Sports can be cruel. Just a month ago, fans were bemoaning the 2016–17 NBA season as we slowly headed toward a seemingly inevitable Warriors-Cavs trilogy. Now Kevin Love and J.R. Smith are shelved and news Wednesday confirmed that Kevin Durant will be sidelined at least a month with an MCL sprain and bone bruise, with a reevaluation coming after that.
It’s bad-but-not-devastating news for now. But the injury will certainly have a real impact on this season, the regular season, and well beyond. So what are some of the many implications of the Kevin Durant injury?
It’s not devastating news
No injury is ever good. And shame on anyone reveling in this Durant news or enjoying some sort of twisted schadenfreude at the loss of one of the NBA’s great talents. Any real fan wants to see the best players stay healthy and compete at the highest level.
Still, after news of a somber Warriors locker room Wednesday night and the quick signing of Matt Barnes for the rest of the season just hours after the game, the possibility that Durant may be out only around four weeks feels like a best-case scenario.
It’s March 1st. The 2017 playoffs start on April 15th, six-and-a-half weeks from today. By any normal timeline, Durant should be back playing by the playoffs and maybe a get a few regular season reps under his belt too.
The second round of the playoffs is over two months away. Unless this injury is re-aggravated or is worse than being reported, the Warriors should have Durant back for most or all of their playoff run.
It could have been much, much worse.
But it’s definitely still bad news
Hopefully this is just a bump in the road. Durant has no history of knee injuries, and this was a freak accident that leaves no reason to believe it will be replicated. And yet it’s still a serious knee injury.
But it’s not a ligament tear! It could have been so much worse!
Yes, it could have been worse. But a sprain is literally a stretching or partial tear of the ligament. And the accompanying bone bruise will leave residual pain that is certain to bother Durant until he has the full offseason to recover. Maybe it’s just a small injury and maybe it goes away. But Warriors fans surely remember Curry’s small injury in game one of last year’s playoffs. While he was still getting back to full strength, a weakened body was injured a second time, worse, and Curry was never whole again the rest of the playoffs. Injuries leave the body weak and second guessing itself.
Durant may be back in time for the playoffs, but he’s not going to be back healthy for them. He will likely still be playing through some amount of pain, and that could affect his jump shot, his lateral quickness, and his rim-protecting abilities. No player is 100% healthy after a long grueling season, but Durant will be a little or a lot further away after this injury. It’s not going to just magically disappear after four or six weeks.
A worrisome sign for Durant’s career
We toss around the term “unicorn” far too often these days, but Kevin Durant is one of the original NBA unicorns. He is a seven-footer that can shoot and score as well as few in NBA history, and this season we’ve been reminded of what he can do defensively as well. But the NBA has a long and terrible history of seven-foot dudes seeing otherwise-promising careers derailed by repeated leg and foot injuries.
Durant has had a handful of foot surgeries that have already cost him a playoffs and nearly a full season of games. Assuming he doesn’t play again this regular season, Durant will average 70 games played out of an 82-game schedule for his ten-year career. That’s not terrible but it’s still more than one in every seven games missed, almost 15% of the season sidelined.
Let’s compare Kevin Durant to another transcendent forward, not quite seven-foot (but KD is technically listed at 6'9) but an awesome scoring wing that looked set for a long surefire Hall of Fame career. Here are the Basketball Reference numbers through 10 seasons:
The top row is Durant. He and the second player were both around the same number of games played through ten seasons. Durant has been an All Star eight consecutive times and Player B was on a streak of seven straight berths.
Durant is the better more efficient shooter, but that’s true against most players in NBA history. His per-game numbers are better but Player B came off the bench his first two seasons. Both players were the NBA scoring champ multiple times in their career. Durant has, admittedly, won just a few more first-round playoff series.
Player B is Tracy McGrady.
Through ten seasons, TMac was on course to be an all-time NBA great. He had just run off a string of 27–26–32–28–26–24–25 points-per-game seasons and was in the MVP running year after year. He was a one-of-a-kind transcendent scorer and looked like he might have an outside chance at some of the all-time scoring records.
Minor injuries had plagued McGrady on and off for most of his career. It only ever cost him a big chunk of a season once, but he always seemed to miss 10 or 15 games a season and had a weird knack for never being fully right when it got to playoff time. After his tenth season, McGrady struggled through an injury-plagued season that saw his scoring average dip to its nadir since leaving Toronto. He was not named an All Star and underwent several surgeries that offseason. McGrady played only 35 games the following season before shutting it down for a second surgery on his knee. He would start only 63 more games in his career. He’s still a Hall of Famer, but he’s also in the What-If NBA Hall of Fame.
Kevin Durant isn’t Tracy McGrady. There was a history of debilitating back injuries there, and Durant has reached higher heights and done more in the playoffs. But injuries pile up, even little ones.
Kevin Durant is not Tracy McGrady. At least not yet.
