The Golden State Warriors will once again be without Stephen Curry as they enter the final stages of the stretch run and the early phases of the NBA playoffs. We know that navigating the gauntlet in the Western Conference without Curry will be no piece of cake. But how vulnerable will the Warriors be? Andrew Sharp and Ben Golliver discuss that and more on the Open Floor podcast.
Check out the full episode here and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. (The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity).
Andrew Sharp: Should we get into it because we did have some pretty big news over the weekend?
Ben Golliver: We sure did, and hopefully Warriors fans who were trying to call Kevin Durant their stepmom are rethinking that stance a little bit here, because Steph Curry is going to be out for at least three weeks. It's sounds like the rest of the regular season is out of the question. Steve Kerr is saying potentially he's going to be out for the first round of the playoffs as well with an MCL sprain in his knee. That is a tricky injury to kind of diagnose how long it's going to be. It kind of puts them into flux a little bit. But the bottom is, Warriors fans, if you were trying to take Kevin Durant for granted. If you were saying that he was edging in on Steph's shine or however else you wanted to put it, you better welcome your stepmom to Thanksgiving with open arms and a big hug because you're going to need this guy a lot in the first round of the playoffs and then throughout the rest of this championship push, depending on when Stephen Curry is able to get right.
Sharp: We have a lot of different angles to talk about with this. I have to say I was surprised it wasn't a bigger deal among mainstream sports news. Obviously there was a lot going on with the NCAA tournament this weekend, but to me, as soon as I saw him get, not carried off, but hobble off against the Hawks Friday night it was kind of like the rest of news stopped for me. And Saturday afternoon I was checking Twitter every half hour looking for a Steph MRI update, which I guess Steph Watch is kind of where we're going to be until he comes back and even after he comes back. The entire playoffs hang in the balance here, right?
Golliver: There's no question about it. It is the most sort of monumental development here in terms of the championship landscape that we've seen this season. I think it's a huge deal. I'm actually glad you said that because it should have been a bigger deal, and I think the natural tendency in this situation is to say, 'Well, look, Kevin Durant had a knee sprain last year. By the time he came back, Golden State went 16–1 through the playoffs and he was holding the Finals MVP trophy and no one even remembered that he got injured' It's a false comparison to this year. There's no question about it, because No. 1: Stephen Curry's injury is happening significantly later in the season than Kevin Durant's did. No. 2: As we've discussed, their offense is built around Stephen Curry. When he's not on the court, it looks a lot different, it functions a lot different. It was easier for Golden State to have confidence that they could win without Kevin Durant last year than it was for them to have confidence this year they can win without Curry. No. 3: Curry's had multiple injuries this season so you have to figure the likelihood of re-injury to of him not being able to get back to 100% percent during the postseason is higher than it was for Durant last year, because he enjoyed excellent health prior to his knee sprain last season.
And then also, I don't even know if I'm up to No. 4 or 5 here on the points, the Rockets are a tougher team than any team Golden State had to face last year, in my opinion. They're more balanced, they're deeper, they've been playing at a higher level point-differential wise and they present a real issue if you want to keep up in a shootout with them, and that's how they play. If you don't have Curry at 100% to do that, it's much, much more difficult for these Warriors to do it. And look, if Golden State was the No. 1 ranked defense this season, I would be inclined to believe those who are saying, 'Look, they can kind of scrap by, plug in Quinn Cook, it's going to be fine. They're going to be able to win with defense.' As you've mentioned previously, Draymond hasn't been on the same level and this team has been coasting at times throughout this season. So just to expect them to ramp up and have the league's best defense going into the postseason into a first-round matchup I think is expecting too much.
And I also think their first-round matchup with be much trickier than it was last season or the year before, because those teams that are battle for the eight seed are on pace to win like 46, 47 games and a lot of those teams are actually better than their record because of injury issues. You could put Utah, San Antonio, even Minnesota into that equation. All of those teams are significantly better than your usual seven seed, so to get through them will be trickier, and then I think from there it's only going to be a tougher gauntlet than it has been in previous season.
Sharp: That's where we should start. I put together some questions, but we also got a question from an emailer in Amsterdam. He says, 'With Steph Curry out for the first round and possibly some of the second round, which middle pack teams in the West can give the Quinn Cook Warriors the most problems?' I would start with Utah, who beat them this weekend. Granted, Durant wasn't playing but Utah's been playing really, really well and is a team that has traditionally given the Warriors some problems, albeit not in last year's playoffs. They were definitely part of the 16–1 run, but I wouldn't want to play that team even if I were a healthy Warriors team they'd be kind of a pain. And, to me, the Jazz will present some real problems.
