Stephen Curry's ankle injury brings a challenge the Warriors haven't faced for any extended period, save five games in the 2016 playoffs, since they became the Warriors: figuring out what exactly their team looks like without the two-time MVP.
"Of course I'm curious," Bob Myers, the team's GM, told ESPN.com. "I'm always curious. I was curious when Kevin [Durant] went down [last season]. But I've seen what our team looks like without Kevin. This will be new."
With nothing new to say about the Warriors in Year 2 of Durant-Curry, league insiders and NBA Twitter die-hards have engaged in a barroom debate: Who's better, or more important, to the Warriors -- Durant or Curry?
On one level, it's a stupid question. They are both transcendent. Why does one have to be more important?
But it's a fun thought exercise with useful implications for team building. None other than Steve Kerr fueled it to some degree when he called Durant "the second-best player in the world" behind LeBron James during the Finals and then seemed to double down on that stance in a post-Finals edition of the Lowe Post podcast.
Durant is a better defender than Curry, and it is obviously not close. If both are all-world offensive players, logic suggests Durant's defense makes him better.
But better and more important aren't the same thing. And sometimes being more important can in effect make you better -- at least in a particular team context.
Curry is a revolutionary NBA player. He makes shots that didn't exist before, from angles and locations once considered impossible -- in violation of basketball's moral codes. Those shots are worth an extra point. He makes them almost half the time. Give most expert NBA 3-point shooters Curry's exact shot distribution -- off the dribble, 30 feet away, or body twisting to make a catch in the corner -- and how many would they hit? Thirty percent? Worse? No one knows, because no one has dared try.
The Warriors saw that unprecedented skill set, and loosed it upon the league in increments -- first under Mark Jackson (their 2013 playoff run, when they pushed the Spurs, is considered a watershed moment within the team), and then in a torrent when Curry and Kerr stretched it beyond imagination in 2015-16.
Curry's singular shooting is the organizing principle for everything the Warriors have built. It is the electrical current powering the body -- doing indispensable, foundational work even when you don't see it.
"People took it the wrong way when we had our conversation after the Finals," Kerr said of his podcast appearance. "I was talking specifically about two-way players, and Kevin is right there with LeBron and Kawhi [Leonard]. But does that mean he's better than Steph? All that stuff is subjective. Who's better: James Harden or Kawhi? I don't know. But if you're talking about who has the biggest impact on the way people guard us -- on the identity of our team -- then it's Steph. He's the engine. Everything starts with Steph."
"What we built was initiated by Steph," Myers added. "The offense starts with him."
In the most literal sense, the Warriors look the way they do because of Curry. Teams trap Golden State's pick-and-rolls 30 feet from the rim, unlocking shots for everyone else, because those pick-and-rolls involve the only human in history capable of hitting 40 percent of his off-the-dribble 3s from that distance. Draymond Green emerged as the team's assist leader in part because he was Curry's go-to pick-and-roll partner -- and those traps sprang him for 4-on-3s that flummoxed the league for a full season.
Kerr instituted a more egalitarian offense, with everyone screening and cutting off the ball, because Curry understands the power he exercises screening and cutting off the ball. You can give most shooters, even the best ones, a brief, tiny window to put out another fire. You cannot give Curry any space, even if he is 25 feet away, has his back to the basket, or is in mid-collision while setting a pick. He's too accurate, his wrist-snap release too fast.
If you're guarding Curry and he nails your teammate with a pick that frees Klay Thompson, you can't lunge away from Curry to blanket Thompson for a split second. Switch a bigger guy onto Curry, and he'll keep moving until the behemoth can no longer keep up:
If Thompson screens for Curry on the wing, you have to leave Thompson to account for Curry -- a quickie double-team that springs leaks everywhere.
Golden State's other pre-Durant stars played huge roles in the team's ascension. Green anchors the defense, and his ball handling frees Curry to run the wing in transition and roam for 3s. Thompson is probably the second-greatest shooter ever. He defends the best point guards so Curry doesn't have to. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are bulwarks on defense, and they run the show so Curry can flit around hunting catch-and-shoot 3s.