The playoff picture could see a huge shake-up
Okay, back to the present. Let’s head back to Optimist Mountain and assume Durant comes back at 90 or 95% in time for the playoffs. Will he be returning to a 1-seed Warriors team?
The Warriors are 50–10 with 22 games remaining. They’re up four games on the 45–13 Spurs and eight games on the 42–19 Rockets. Houston isn’t going to catch them — but San Antonio certainly could.
The Warriors will still be really good, even without Durant. But they’re definitively not the same team they were last year. Slander Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut all you want, but that’s 40% of the starting lineup from a 73-win team that’s missing. JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia, and newly-signed Matt Barnes are not exactly the same guys, and the Ws are missing Ezeli, Barbosa, Speights, and Rush too.
Maybe Curry reverts to All-Universe Curry and puts up 35 a game the rest of the season and the Warriors still get to 67 or 68 wins. More likely, these Warriors probably play at something like a 50- to 60-win pace the rest of the way. That would give them 13 to 16 more wins and get them to around 63 to 66 wins overall.
The Spurs have 24 games left, including two home games against the Warriors. They’re currently on pace to finish with 64 wins. If San Antonio sweeps those two Warriors games, it effectively counts as three since they’d win a head-to-head tiebreak too. That would put them in pole position for the 1-seed. A split still gives the Spurs the tiebreak. San Antonio has 16 home games left out of 24, more than any team in the league — and remember, they didn’t lose a home game until April last year. They have a real shot here.
And getting the 1-seed really matters this year. This is not the East, where the Cavs could slide a few spots and LeBron can just turn the jets on an extra road game or two against inferior competition. In the West, a 1-seed means only one series against the Spurs or Rockets and it also means a sub-.500 opponent in the first round. Drop to the 2-seed instead, and it’s probably the Thunder or Grizzlies waiting in round one, the Rockets in round two, and a road series in San Antonio after that.
That’s a huge difference. A fully-manned Warriors team is still the favorite in each of those series, but not as heavy of a favorite. As a 1-seed, a healthy Golden State is probably a 99% favorite round one, 90% round two, and maybe 65% in the Western finals. That’s a 58% chance at making the Finals. As a 2-seed, let’s say the Warriors drop to 95% favorites against the Thunder or Grizzlies, then 75% against a tough Rockets team and 55% in a road Spurs series. Suddenly Golden State is only 39% likely to make the Finals and probably a worse than one-in-four chance of a title.
Those percentages are all shots in the dark, but the message is clear. Marginal differences add up, and they add up quickly. It matters that the Warriors find a way to hang onto the 1-seed. It matters a lot.
Circle those March 11th and 29th road games against the Spurs on your calendar. The latter is the second night of a back-to-back after a road game in Houston, and two nights before another game against the Rockets. Golden State’s March wraps up with a nasty Grizz-Rox-Spurs-Rox-Wiz stretch that Durant will almost certainly miss.
If they can survive that stretch, the Warriors get games against the Timberwolves, Suns, Pelicans, and Lakers over the final week that should allow them to hang onto the 1-seed. Durant could be back by then too. But it’s going to be a heck of an interesting month until he does.
NBA award season just got a big shake-up too
It seems callous to think about awards at a time like this, but awards matter for legacies, and they matter for contracts and futures too.
If Durant doesn’t play again in the regular season, he’ll finish the year with 59 games with 25 points, 8 boards, 5 assists, and better than a block and a steal per game. If he does play again, he probably adds to totals but hurts his per-game averages.
Either way, Durant may have just found his way down or completely off of several award ballots with this injury. First Team All-NBA is certainly out of the question. That should go to LeBron and Kawhi now. What about Second or Third team? He’ll have to stack up his three-quarters of a season against incredible seasons by Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Anthony Davis as well as teammate Draymond Green. Second Team seems pretty unlikely. Could he still eke out a Third Team spot?
It matters a lot less for him than it does for two other guys on the fringe: Paul George and Gordon Hayward. Suddenly there’s a little light of possibility for these two, especially if an injury were to sideline someone like Davis or Greek Freak and shut them down too. For PG and Hayward, All-NBA status is not about the title as much as the paycheck. Getting onto that list could qualify them for the designated player extension in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, allowing Indiana and Utah to give over $30 million extra in contract extension money that no other team can offer. That’s a massive difference and that’s why this matters. It could be the difference of the Pacers or Jazz losing their franchise player; it could also force their hand on trading a player they don’t want to sign to that massive extension a la Boogie Cousins.
Which player are you voting onto your All-NBA team? The guy that missed a quarter of the season but put up 25/8/5? The intangibles guy on the best team that barely averaged double digit points? What about a full season of 23/6/4 from an oft-overlooked white guy in Utah or 22/6/3 and top wing defense from a Pacer? Just how much are those extra 20 games worth? There’s a real discussion now.
