The Warriors could get Durant back in time for the playoffs, but what happens between now and then could significantly affect their fate.
Last Tuesday night, when Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia tumbled into Kevin Durant’s left knee, forcing him out of the game in the first quarter and into a DC-area MRI machine later that night, Warriors fans immediately feared the worst. What was originally dubbed a “hyperextended knee” was clearly more than just that. The next morning, once it was revealed that Durant had a Grade 2 MCL sprain and a tibial bone bruise, and he would be re-evaluated in four weeks, the Dubs’ fan base breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Golden State’s GM Bob Myers said, “He’ll heal as his body heals. And when he’s healed and our doctors clear him and we feel like it’s safe, he’ll play. I want to know as much as you guys, but at this point the plan is just to re-evaluate him and see where he’s at in four weeks.”
While Durant’s injury certainly could have been more severe, losing him for what will likely amount to at least the remainder of the regular season (21 games left), and possibly longer, could make the Warriors’ path to winning another NBA Championship significantly more difficult. The Warriors have already clinched a berth in this year’s playoffs, and are currently in line for the number one seed. The two straight losses they’ve endured since KD went down, however, have a lot of people wondering how the Warriors will fare without Durant.
NBA Hall of Famer, noted golfer, and NBA on TNT analyst Charles Barkley has gone on record saying that he doesn’t think the Warriors will even win the Western Conference and make it back to the Finals if they don’t get KD back.
NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) March 3, 2017
Despite Durant being best known for his prolific scoring prowess, he has arguably brought a more impactful defensive presence to the 73-9 Warriors squad he joined last offseason. Even without Durant, the Warriors’ offense features the offensive firepower of the Splash Brothers — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — but in acquiring Durant, the Warriors had to sacrifice something defensively. That something turned out to be their chief rim protector, Andrew Bogut.
In order to clear enough cap space to sign Durant to an MVP-worthy contract, the Warriors traded center Andrew Bogut, the team’s leading shot blocker from 2013 to 2016, to the Dallas Mavericks for essentially nothing. Festus Ezeli, the team’s third-leading shot blocker from last season, also departed Golden State — to sign a two-year, $15 million deal with the Portland Trailblazers. Harrison Barnes, who played the four in the Warriors’ notorious “death lineup,” signed with the Mavericks as a free agent. Barnes’ departure left a stretch-four-sized hole in the Dubs’ lineup that KD has filled with vigor.
Enter: Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, and Kevin Durant. Pachulia, who signed a one-year contract with the Warriors in the offseason, has been pulling down 6.0 rebounds and blocking 0.5 shots in 18.6 minutes per game while starting at center this season. McGee has been playing mostly reserve minutes at center, with the versatile forward Draymond Green playing minutes at the five in between. In his limited minutes (9.5 per game), the “Shaqtin’ A Fool” star has still managed to average 0.7 blocks per game. That would be good for 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes, though McGee is unlikely to ever receive that much playing time given his reputation as a defensive liability.
Durant, who is officially listed at 6‘9”, although he finally admitted to really being 6‘11”, starts for the Warriors at small forward. His slender stature, for which he’s earned the nickname “Slim Reaper,” doesn’t allow for him to consistently bang in the post with centers defensively. However, he has been taking full advantage of his nearly 7‘5” wingspan this season by blocking and affecting shots in the lane. Having played 56% of his minutes at the power forward position this season, he has had far more opportunities than ever before to affect shots around the rim. As a result, Durant is leading the Warriors in the rim protection category, averaging a career-high 1.6 blocks per game.
Durant’s development as a rim protector and defender has been crucial to the Warriors’ success. His 3.7 defensive win shares are second on the team, and sixth in the league, behind only two-time NBA All-Defensive First-Teamer Draymond Green. Durant also ranks as the sixth most valuable defender in the NBA with a defensive rating of 101.4.
This season, KD has not only displayed improved shot-blocking abilities; this has also been his best rebounding season as an NBA player. Durant is averaging a career-high 8.2 rebounds per game, while also pulling down a career-best 23.2% of the available defensive rebounds while he’s on the floor.
