The best players aren’t always the most irreplaceable, but Stephen Curry is the rare case that fits into both, with his injury putting the Golden State Warriors in perilous straits.
Curry’s left shoulder injury will cost him a couple weeks, and perhaps longer if the Warriors plan on being conservative with his recovery. Being the champions earns them a certain level of grace — being a dynasty gives them a little more, but they’re burning up that currency weekly.
From the overseas preseason trip that always seems to take something out of the teams who go, to the championship hangover every team usually goes through, to the Draymond Green-incited event in the preseason that was sure to fatigue a group that needed to be fresh — this was the last thing they needed.
This injury isn’t the worst-case scenario — it isn’t his surgically repaired ankles or the knee that gave him trouble several years ago. No injury is easy, but it feels like he’ll be able to hit the ground running when he returns.
As inconsistent as they were, Curry was the constant, even if they’re hovering around .500 — 14-12 when he plays, 0-3 when he doesn’t. Curry’s production rivals his unanimous MVP 2015-16 campaign when the Warriors lost just nine games in seven months, and it’s even better than when he dragged the 2020-21 squad to the play-in tournament.
Might this squad be closer to the latter than the former? It certainly appears so currently. And one can look at the Lakers as evidence — a recent surge led by Anthony Davis and LeBron James that has them … 12th in the West, due to the early ground they’ve given up.
There’s no real silver lining, especially as the Warriors are trying to straddle between two eras — maximizing the vets while developing the kids.
One thing is for certain, nobody grumbling about shots now will have such a complaint. They’ll likely all have their opportunities, but at least, it’ll reveal whose feelings were valid and who should be happy with their place in the hierarchy.
Keeping Green engaged will be a task for Steve Kerr, and Klay Thompson and the returning Andrew Wiggins will see an increase in roles and attempts — and attention from defenses.
Of the next three weeks, it’s a middling schedule because everyone is middling with the exception of a few. With Curry, they can beat anyone.
Without him, they can lose to anyone. There are 13 games between now and Jan. 13. The three toughest rank as Memphis on Christmas Day, Brooklyn on Wednesday and Philadelphia Friday.
They won’t lose all of them, but it’s impossible to reinvent themselves in the attempt to mask this absence. The best they can do is unleash Jordan Poole, who’s had an uneven season to date but can rev it up better than anyone this side of Curry.
The Warriors think enough of him to have willingly given him an extension that ranks him high among players at his position — and he’s performed well as a starter, albeit alongside Curry.
But only Curry can drive this car, evidenced by the Warriors’ +7 net rating when he plays and -11.1 net rating when he’s sitting. Nikola Jokic is the lifeblood of everything that flows through Denver, but if he was out for an extended period, one can envision Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. commandeering the offense and keeping things afloat. It won’t look as good, as fluid or polished, but there’s the possibility for a backup plan.
If Milwaukee had to live life without Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks won’t be in love with any alternative options, and they won’t convince themselves of any infatuations, either.
But they can be “in like” with a healthy Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, they can go on a couple meaningless dates to pass the time.
Unfortunately for Golden State, Curry is the one you can’t get over and can’t replace, solely and uniquely qualified for everything it does. Curry was exhausted after that first half in Indiana, doubled over in fatigue after scoring 27 points — only to find his team trailing by 20!
The last time such a sight had been seen by these eyes was last April, when Kevin Durant’s long arms were reaching for his weary knees in Brooklyn during the Nets’ first-round sweep at the hands of the Celtics.
Durant had to put together a blitz after returning from his MCL injury to drag that carcass to the playoffs, kicking and screaming. And by Game 3 of that series, the Nets had no more kicks and no voice to scream in resistance.
If the Warriors aren’t careful, the same fate could await them once Curry returns.
They’ve given away a few games in the name of saving the legs of the vets, but there are too many teams waiting to pounce, even before this injury.
We marvel at the collective talent in the NBA. The great players are staying great longer than ever, producing a boon of sorts, maybe even a golden era. But what that also means is youth has long been ready to take its place at the top of the mountain, and aren’t in the mood to wait in the name of reverence.
The two stars from the 2019 draft, Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, are the leaders of their respective teams for the two best teams in the West. Let it sink in.
This is a conference with a two-time reigning MVP (Jokic), arguably one of the three greatest players of all time (James), the current four-time champion (Curry) and a two-time Finals MVP (Kawhi Leonard). Of course, it’s more layered than that, but someone is gonna be on the sidelines when this all shakes out.
It’s literally unfathomable to see a defending champion miss the playoffs altogether — and nobody’s saying that’s gonna happen here, to be clear — but there’s a rediscovery period that will have to take place when Curry returns.
Curry isn’t close to the greybeards still holding onto relevance, but the stress this season will put on him is bound to add some — unless something truly unexpected happens in the next month.