Posted by Jonah Gardner on May 5, 2016
The Golden State Warriors' driverless UberX hit its first real speed bump of the season when Stephen Curry sprained his MCL halfway through Game 4 of the 2016 NBA Playoffs. Without the presumptive NBA MVP, the hyperdrive engine that powers one of the best offenses in NBA history, it was only natural to assume the Warriors would take a step back.
Of course, that's also assuming this Warriors team is mortal. Since the start of the 2nd half of Game 4, when they lost Curry to the knee injury, the Warriors have outscored their opponents by a total of 81 points. The team's eFG% of .542 is below its regular season mark of .563, but a number that still would have been the best in the NBA this year.
The Warriors may bleed, but it's not clear if anyone can kill them. This is in sharp contrast with other title hopefuls who've lost stars in the playoffs or late in the regular season. For most teams, losing an MVP-caliber player is a death blow to their title chances.
With the Curry situation unclear (word is the Warriors are optimistic about Curry playing in Game 3 but they're obviously waiting until Saturday to decide for sure), this seems like a good time to look back at other recent teams that had their title hopes derailed by an injury to an MVP-caliber player, and try to see what may make the Warriors different.
For each team, we'll identify their injured MVP and his team's most used playoff lineup without him. The number in parentheses after each of them is the team's plus/minus per 100 possessions with that player/lineup on the floor. For the player, it's the regular season number, for the lineup, it's the playoffs.
Lastly, we listed the opponents they had to face without the player, as well as those teams' strength as determined by Simple Rating System. SRS is a metric that uses point differential and strength of schedule to measure how many points better or worse than average a team is. In addition to the SRS, I also listed where that SRS ranked in the NBA that season.
Injured Player: Allen Iverson (+5.7)
Playoff Opponents, post-injury: Milwaukee Bucks (3.13, 8th)
In many ways, this is the case that's most similar to the Warriors. AI was an unrepentant gunner who formed the focal point of his team's offense. Additionally, although Iverson had to sit out a game in the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals, he would return, like (*knocks on all the wood in the universe*) Steph will soon.
That's where the similarities end. The Sixers didn't have a Klay Thompson-type player, who would be an effective first scoring option on most teams, nor did they have a unique jack-of-all-trades like Draymond Green. Both players had more Win Shares in 2015-16 (11.1 for Draymond and 8.0 for Klay) than the second-best Sixer in 2001, George Lynch; who, by the way, was also missing in this series. And that's leaving aside the difference in styles between the Sixers (19th in Pace and 21st in assists) and the Warriors (2nd in Pace and 1st in assists).
Philly's offense cratered in the one game without AI, however, when he returned, he picked back up where he left off. In his first game back, Iverson scored 28, and, just two games later, he dropped 46. That's good news for Warriors fans, who are sweating not just the question of if Steph will return, but whether he'll be able to jump back into the playoffs without missing a step.
Injured Player: Chris Webber (+7.3)
Playoff Opponents, post-injury: Dallas Mavericks (7.90, 1st)
This was one of the final rotten breaks for this era of Kings, a team that saw more than its fair share. Of course, the lineup data actually makes it look like the Kings were able to tread water without C-Webb, with their post-injury starting 5 posting a higher plus/minus in the playoffs than C-Webb himself did in the regular season. But there are two key factors to consider.
First, while this five-man lineup was still able to outscore opponents, it didn't dominate them like it did with C-Webb. When Webber replaced Turkoglu, the Kings blasted opponents by 18 points per 100 possessions. The Turkoglu lineup also got slightly out-rebounded (a Total Rebound Percentage margin of -0.7), while the C-Webb model dominated the glass (+12.4 TRB%). Second, the Kings were going against the best team in the league.
In other words, while the cast around C-Webb's highly unique skill set was strong, they couldn't survive against top competition without their star. Given that this year's San Antonio Spurs have an SRS that's over 2.5 points stronger than this Mavericks' team, this would seem to portend doom for the Warriors if they don't get Steph back.
Injured Player: Dirk Nowitzki (+12.6)
Playoff Opponents, post-injury: San Antonio Spurs (5.65, 3rd)
But the Mavericks' luck turned extremely quickly, as Dirk Nowitzki suffered an injury that took him out of the 2003 Western Conference Finals after just three games.
In addition to Dirk, the Mavericks had also lost Shawn Bradley, 3rd on the team in Win Shares, forcing them to go deeper down the bench to find players. Losing an MVP-level player is difficult enough, but if a team isn't at more-or-less 100% health otherwise, it's next to impossible, part of why it's been so important to the Warriors that they don't lose anybody else during this stretch.
Injured Player: Dwyane Wade (+6.8)
Playoff Opponents, post-injury: Detroit Pistons (3.31, 6th)
Even with a Basketball Hall of Fame center, the Heat struggled to score without D-Wade. In Game 6 of the 2005 Eastern Conference Finals, when Wade was forced to sit, the Heat had a dire Offensive Rating of 79.5. The Heat's most used 5-man lineup, with Wade replacing Butler, scored 113 points per 100 possessions, a number that sank to 92.2 with Butler.