The Warriors have signed Matt Barnes as a stopgap to play small forward in Durant’s stead. Barnes, 36, is a capable player who was a starter for a playoff team as recently as last year in Memphis. He appears to have a bit more gas left in the tank, but what is more concerning going forward is the unanswered question of who will take on the minutes that Durant played at the four. His unique length-and-shooting combination was what allowed the Warriors to play their run-and-gun style of basketball this season without giving up much in the defensive or rebounding aspects of the game.
In the video below (at the 4:46 mark), see how KD’s defensive presence has, at times, contributed directly to his offensive output.https://youtu.be/d2jtUdpLYy0?t=4m46s
Without the long, versatile Durant, it is unclear whether Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr will elect to go bigger or smaller with his lineups. Bigger lineups would probably lead to a more featured role and increased playing time for backup four David West. But that likely would cramp the Warriors’ style when it comes to running the floor at a breakneck pace. On the other hand, if the Warriors elect to go small and continue playing Draymond Green at center for stretches, they would be undersized and susceptible to other teams taking the ball inside against them.
Last year, Harrison Barnes played the role for the Warriors that Durant has played this year, starting at the three and shifting to the four in smaller lineups. Not having either of them for the stretch run of this season will be a challenge.
On Thursday, in their first full game without Durant, the Warriors failed to reach the 100-point mark for just the third time all season. While it could take time before they get back to an elite level offensively, the team has enough playmakers for them to maintain their high-octane offense. Steph Curry wasn’t crowned the unanimous MVP for nothing last season. He just passed Kobe Bryant for 11th all-time in three-pointers made, and he’s only 28 years old, so the offense should be able to find a way to put up points.
In fact, Curry has averaged 31.3 points per 36 minutes with Durant off the court this year, as opposed to 25.2 points per 36 with him on the court (via ESPN Stats & Info). When Durant heads to the bench, Curry’s usage percentage jumps from 26.3 (34th in the NBA) to 34.3 (fifth in the NBA).
Prior to Saturday night’s slate of NBA games, the Warriors stand in first place in the Western Conference, with the San Antonio Spurs nipping at their heels, just 2.5 games behind. The Warriors and Spurs have two more head-to-head matchups left on the calendar — March 11th and 29th. Both games will be played in San Antonio, and both will be the second game of back-to-backs for the Warriors.
The game on March 29th will occur in the middle of a tough stretch during which Golden State will play four games in six nights. The Dubs will face Memphis at home, have a day off, play at Houston, play at San Antonio, have another day off, and then head back to Houston to cap off the grueling Texas trip.
It will be crucial for the Warriors to win those games against the Rockets and Spurs, as they are the two teams closest to them in the standings. As it is every year, seeding will be vital once it comes playoff time. Teams will be jockeying for playoff position up until the final days of the regular season — both for home-court advantage among the top seeds, and for who they’ll have to face in each round of the playoffs.
As it stands now (prior to Saturday night’s games), the standings are:
|1||Golden State Warriors||50||11||0|
|2||San Antonio Spurs||47||13||2.5|
If the Warriors are able to hold serve with KD out of the lineup (assuming he misses the remainder of the regular season) and head into the playoffs as the Western Conference’s top seed, they would likely face a much easier path to the Finals than if they drop the ball and let the Spurs catch them. As the number one seed, the Warriors would be expected to breeze through the first round and then beat a tougher, but still beatable second-round opponent. Given the extreme closeness between the four, five, six, and seven seeds’ records right now, that opponent could be any one of the Jazz, Clippers, Grizzlies, or Thunder six weeks from now.
As the top seed, Golden State’s first real challenge probably would not come until the third round when they would have to face — most probably — either the Rockets or the Spurs. As we’ve seen too many times before, more injuries could occur between now and the end of the regular season, further impacting playoff seeding.
If the Warriors have Durant back and are at full strength by the Western Conference Finals, they should have a good chance at advancing to the NBA Finals for the third year in a row. Yet, if Durant’s injury is more severe than the team is publicizing, or it continues to hinder him even once he returns for the playoffs, there is a real chance that we might not get to witness Warriors-Cavs 3.0 this June.
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