By all accounts, the news about Steph Curry’s knee injury in the NBA playoffs was about the best the Golden State Warriors could have gotten. The star point guard is injured for at least two weeks with a sprained MCL after slipping on the court in a game against the Houston Rockets; an MRI showed the sprain to be the most minor of its type. In a game where an awkward fall can mean an 18-month absence, Curry’s comparatively small break is a respite for the Warriors. But it could still cost them the only thing that matters: an NBA championship.
In the hours after news of Curry’s injury broke, Vegas oddsmakers dropped the Warriors, overwhelming favorites to win the title for the entire season, down behind the San Antonio Spurs. If Curry returns to the court after two weeks, he’d be back in the middle of the second round of the playoffs. But he might take a little longer to rehabilitate, or return in a slightly diminished state, and those variables could be enough to knock what was statistically the greatest team in NBA regular-season history (finishing with a record-setting 73-9 record) into also-ran territory.
Before Curry’s injury, the Warriors were cruising toward a repeat of the NBA title they won last season, having beaten the legendary-wins record of the 1996 Chicago Bulls and perfecting the free-flowing offense that had made them such a phenomenon in the league. But Curry was pivotal to all of that: His ability to shoot three-pointers at prodigious quantity and efficiency had led him to a historic year from a statistical standpoint, one that made it almost impossible to devise an effective defense for him. On the rare occasions that Golden State lost over the 2015-2016 NBA season, Curry might have an (atypical) off shooting night.
The playoffs are different. Teams play each other over and over again, getting used to their opponents’ offensive schemes and finding gaps in their defensive armor. Strong teams like the Spurs, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Cleveland Cavaliers will pose a serious threat to the Warriors if they’re missing their star—that’s how critical one player is in the sport, and how a team can shift from cellar-dwelling dud to playoff contender in a season by acquiring one transformational athlete. It’s why teams will intentionally “tank” a season just to get a better chance at getting the number-one pick in the draft the next year.
Curry was acquired through the draft, as were most of the Warriors’ key talents (including the guard Klay Thompson and the forward Draymond Green). With Curry injured, the backup Shaun Livingston will slide into his position, and while he’s been a crucial player for the team this year, the two couldn’t be more different. Curry took 886 three-point shots this season, making 402 of them and setting an NBA record. Livingston took 12 and made two. The Warriors thrive on the success of their legendary “splash brothers” backcourt, where Curry and Thompson bomb long-range shots all night and make other teams tire themselves out on the defensive end trying to stop them; that’ll all have to change while Curry’s not on the floor.
So who could win now? The Spurs, made up of reliable veterans with many championships to their name (including Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili) along with the younger stars Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, had always been considered the team with the best shot of stopping Golden State. Their path to the finals now looks easier, especially since the Clippers’ star player, Chris Paul, was also knocked out with an injury Monday night (fracturing his hand in a game against Portland). The Clippers beat the Spurs in the playoffs last year, but if they met them this year, they’d put up less of a fight. On the other side of the bracket, LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers remain the overwhelming favorites to emerge from the NBA’s Eastern Conference, and have avoided the injury woes that plagued their stars last year.
More than anything, Curry (and Paul’s) injury underline just what a crucial element luck is to any successful title run in sports, particularly in the NBA where an unbeatable five-man unit can be upended by a simple slip on the court. Curry’s Warriors captured the NBA title last year partly because they avoided any major injuries, leading to the narrative among some commentators that they were “lucky,” especially to run into a Cleveland team in the finals that had lost two of its three star players to fractured kneecaps and dislocated shoulders.
Curry’s reaction to the punditry? “I apologize for us being healthy, I apologize for us playing who was in front of us,” he told reporters last October. It was an enjoyably sarcastic retort from a player who mostly avoids such harsh rebukes in the press, but it also proved unsettlingly prophetic. “I apologize for all the accolades we received as a team and individually. I’m very, truly sorry, and we’ll rectify that situation this year,” he said. Golden State is hoping he’ll be back in time to prove his own words wrong.