It is unspoken, unwritten, and yet remains a clear and indisputable part of the Sports Fan Contract: You do not wish for an athlete to be injured, nor do you cheer when an athlete is injured.
Doesn’t matter if it’s an Alabama football player going down on Auburn’s home field, if it’s a Yankee breaking something during a pennant race with the Red Sox or if it’s one Israeli athlete hurting themselves during competition against a Palestinian territory.
You don’t get happy when somebody gets hurt.
And yet, I get the sense that from Cleveland to Oklahoma City, from San Antonio to Los Angeles, there are some NBA fans whose wishes came true. A lot of people are doing the Liberty Mutual happy dance right now upon hearing the news that Golden State Warriors super star Kevin Durant will reportedly miss at least 4-6 weeks with an MCL sprain and bone bruise on his left knee.
The most significant injury of the 2016-17 NBA season has positive and negative impacts around the league, and leaves some questions that won’t be answered for months.
Can the Warriors still win a championship without Durant?
Yes. A team whose core is made up of two-time MVP Stephen Curry, Defensive Player of the Year front-runner Draymond Green and All-Star sniper Klay Thompson is going to be a title contender.
Remember, this is why so many people were so upset with Durant’s free agency move from OKC to Oakland in the first place – because the Warriors were already great without him. They already won a championship in 2015 and made it to Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. They won a league-record 73 regular-season games last season without Durant. They were favored to make a third straight Finals trip even before Durant signed up to join the movement.
That said, Golden State did give up a lot to bring Durant on board. Starting center Andrew Bogut was traded and starting small forward Harrison Barnes was allowed to walk via free agency. Key bench players Leandro Barbosa, Marreese Speights and Festus Ezeli were also let go in salary-cutting moves. The Warriors essentially swapped five solid rotation guys for Durant, JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia (a dollar-store Bogut) and a tall tale about David West.
But it was worth it because, well, Kevin Durant is Kevin Durant!!! He’s a four-time league scoring champion. The last MVP before Curry. Arguably the best all-around scorer on Earth. It was a no-brainer.
Durant did his part by not only bringing his offense (he was averaging 25.3 points on 53% FG shooting before the injury), but also by becoming more of a force on defense. KD’s 1.6 blocks per game are a career-high, and the guy who was always accused of being too skinny to withstand the rigors of playing in the paint was putting in regular work as a power forward and even a center in the Warriors’ defensive schemes.
If Durant is forced to miss some or all of the postseason, Golden State takes a significant hit. But this team was built to sustain a significant hit. Their backup small forward, after all, is 2015 Finals MVP and former All-Star Andre Iguodala, who was an NBA All-Defensive first team pick as recently as 2014.
The Warriors were heavy favorites to win another title with four in-their-prime stars. But they’ve shown they can still get it done with a mere three.
What does this mean for LeBron James?
Thanks to a moment of frustration in front of the media and some well-timed grandstanding by Charles Barkley, LeBron gave his eager haters ammunition to turn the narrative of his season.
It should be the story of a 32-year-old all-time great who is supposed to be past his prime still flirting with triple-double averages (25.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, 8.9 assists) while basking in the afterglow of finally bringing a championship to Cleveland.
Now, it is the story of a paranoid and spoiled man-child who needs “all the good players” and can’t stop crying for more help, even though his team has one of the most talented and expensive rosters in the NBA.
Durant’s injury only impacts LeBron if it’s serious enough to keep Durant out of the Finals, keep him out of the playoffs long enough for Golden State to get eliminated before the Finals, or if it sends the Warriors into a funk that allows Cleveland to finish the regular with the best record in the league and secure home-court advantage in the Finals.
In either scenario, if LeBron manages to lead the Cavs to another championship, you can be sure to find some stubborn detractors who will use KD as another imaginary asterisk on LeBron’s resume. He didn’t beat the Warriors at full-strength, they’ll say. He got lucky that KD was sidelined, hobbled or rusty. LeBron got even more help than he asked for.