Golliver: Well, if you're playing your way and you're the Warriors, you feel fine about the Utah matchup because you feel like you can dictate pace, tempo. you can outscore them if you need to—that's with Steph Curry healthy. If you don't have Steph Curry and you're trying to reorganize or pull yourself together as this defensive-minded, gritty, chop-it-up type of team, now you're playing the way that Utah wants to play. Now you're letting Rudy Gobert stay on the court at all times and not being able to expose him. One of the lasting images from last year's postseason was Steph Curry doing a literal ring around the rosy on Gobert—you remember that play, right? He probably did like four straight circles. No offense to Kyrie Irving, but he was like orbiting the sun as he was doing that. That's what it seemed like.
But now you have to play the Jazz's style. What does that look like? Well, they're going to comfortable, they're not going to be nearly as afraid of Golden State, it's going to be a dogfight and you could say the same thing about the Spurs. The Spurs play defense on the same level efficiency-wise as Utah does, and they're going to be way more comfortable playing big and playing ugly with Golden State if that's how that series goes. So I think you're absolutely dead on. The first-round matchups here stylistically are going to present a different type of challenge for Golden State than they would have expected.
Sharp: You know what else is a little bit of an issue that I would be worried about? We don't mean to concern troll too hard on the Warriors here, but...
Golliver: No, I do, Andrew. You said it right, it's a big deal and people need to be snapping out of the, 'Oh, Golden State has been here before, they're going to be fine, they have the most talent.' Golden State works because of Steph, and if you don't think this is a big deal you're actually disrespecting what Steph has done over the last four years. And I think you were right to say that right off the top. That is headline, underline, exclamation point. This is a big deal. Look, we were making up fake debates for months and I kept saying, 'Look, why are we having to do this, Andrew? Why do we have to prop up the Rockets.' It's not a fake debate. Golden State's offense falls off a cliff when Steph Curry's not on the court. That is going to be a huge problem.
Sharp: And not only that, I would add that for most of the season the injuries that the Warriors have been dealing with have been pretty low stakes. They've been resting guys longer than they need to, and that's one of the reasons I wasn't that worried about the Rockets challenging them. While Chris Paul is playing on balky hamstrings and James Harden is playing 38 minutes a night and playing almost every game, the Warriors were being very, very smart about all of the rest and extended absences and whatnot. And I thought that there was a good chance that we were going to get to the conference finals and Chris Paul would be playing at like 85%, whereas Golden State's roster would be completely healthy and just run them out of the gym. It doesn't look like that's going to happen, and part of why I'm worried is because the last time this happened with Steph he wasn't totally the same guy even when he came back in the 2016 playoffs.
So, yeah, I'm 100% just as concerned as you are, and the other thing that I was going to mention is Klay Thompson isn't totally the same guy when Steph isn't out there. Obviously you could say that about most of the Warriors offense, but Klay specifically didn't play as well when Curry missed time earlier this year. So it's going to be really interesting. I guess that's my next question: Do you think this makes the season more interesting or more frustrating? Part of me feels like now we're going to have to sit through another two months of Steph Curry injury updates and even when he comes back there's going to be nonstop focus on whether he's really healthy. I didn't enjoy that in 2016 and I'm not looking forward to it now, but it does sort of injects a little bit more intrigue into a playoff rub that to me at least was a foregone conclusion.
Golliver: Look, Andrew, you know I'm in favor of greatness and I'm against rooting for injuries, so you probably know where I'm going to come down on this one, right? It's not good for the sport in general to have a star of his magnitude out. It does make it more competitive. Let me just have one piece of data here to inject this: the Warriors' point differential without Stephen Curry this year is +2.7. That's right in the same ballpark as Minnesota, Portland. It's worse than Utah's, worse than Oklahoma City's and worse than San Antonio's. So they're going to have to play better in the playoff than they've done in the regular season when they don't have Steph Curry if they want to win a first-round playoff series, and they're still going to have to get up for that second-round series and potentially the conference finals.