They all enable each other. That is what makes them great. But Curry's shooting is the basis for everything. Without it, the system wouldn't exist.
Team insiders are sure that system -- and Curry's sacrifice in creating it -- played a role in drawing Durant. "I don't know the answer to whether we get Durant without that," Myers said. "But the brilliance of Steph is that as great as he is, he never really bought into the idea that it should be about him. And that carries value beyond him. Some guys would say, 'I'm the point guard, and I need to be on the ball.' He didn't, and he doesn't."
Durant has fit himself into the system, and in doing so, amplified it to the precipice of invincibility. Curry picks for Iguodala became picks for Durant. Harrison Barnes corner 3s became Durant corner 3s. Durant mostly marks the same paces as his predecessors, moving from station to station as the ball shifts. He makes each station more dangerous. Curry is the reason the stations exist.
And when an elite, switching defense grinds that system down, Durant provides Golden State the ability to scrap it and simplify. He is the fail-safe. Durant is unguardable one-on-one, perhaps the only scorer who troubles full-throttle LeBron. Facing stress toward the end of last season's Finals, the Warriors leaned on the switch-at-your-peril Curry-Durant pick-and-roll to take them home.
"[Durant] gets us shots we didn't use to be able to get," Kerr said. "At the end of the 2016 Finals, we couldn't get a good shot. Last year, we could get almost any shot we wanted."
Even so, Kerr does not want to play with that kind of predictability. He believes, deeply, that players give more if they are involved on offense. He's right. Curry allowed for a system that empowers everyone that way. Maybe Durant could, too. Maybe it doesn't matter -- maybe a Durant-centric system, where he commands the ball on almost every possession as a mutant hybrid of James Harden and Dirk Nowitzki, could take the right roster just as far. We just don't know what kind of roster the Warriors would construct around him.
Here's a thought exercise: What would the Warriors look like if you took this same roster and replaced Curry with a league-average starting point guard -- someone like Dennis Schroder or George Hill? They would still be awesome -- maybe even favorites to win the title.
But what would they look like? How would they play? They would probably have to integrate more ball-dominant action for a Schroder type -- more banal pick-and-roll stuff. They might want a rim-running center to trigger that action. They don't have that player now, but that's the point: They spent their resources on players that fit Curry.
Flip it around: We've already seen what the Warriors look like with a solid starting small forward in Durant's place. They won the championship, and then 73 more games. When Durant missed 20 games last season with a knee injury, the Warriors slipped right back into their pre-KD identity -- and ripped off a 14-game win streak.
Here's the weird truth: even in this halcyon era, the Warriors never quite figured out offense with Curry on the bench. They've scored at around a league-average rate, or worse, with Curry resting in each of the past four seasons, per NBA.com. They have never really locked on a non-Curry identity. They move around without purpose, in cluttered space. Green shoots and distributes more, and can get a little wild. Thompson shoots more, and a little less accurately.
Golden State scored 115.4 points per 100 possessions when Curry played without Durant last season, and 108.7 with Durant as the lone alpha. The splits this season: 116 points per 100 possessions with just Curry, 107 with just Durant.
They remain historic with Curry as soloist. They are normal-good with Durant alone -- so far.
Without Curry, they don't really have a drive-and-dish point guard. Durant is an underrated passer and pick-and-roll maestro, but that has never been his bread and butter. Livingston and Iguodala are caretakers. Green prefers to man the high post, surveying cutters. Pat McCaw will get some drive-and-kick reps now.
Curry is still growing. This injury interrupts a season in which he both receded from the MVP conversation (again) and played some of the most complete, in-command ball of his career. Curry is averaging 6.5 free throws per game, by far a career high, and launching a few more midrange shots.