Beyond that, Durant’s injury probably writes him off the MVP ballot for good. Durant was my midseason MVP pick ahead of Harden and Westbrook before Curry started heating back up and took some of the shine off his case. On a five-man MVP ballot, a spot just opened up. Harden and Westbrook will be on every ballot. LeBron and Kawhi should be too. Who’s the fifth name? Is it Durant or Chris Paul on three-quarters of a season? Probably not. It could be Curry who steps in. It might have been Kyle Lowry before his injury. Does Isaiah Thomas sneak onto the ballot now? Could Greek Freak or Jimmy Butler get there with a big finish? It’s mostly cosmetic, but voters now have a fifth wildcard spot they can have some fun with.
Durant was also heavily in the running for All-Defense for the first time in his career. It actually seems likely the Warriors could struggle more defensively without Durant than offensively since he’s become their primary rim protector and was doing it so well that he was a candidate to be named on many Defensive Player of the Year ballots. That race is down to Rudy Gobert or Draymond Green now, and Durant’s tough defensive work all season will likely be overlooked on the All-Defense teams too. Too bad.
The door is cracked a little further for other teams
Life comes at you fast in the NBA.
The Raptors went all-in with the Ibaka and Tucker trades after the Kevin Love injury and looked like they were in great shape, but Kyle Lowry’s injury leaves them surrounded by question marks. The Wizards added Brandon Jennings and Bojan Bogdanovic and are tied for the 3-seed in the East, only two games back of Boston. Houston went further in on Moreyball with the Lou Williams trade, and Oklahoma City boosted their lineup with the additions of Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott.
It probably all won’t matter. The Warriors will probably be okay. Durant will probably be healthy enough for the stretch run, and Golden State will probably still make it to the Finals and be a favorite to win there.
But the NBA is a game of odds, and everyone else’s odds just went up. If the Warriors fall out of the 1-seed, or if Durant never gets back fully healthy this season, everyone has a slightly bigger sliver of the championship pie.
If a team like the Celtics or Raptors eked their way to the Finals, they always knew they’d be a sizable underdog once they got there. Now they could get a tired, banged-up Warriors squad or another team instead. The Spurs and Rockets aren’t exactly chopped liver but they’re not the SuperWarriors.
A week ago, the Celtics decided yet again to sit on their pocket kings and wait out this LeBron-Warriors window. The window just got shoved open, but Boston opted to sit this one out. How excited would Celtics fans be about a Butler, IT, Crowder, Horford team right now? They’ll have to keep dreaming.
This NBA championship now comes with an asterisk
No, it doesn’t.
There are no asterisks in sports or in life. Only context. Every champion has some luck. Every season requires context.
Some team will be crowned NBA champion in June, and they’ll have done it fair and square — despite and because of injuries, luck, refereeing, and talent. So it goes.
3–1 jokes are back
It’s March 1st.
Kevin Durant went out for the season on March 1st.
The Spurs are four games back of the 1-seed Warriors on March 1st.
So if the Warriors lose Kevin Durant for the regular season and then fall to a charging San Antonio team, does that mean they blew another 3–1 lead??
What about the Warriors beyond this season?
Jokes aside, there’s still one more big question that’s now in play.
Say Durant never comes back this season, or he comes back but can’t stay healthy. Maybe he comes back but can’t get into a rhythm, goes into shoot-first-shoot-second-OKC-mode and iso-balls the Warriors out of the playoffs.
Let’s say the 2017 Golden State Warriors don’t win the championship, never again this season reach the dizzying 50–9 heights they entered last night with. Then what? Who gets the blame? What happens to the Warriors?
Steph Curry is a free agent this summer. So are Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. So are David West and JaVale McGee and Zaza Pachulia.
And so too is Kevin Durant, if he chooses to opt out of his contract.
What if everything goes south on another magical Warriors season and the team turns on each other? What if Draymond snaps amidst all the pressure? What if KD and Steph never show playoff chemistry? What if Durant wilts in the playoffs, never fully healthy, and takes the brunt of the blame?
What if Durant decides this is all a little too much and peaces out after one season? I can name 29 other teams that would welcome him with open arms. Fine, 28 other teams.
Without Durant around and with another failed championship bid at his feet, what if Curry decides it’s time for a fresh start? What if he wants to go home to Charlotte or take his talents to South Beach?
Is it possible these Warriors could be a thing of the past? Could the dynasty already be over before it started? Is it really possible that Kevin Durant could be part of the two greatest what-if dynasties of our lifetime in the same ten-year career window? What if he never plays on another team so perfectly suited to his strengths? What if he never gets that elusive ring?
WHAT ABOUT LEGACY??
It’s all pretty silly to think about, really.
But it’s a little less silly to think about than it was 24 hours ago.
And that’s why this Kevin Durant injury is not devastating. But it certainly isn’t nothing either.