With the news that Stephen Curry has a sprained MCL and will be reevaluated in two weeks, we asked our writers to provide their insight and perspective on how it shakes up the NBA.
What are people in the league saying? Who will win the West and the NBA title?
Our NBA experts — Zach Lowe, Pablo Torre, Ethan Strauss, Marc Stein and J.A. Adande — go 5-on-5.
1. What’s your big-picture take on this situation?
Zach Lowe, ESPN.com: It’s hyper-important, because Curry is the MVP and the league’s best player, but versions of this happen almost every season and postseason: ill-timed injuries to Derrick Rose, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Bill Russell, Russell Westbrook, John Havlicek, Jerry West, Dave DeBusschere and dozens of other huge names have tilted championship odds. Noise about an asterisk is nonsense. This is unfortunate, but it’s part of the sport.
A prolonged injury to Curry, and the likelihood that he will be less than 100 percent upon his return, warps the championship picture more than even the typical star-level injury. But health and luck matter every year.
Pablo Torre, ESPN The Magazine: At some point soon, you will hear someone say, “I’m not a doctor, but,” as the prelude to a Curry Injury Take. The funny part about this caveat, of course, is that often the best physicians — and trainers, and sports scientists and coaches — never truly know, either.
Such is the intoxicating absurdity of the human body, a delicately designed bag of bones that our favorite sports test with a literally limitless universe of risk (read: a slip borne of a Biblical rain of Donatas Motiejunas‘ sweat). I mean, this is why Curry needed two surgeries, on the same ankle, in two years.
This is why blaming the Golden State Warriors‘ chase for 73 wins — to pick one would-be suspect — is logically silly, philosophically backward and also, thanks to our butterfly-effected universe, still not 100 percent incorrect. This is why this discussion is not going to end anytime soon.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN.com: Given what happened on Sunday, this is the best of potential dire outcomes, and it puts the Warriors’ season in serious jeopardy. It’s also a reminder that, no matter how dominant a team might look, the playoff crucible tests nearly everyone. This is Golden State’s ultimate test. Let the drama begin.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: It’s a bummer. We might see the Warriors’ quest for a season for the ages betrayed by their own bodies. They might not get to see this through on their own terms. Injuries remain the great variable that can’t be accounted for when predicting the future and often go unrecalled when reciting the past.
That’s why the Warriors should not have been so sensitive about people pointing out their good fortune last season nor should they worry that people will remember every particular circumstance when they gaze at their 2015 championship banner.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: As I will cover in a longer column, situations like this are precisely why the Warriors were completely justified in their desire to chase 73 wins. Holding back in the regular season, no matter what anyone says, wouldn’t have made Steph any less susceptible to an injury that stems from plain bad luck.
The 73 wins will be even more meaningful now if the Warriors can’t dress Curry for the rest of their title defense. But that’s how the NBA world works: Injury curveballs sadly get flung at teams all the time … as last season’s Cavs could tell you.
2. What are you hearing from people around the league?
Lowe: Sadness. Almost no schadenfreude, even after Joe Lacob’s chest-puffing. Curiosity about how the Warriors will function without Curry — whether their robust positive scoring margin when Draymond Green and Klay Thompson play sans Curry, as pointed out by Kevin Pelton, will really hold up over extended minutes against postseason starters. And how it’s time for the Clippers to shut up and play.
Torre: I keep thinking of long conversations I’ve had with athletic trainers — the men tasked with injury prevention — about “luck.” It is possible to do everything right in your job and still completely fail for reasons beyond your control. You can influence your own luck — meaning, be better at your job than others — but never be fully immune to it.
Strauss: I’ve heard rumblings of Joe Lacob schadenfreude. That’s a bit ironic considering Curry didn’t love Lacob’s New York Times Magazine comments, either. I haven’t heard from other teams celebrating a boosted chance at a title, but I’d assume a few players/coaches/execs are feeling that, deep down. And who could blame them?
Stein: Even before Sunday’s scary slip and the resulting knee injury, I was surprised by how many people around the league — and I’m talking people working inside the league as opposed to mere fans, media types, etc. — were reaching out looking for the latest on Steph’s health. He generates so much interest and, now, curiosity.
Curry is also hugely respected, which is why I personally haven’t heard much gloating about the Warriors’ sudden predicament. No one wanted to see this.
Yet I’ve also heard a scout or two in recent days caution that we’re not paying enough attention to the Cavs, who are playing some of their best ball of the season while the final four in the West just became more of a tossup.
Adande: It’s not that anyone wished an injury upon Steph Curry. But when Golden State owner Joe Lacob said the Warriors were “light years” ahead of other organizations, there were folks around the league who wondered if that would be the case if they didn’t have Curry. Now, suddenly, we get the control test.