He has registered the degree to which opponents sell out to snuff his 3s, and learned to leverage that panic against them. San Antonio pioneered a new anti-Curry variant late in the 2015-16 season: on pick-and-rolls, Curry's guy would slither over the pick, and the defender guarding the screener would slide with Curry at the point of attack -- at the 3-point arc, or beyond it. If they had to switch, San Antonio gave its big men a directive: Step underneath Curry's feet, and angle him in one direction. There would be no 3s, or easy slip passes to Green for those rampaging 4-on-3s. Curry would have to drive.
He's driving against that scheme now, with zero hesitation.
"The Spurs pressed him in a new way," said Bruce Fraser, an assistant who co-scripts Curry's famous shooting drills. "He's learned to just go around."
Some opponents still have their big guys hang close to the rim, leaving it to their point guards to hang on Curry's hip so that he can't pull up or thread the ball to Green in open space. Curry is reading that, juking those point guards, and happily accepting midrange jumpers.
Except he doesn't always shoot jumpers, exactly. He'll flick up weirdo floaters and push shots from distances that normally require jumpers. He keeps the ball in front of his head, beyond the reach of defenders trailing him.
Curry and Fraser tweaked their shooting routine last season, and even more dramatically after last season, to emphasize in-between shots. "We made a conscious decision to work on it," Fraser said. "Steph was born with amazing hand-eye coordination. He wasn't born with a floater."
When he sees a crazed defender sprinting at him, Curry plows to the rim, inviting contact.
"Teams run at him," Fraser says, "like they are scared to death of his shooting prowess."
This screen-the-screener play, a Kerr favorite out of timeouts, is designed to spring Curry for open 3s, but if he sees a runway now, he revs up:
He put on weight over the summer so that he could absorb more violent contact, and still finish.
Those plays aren't as spectacular as Curry launching 11 unholy triples per game two seasons ago. Curry doesn't have the burden of being that spectacular with Durant on board.
But they show maturation -- a superstar at his apex, able to calmly bust any defense thrown at him. Curry isn't dancing in search of high-wire 3s. He's taking freebies instead.
"He used to settle for some bad 3s," Fraser says. "Now, he's taking what the game gives him."
Curry has hit 55 percent of his midrange shots, an insane number. He's shooting 93 percent from the line, putting him on course for the greatest high-volume foul-shooting season in league history.
He has even picked up some less savory ref-baiting tricks.
Kerr has stressed the value of pump-faking to Curry, Thompson, and Durant, even interrupting a recent film session to freeze a moment when Curry might have been able to draw contact with a fake, Fraser says. "Everyone is so afraid of him," Kerr says, "that I'm always trying to get him to pump-fake more."
Some of those drives and fakes could be open 3s instead if Curry executes his patented side step while defenders fly by. The coaches are fine with Curry exchanging out a few of those if doing so also means excising the nuttiest 3s -- and getting Curry easy first quarter points. They believe Curry plays better if he gets in a good rhythm early. Taking a 50 percent midrange look is better than flinging one of Golden State's crazy home run passes -- plays of insanity in Kerr parlance -- in search of a highlight triple.
(As an aside, there is something charming about Klay Thompson refusing to pump-fake and leap into guys for cheap points. Thompson has taken 29 free throws all season. He has confidence in his shot, and won't alter it to draw contact. The man is a purist.)
But Curry is gone for a bit, and the gift he leaves behind is the answer to a question: What is this team with Durant, and without Curry? How will they adjust without overtaxing Livingston and Iguodala? They will lean on Durant more, and see what they have in McCaw, who might even get a chance to start. They would do well to revisit a hybrid lineup that phases in and out of Kerr's rotation: Thompson, Livingston, Iguodala, Durant, and David West.
They didn't have to remake themselves when Durant went out last season. They don't have time to remake themselves now, and they shouldn't. Part of them is probably excited for an invigorating new challenge, even if they would never want it under this circumstance.
"It'll be an opportunity to evaluate all types of things," Myers says. "You always learn in these moments."