
“In a weird way, it’s a good thing for our team,” Kerr said. “Obviously I want all of our players healthy. … I think big picture-wise over the next couple weeks it’s an opportunity for our team to get better because we have to. We have no choice.”
All this could lead to a much for focused group when Curry returns. If that’s the case, watch out.
4. Which young guard is ready to step up?
After a fantastic summer league, it sure looked like Patrick McCaw was ready to be an every night rotation player this season. That hasn’t been the case, however, with McCaw’s lack of aggressiveness and unwillingness to shoot still affecting his performances as they did last year. It didn’t take long for McCaw to lose his spot to Nick Young, who is shooting 40 percent from deep, but McCaw has played much better in situations where he know’s he’s going to play for a significant period of time. Because of this, McCaw stands to gain the most from Curry’s injury, as he is practically guaranteed minutes at the backup guard spots, giving him a chance to rediscover the groove he found in August.
There will definitely be a situation in the postseason where the Warriors will need a solid six minute stretch from Patrick McCaw to keep them in a game, just as there was for Ian Clark, and Justin Holiday before him. If this stretch without Curry prepares him for that moment, it may end up being a net positive.
If McCaw struggles, a potential dark horse candidate to fill this role is Quinn Cook, the rookie guard out of Duke who is dominating with the Santa Cruz Warriors. Cook looked nervous in his first ever start with the Warriors last night and was the only starter to finish with a negative plus-minus, but played solid defense throughout and showed flashes that the NBA game isn’t too big for him.