Remember when I urged everyone not to panic about the Golden State Warriors’ slow start to the 2019-20 season?
On Wednesday, superstar guard Stephen Curry broke the second metacarpal in his left hand, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. He underwent surgery Friday and will be re-evaluated in three months, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.
With Curry sidelined until February (if not longer), speculation is already rampant about whether the Warriors should punt on this season and turn their attention to the 2020 draft. By tanking, they could ensure they won’t convey their top-20-protected first-round pick to the Brooklyn Nets, which means they might be headed toward their first lottery pick in eight years.
However, team owner Joe Lacob “scoffed at the mere suggestion of tanking” in the wake of Curry’s injury, according to Shelburne.
“It is against every single thing I and we stand for,” he said. “We will fight like hell. Develop our young guys. Learn to win,” he continued. “You don’t get better by trying to lose. Our entire organization is about winning. And we will win. Some bumps in the road, perhaps. But we will never accept losing.”
To some extent, the Warriors won’t have a choice.
Even with Curry in the fold, they suffered blowout losses against the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder in the opening week of the season. While the former is excusable—the Clippers are among this year’s title favorites—the Thunder appear to be on the fringes of the Western Conference playoff race.
And prior to Curry’s injury Wednesday, the Deandre Ayton-less Phoenix Suns outscored the Warriors 43-14 in the first quarter. The Phoenix Suns!
Heading into Friday, the Warriors have the league’s worst defensive rating (118.5) and third-worst net rating (minus-11.5). They were destined to take a step back after losing Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston this offseason, but their early-season defensive malaise caused Draymond Green to bluntly state, “The reality is, we f–king suck right now.”
It’s only going to get worse without Curry.
He began the season shooting only 40.9 percent from the field and 24.3 percent from three-point range—a far cry from his career averages of 47.6 percent and 43.5 percent, respectively—but he was still averaging a team-high 20.3 points per game. Other than D’Angelo Russell, the Warriors don’t have a consistent source of offense upon whom they can rely to create for himself and others.
However, let’s pump the breaks on comparisons between them and the 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs, who lost star center David Robinson to a season-ending injury after only six games. They wound up winning the lottery, drafting Tim Duncan and establishing a dynasty that spanned nearly two decades.
The Warriors aren’t likely to be nearly as lucky.
For one, we don’t know how long Curry will be out, but he figures to return at some point this season. Even if the Warriors are cautious about rushing Curry back (as well they should be!), he’ll likely return around the All-Star break.
Between now and then, the Warriors could be getting other much-needed reinforcements back.
Starting center Kevon Looney hasn’t played since opening night because of a “neuropathic condition” that has “a direct correlation” to the right hamstring tightness he’s been feeling as of late, according to Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle. He’s been declared out for the Warriors’ upcoming three-game homestand, but his eventual return will help shore up a center rotation that has been woefully undermanned to date.
Meanwhile, Willie Cauley-Stein made his season debut Wednesday against the Suns, finishing with 12 points on 5-of-5 shooting, five rebounds and a block in only 12 minutes. He missed all of the preseason and the Warriors’ first three games with a left foot sprain, but he figures to take over as their starting center until Looney returns.
“I’m really, really excited to get Willie on the floor,” Kerr said last week, per Letourneau. “It’s been very difficult for us. I mean, we basically had Looney for 10-and-a-half minutes on the court during a game. So, our center position has been in flux since the opening of training camp, and it’s showed.”
That isn’t to say the Warriors will be at full strength any time soon. Backup guard Jacob Evans is out for at least the next three weeks because of an adductor strain, according to Anthony Slater of The Athletic. Looney remains without a timetable to return. Klay Thompson isn’t likely to play this season as he recovers from the torn ACL that he suffered during the 2019 NBA Finals. And Green has already picked up minor elbow and back injuries this season, although he has yet to miss a game.
If injuries continue to assail the Warriors, yes, they might wind up tanking by default. But if Looney and Evans return in the next few weeks and Curry comes back sometime in February, Golden State’s slow start to the season may become a distant afterthought in a few months’ time.
Curry’s injury might cause the Warriors to pivot in one regard, though.
Ever since sign-and-trading for Russell this offseason, the Warriors have insisted they didn’t acquire him for the express purposes of flipping him later.
“We didn’t sign him with the intention of just trading him,” general manager Bob Myers told reporters in mid-July. “We haven’t even seen him play in our uniform yet and a lot of people have us already trading him. That’s not how we’re viewing it.”
With a playoff berth looking increasingly unlikely in the wake of Curry’s injury, the Warriors may wind up reevaluating that stance.
They’re somewhat limited on the trade front, since they’re subject to a hard cap because they sign-and-traded for Russell. That means they cannot exceed the $138.928 million luxury-tax apron at any point this season, and they’re only $407,257 below that figure at the moment, according to cap expert Nate Duncan (via Slater).
In other words: If they trade Russell this season, they can’t take back much more than his $27.285 million salary. That could make it difficult to find a workable swap for salary-matching purposes.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have long been linked as a potential Russell destination, but it’s difficult to imagine the Warriors would want the remaining four years and $122.2 million of Andrew Wiggins’ contract in return. A combination of Jeff Teague’s expiring contract ($19.0 million) and Robert Covington ($11.3 million) would make more sense for a Warriors team that badly needs wing depth, but Golden State would have to include at least one or two more players in that deal to duck the hard cap.
Those are issues for Myers and Co. to consider come Dec. 15, when Russell and other free agents who signed this summer become eligible to be traded. In the meantime, the woefully undermanned Warriors—my, how the times have changed!—will have to make do and attempt to turn their season around sans Curry.