3. How would you advise the Warriors to approach Curry’s potential return?
Lowe: Their doctors and trainers know better than I ever could, so I’m hesitant to dole out advice on another human’s joints. But Curry is in his prime, and the Warriors can win the title. Those are rare things. If they’re borderline certain he can play without doing further damage, I’d err on the side of going for it. Given what we’re learning about compensatory injuries, perhaps that sort of confidence is impossible.
Torre: From reporting the Curry ankle story, it became obvious that Steph’s preference — even when banged up; even when faced with wisdom to the contrary — is to play. (That confidence may also be the key to his success since, actually.)
I am not suggesting that Steph will go Kobe, fighting the wishes of his employers until he is dust. But I’d advise those employers to present a meticulous, impassioned case for risk aversion if they think he should sit.
Strauss: This part is incredibly difficult. It’s easy to advise caution and far harder to actually practice it. It’s easy to talk a good game about valuing health and far harder to sacrifice the season over that principle. This is a terrible answer, but I have no answer. I’d like to say, “Wait till Curry’s fully healthy.” That’s what sounds right, at least.
Stein: I think it’s very important to underline the word re-evaluated in the Golden State press release. Curry will be re-evaluated in two weeks. That doesn’t mean he’ll be automatically cleared to play in two weeks.
For all the hopeful signs that it will go that quickly, let’s not forget that Harrison Barnes had to make it through a handful of these re-evaluation dates and ultimately missed 16 games after suffering his early season ankle sprain. I imagine that the Warriors will be equally cautious, if not more so, with the face of the franchise.
Adande: For Curry’s sake, I’d like the team to give him a handshake deal to max his next contract, even if he suffers long-term damage in these playoffs (kind of like the Suns once took care of Danny Manning after he tore his ACL). That way, long-term financial considerations could be removed from the equation.
Curry is already grossly underpaid because of the contract he signed when his ankles were dicey. Could you imagine if he comes back to pursue this championship, then misses out on the huge contract he’s due because he damages his weakened knee?
4. Based on what we know, who would you pick in a Clippers-Warriors series?
Lowe: The Blazers say hello. If Curry comes back after Game 2, I’d lean strongly toward Golden State in a very theoretical series against the Clippers. Blake Griffin isn’t 100 percent, either.
If Curry’s absence lingers, I’d flip the other way. The Clippers are good. This is their chance. This is why you don’t bust up a perennial 55-win team just to do it, even if that team is flawed — and not among the top two or three favorites.
Torre: I’d pick the Warriors in 7, even if they never play Curry once. The Clippers have yet to figure out how to maximize Blake Griffin. Andre Iguodala has a playoff gear he has clearly been waiting to activate. And Shaun Livingston — with all his length, defense, ability to run offense and savvy — is the best backup point in the league.
Strauss: Man, that’s a tough one. I guess I pick the Warriors, leaning on how they nearly have a home court in both arenas. The caveat is I’d pick the Clippers if Curry misses the whole series.
Stein: Warriors in 7. Golden State is thoroughly in the Clippers’ heads and hasn’t ruled Steph out for the whole second round yet. On that basis, I think the Warriors can still find a way to scrape four wins together, given how good they are at home and how well they’ve shown they can function in doses without Curry.
More importantly, I think the Warriors themselves think they can still beat the Clippers in a series even if Steph misses a good chunk of it. Let’s see!
Adande: With Curry’s availability (and then effectiveness after the layoff) in doubt, I’d take the Clippers. With Blake Griffin playing, the Clippers had double-digit leads in the fourth quarters of their first two games against the Warriors this season, only to get Curried.
Man, what irony if the Clippers luck out against the Warriors after Doc Rivers said the Warriors lucked out last season.
5. Your current pick to win the West finals and the NBA Finals?
Lowe: Golden State, and Golden State. Until we know more about Curry, all we can do is assume he recovers well over the approximate timetable and go from there. If we learn in a week or two that things are worse, the ring is up for grabs.
Torre: Warriors, because the NBA Finals occur in June — June!! — and it’s only April 25. Curry can and should return, our cruelly random universe willing.
Strauss: I’ll stick with the Warriors, but it’s not a confident choice at this point. Honestly, it’s more just because there’s little value in changing picks. If you got me on truth serum right now, I’d pick (Redacted).
Stein: C’mon. The keepers of the 5-on-5 know me by now. I will never feel good about changing predictions midstream. Especially when no one is saying that Curry’s postseason is over.
Adande: Right now the team to beat is the San Antonio Spurs. It took the otherworldliness of the Warriors and the drama of the Cleveland Cavaliers (and even Kobe’s swan song) to overshadow their greatness in the regular season. And now we’re supposed to act like they don’t have a +22 points-per-game differential in the playoffs?