Interestingly, this lineup actually had some statistical advantages, especially on defense, where it generated 16.5 net turnovers per 100 possessions 1.9 net blocks, as opposed to 5.0 and 0.9. Still, you need to be able to score off those blocks and turnovers to make the Finals.
It's hard to find a year where the Yao/McGrady partnership was especially close to a title, so allow this year to stand-in for an entire era of poor injury luck. In 2009, the Rockets lost McGrady to injury in February, and still soldiered on to make the playoffs and win their first round series...only to lose Yao three games into their series with the Lakers.
Led by the man then known as Ron Artest, the Rockets still gutted the series out to seven games, despite trailing 2-1 when they lost Yao.
Injured Player: Kevin Garnett (+14.3)
It may seem obvious, but one major key to surviving an injury to a superstar is having a capable replacement. Without Curry, the Warriors have been able to turn to Shaun Livingston, a veteran who's spent 11 seasons playing the NBA. Livingston has his own unique skillset, as a 6'7" PG, and poses his own kind of challenge. He also played over 1,400 minutes with the Warriors last season, and has over 13,000 minutes in the league.
In contrast, when the Celtics lost KG, they had to turn to Glen "Big Baby" Davis, at the time a second year player who had less than 950 NBA minutes going into the 2008-09 season. Livingston is obviously not on Curry's level, but he's a capable replacement who can keep the Warriors' machine moving, while letting their (normally) secondary stars shine. Davis couldn't quite do that (although, admittedly, he did hit a clutch buzzer-beater against the Magic).
Injured Player: Derrick Rose (+10.7)
Playoff Opponents, post-injury: Philadelphia 76ers (3.59, 5th)
When things have gone wrong for the Bulls this decade, they haven't just veered slightly off-course. Not only did Derrick Rose suffer a career-altering injury in garbageish time of Game 1, but Joakim Noah would go out for the series just two games later. As a result, the Bulls had to lean on a lineup that logged a total of 28.4 minutes together in the regular season.
Still, not to second-guess coaching decisions in a four-year-old series, but it's worth noting that the version of this lineup that had in-his-prime Taj Gibson instead of largely-done Carlos Boozer was +10.7 points per 100 possessions. When trying to grind out a series without your stars, that kind of attention to detail matters.
It's also worth taking a moment to appreciate the 76ers. They're now remembered as just an 8-seed that got lucky, but SRS ranked them as the 5th best team in 2011-12 and they took the Celtics to a Game 7.
Injured Player: Russell Westbrook (+10.7)
There's seems to be a little more going on here than just the loss of Russell Westbrook. After all, unlike the other teams, the Thunder still had their best player. And yet, the swing in plus/minus from this lineup to one with Westbrook instead of Jackson was 68.4 points per 100 possessions. It's impossible to adequately describe how bonkers that is without using words I'm not allowed to use on an all-ages website.
The real issue here isn't just that the post-Westbrook starting 5 got torn to shreds, but that they played over 100 minutes together. You would think by minute 60 or so, Scott Brooks would have seen enough of this particular combination.
The really crazy thing? This lineup was even worse against the Rockets, a first-round series the Thunder won, than against the Memphis Grizzlies. Against Houston, the Westbrook-less 5 were -57.4 points per 100 possessions in 37.8 minutes of playing time. Against Memphis, they soared to a mere -16.6 in 69.1 minutes.
Playoff Opponents, post-injury: Portland Trail Blazers (0.98, 13th)
I'm cheating with the lineups, slightly, since the Clippers had a different Paul/Griffin-free lineup that logged 26 minutes in this playoff series, but the bulk of that came pre-injury, and this lineup is more reflective of what the Clippers were trying to do after losing Paul and Griffin in the span of one devastating 24-hour period.
Of all the gut punches on this list, this one ranks among the very top. You could point to the 2003 Mavs, but they at least made the WCF and were largely a young team with plenty of reason to think they'd be back. And while losing D-Rose was difficult emotionally, it's hard to argue that team could have made it past the Heat, given how they got beat the year before at full strength. The Clippers looked like the better team in the First Round and were facing the prospect of at least a couple game head-start against the Curry-less Warriors and a WCF against a Spurs team they had already beaten one year earlier.
Of course, if a 73-win Dubs team got eliminated without an MVP in the midst of one of the best seasons of all-time, that would be a bigger gut punch than any of these. Which brings us to...
Injured Player: Stephen Curry (+17.9)
Maybe, more than anything, the Warriors have unlocked the true secret of surviving an injury to your superstar: don't play tough teams without him. All due respect to the Trail Blazers (and, sure, the Rockets), but the Warriors have travelled by far the easiest path of any of the teams we've looked at. The only opponent that's weaker than either of these teams was the 2009 Bulls, who also lost to team without their MVP.
That being said, the Warriors have a deeper roster, and sturdier system than most of the others on this list. As Curry nears his return, the Warriors have shown they have to fortitude, depth, and skill to face the kind of gut-wrenching adversity that's sunk many teams before them. But it's also fair to say that, on a list of teams who were dealt awful hands, they've had better luck than most. Hopefully, they won't need any more of it.