So I think it's fair to sort of categorize it at this point for Golden State as a gauntlet. They're a wounded team about to go through a gauntlet. And I never would have said that prior to Steph's injury. I would've said they're going to coast, sweeps in the first and second round are possible because that's what their ceiling is. But their ceiling has really caved in. Ultimately for me it's a bummer because it will end up defining this postseason. If the Warriors win, Steph's return as the savior will almost be guaranteed to be the story. If the Warriors lose, it's going to hang over teams that win, whether you want to call it an asterisk or something else because he's going to be mentioned. He's on that level of a player where he's regard as a top-3 talent, and if he's not out there and Cleveland wins or Houston wins, those teams are going to have to deal with that nagging knock in the future of, 'Oh, yeah, you only won because Steph was hurt.' And that's not fair to them. I don't like that kind of asterisk to teams at all, but it's going to be a fact. People would say that if that's what ends up happening, and that's a bummer. And that's the reason that for me the frustration sort of outweighs any of the anticipation of more competitive series.
Sharp: I guess the ideal scenario at this point is Steph comes back at the beginning of the second round, is lights out and looks completely healthy and then we get full strength Warriors against the full strength Rockets and they go six or seven games in the Western Conference finals. Although, again, full strength Warriors I think would be closer to a gentlemen's sweep against Houston, but hopefully we get there at least. That's all I can say.
Golliver: Yeah, and remember, the ideal scenario you're laying out is sort of what happened two years ago. He came back and looked amazing against Portland in the second round. They handled Portland no problem, they advanced to the Finals no problem and then the Draymond suspension turns the entire Finals series, Golden State winds up losing and people point to two issues: they say Kkiki Vandeweghe gave LeBron the assist or his career. Detractors of LeBron would say that No. 1: Draymond never should have been suspended. But No. 2: People still bring up Steph's health even though the Warriors went out of their way for six weeks during that playoffs to say Steph's fine. It still gets mentioned around that title as a nitpick. I'm just saying because of the magnitude of that injury happening again and because Steph has missed so much time prior to this injury this season, the likelihood that his health winds up sticking to whichever team is the champion this year is even greater than it was two years ago.
Sharp: Yeah, and it was really interesting in that 2016 playoff run because you would hear conflicting reports. Even at the Finals against the Cavs in Cleveland, I would hear different things from different people who were there. Some people would be like, 'No, I talked to the Warriors yesterday. Steph is completely fine'. And then I'd be sitting next to another Warriors report who would say, 'I heard last night Steph is not 100%. It's clear to everyone involved.' And he would have games where he would go off and then he'd have games where he's look pretty limited at other moments in that series. So it was hard to really decode what was happening. I think history has sort of agreed that he wasn't 100% but maybe at 80%, and that's sometimes how it goes in the playoffs.
But you talked Steph sort of defining these playoffs. I'm also wondering how close are we to putting him in the Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid category, where his health defines how we think of him as a player. One of the things I struggle with Anthony Davis and Embiid is that I love watching those guys, but I also in the back of my mind am always worrying about whether they're going to be healthy long-term, and it's sort of makes them more difficult to enjoy. And I don't want to put Steph in that category, but one of the main reasons the Warriors were even possible were because of the injuries he suffered earlier in his career allowed them to sign him on a discount and allowed them to build out the rest of that team. And most people around the league expected him to be injured for the better part of his career, and then he sort of miraculously got healthy. But I think there are some real red flags here that kind of worry me.
Golliver: Well, look, I think, in his defense and to calm your nerves, I've got a stat for you: Prior to this season, in the previous five regular seasons, so the entirety of his prime. Do you know what percentage of games Steph Curry appeared in? Just take a guess.
Sharp: I'm going to say 90?
Golliver: Over the last five seasons, he appeared in 96% of Golden State's regular season games. That's a phenomenal number.
Sharp: That makes me feel better.
Golliver: Granted, this year he's dealt with a lot of repeat injuries which gets you worried, because if they were all completely unrelated it'd be easier to say his track record says he's a healthy guy. The reoccurrence of the ankle stuff definitely makes me nervous. I guess another point of comparison I would use is not only has he enjoyed excellent health instead of some really poorly timed knee sprains in 2016 and this year, but he's also the type of player whose game should age very well. For me, if a guy like Steve Nash was still playing at a pretty high level, if he can play deep into his 30's I don't see why Steph can't.
But I also think that this injury is a reminder that the peak Steph Curry is gone forever in my eyes. I'm not saying he's declining but is he ever going to have another season as good as his unanimous MVP campaign? This is admittedly a pretty unfair standard given how great he was doing that year. I just don't think so. I'm not saying he's falling off a cliff. I think he can be an MVP caliber player for the next three, four seasons if he stays healthy. But to get back to that level and the emotional side of what a lot of Steph Curry fans are look for, it's probably fair to not expect that of Steph. To say, 'Look, we don't need you to be that 2016 guy anymore' and recalibrate expectations down just a touch. I think that's healthy for everyone.