And if the Cavs end up not winning a title while Durant is sidelined, hobbled or rusty?
LeBron (and only LeBron) will get bashed for being handed a gift and still dropping the ball. No matter how well he plays along the way, and no matter how good Golden State remains without Durant.
Does this alter the NBA’s MVP race?
Yes. What began as an 82-game victory sprint for Russell Westbrook – who probably would srun some people over during a victory lap – turned into a two-man battle between Westbrook and James Harden, and then a three-man competition that included Durant.
It was a cute plot twist, albeit one that had to make Oklahoma City fans a little sick: The three former Thunder teammates could finish 1-2-3 in the league’s MVP voting, all while the Thunder was bound to finish sixth or seven in the Western Conference standings and was not expected to get past the second round of the playoffs.
Westbrook has been blowing up box scores on a historic level, averaging 31.2 points, 10.6 rebounds and 10.3 assists. Harden has transformed from a scoring machine to a true point guard and a triple-double threat in his own right, putting up 28.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 11.3 assists. Durant was getting props for his defense and improved efficiency, shooting a career-best 53 percent from the field.
With KD most likely dropping out of this campaign, it doesn’t change Westbrook and Harden’s status. But now a new candidate will enter the top three. Will it be LeBron? Will it be Curry, if he keeps GS on the same winning pace they were on with Durant in the lineup? Will it be Kawhi Leonard, if he leads the San Antonio Spurs in snatching the No. 1 seed in the West?
Can the Spurs take the Warriors’ spot?
Yes. Even if the Spurs aren’t able to make up their four games that they’re behind Golden State and claim the West’s top seed, San Antonio can absolutely beat the Warriors in a playoff series without Durant. Or with Durant.
While the Warriors are the league’s most prolific three-point shooting club, the Spurs are the league’s most accurate, making 40 percent of their treys as a team. San Antonio ranks second in fewest points allowed, and are tied for second in fewest three-pointers allowed and lowest opponent three-point percentage.
In other words, the book on the Warriors is that if you can’t shut them down, you have to outshoot them. The Spurs are capable of both.
Leonard has been softly killing it in his first season as the Spurs’ on-court leader post-Tim Duncan, averaging 25.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals. He is in the mix for not only MVP, but also for Defensive Player of the Year. And if Durant can’t go or is hampered by injury for a Warriors-Spurs playoff series, Leonard’s job becomes much less difficult.
If the Warriors’ interior game takes a hit without Durant, the Spurs can capitalize with power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (17.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and center Pau Gasol (11.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg), as well as taking advantage of less resistance in the lane for driving guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Golden State should still be considered the favorites in the West without Durant, but things just got a bit sunnier in San Antonio.
Is the NBA operating on a level playing field now?
No. Sorry, but one injury – even if it did happen to one of the two or three best players in the world – does not create parity in the NBA.
Contrary to what your neighborhood critic of today’s NBA says, parity has never really been the way the NBA does things.
Super-teams have existed since the 1960’s. Superstars have been voluntarily teaming up since the 1970s.
When people were bemoaning the apparent inevitability of another Cavs-Warriors Finals in 2017, they should’ve been reminded that this was no different than the 1980’s, when the Lakers and Celtics were expected to meet in the Finals every year, or the 1990’s, when the Bulls had the East on lock.
So while a Durant-less Golden State squad may look like easier pickings for Western Conference underdogs like the Rockets, Clippers and Thunder, they are far from easy pickings.
Maybe a Warriors-Clippers series goes six games now instead of five. The Warriors kinda owned the Clips pre-Durant, and that probably won’t change.
Maybe Westbrook and the Thunder can finally get a W against their clearly superior rivals – or at least not get blown out when they meet – but KD’s absence does not put OKC on a path to the Finals.
Durant’s injury is a blow to the Warriors, but it does not darken their bright championship aspirations by much. And while it does crack the door open a bit and shine a little more light on some overlooked teams around the league, don’t be mistaken: the NBA title picture is not wide open.
At best, the Illuminati merely welcomed a new member or two.