Biggest Question Marks for Golden State Warriors During Stephen Curry's Absence

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 7, 2017

Biggest Question Marks for Golden State Warriors During Stephen Curry's Absence

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The sky isn't falling on the Golden State Warriors, but the words "Stephen Curry" and "right ankle" were used in the same press release.

    All things considered, it could be much worse. While he won't be re-evaluated for another two weeks, an MRI revealed no structural damage and only a sprain to the twice surgically repaired joint. Provided nothing lingers, this might wind up functioning as an in-season recharge.

    It will prove revealing.

    Fans can debate the talents of the team's four All-Stars, but no one means more to the organization than its flame-throwing floor general. And without his once-in-forever skills simplifying the game for everyone around him, this is an opportunity to learn what happens to the machine and all its individual parts when Curry isn't at the controls.

Can the System Work Without Curry?

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    It sounds funny—foolish, even—to worry about an offense featuring Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Between the three All-Stars, they're supplying 56.1 points, 14.8 assists and 7.2 triples on a nightly basis. Durant and Thompson are both connecting on more than half of their field goals, and Green has only once topped his current three-point conversion rate (34.9).

    Golden State won't lose offensive functionality without Curry. But the attack could look significantly different and seems unlikely to maintain its historic efficiency.

    "We're faced with a real challenge. Steph is the guy that makes us go," head coach Steve Kerr said, per Bay Area News Group's Mark Medina. "We have great players, but Steph is the engine. Everything we do revolves around him."

    While ostensibly an egalitarian system, this offense has used Curry's evolutionary shooting to set everything in motion.

    Since he's in shooting range around half court and deadly off the dribble, he challenges basic defensive instincts and demands the attention of the entire opposition. He can pull multiple defenders 30 feet away from the basket, which gives his teammates more room to shoot, pass or cut. He adds immense value every possession, whether he's scoring, distributing or decoying.

    Golden State can replicate some of those skills, but no one else blends them all together. The offense has to concede something, which explains the steep decline of 12.4 points per 100 possessions when he sits.

    The Warriors won't look the same, perhaps more traditional without their improvisational leader. It could be a bumpy transition, but finding an identity that isn't as reliant on Curry could make this superpower even stronger.

Who Needs Curry Most?

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    As the offense changes minus Curry, so will the opportunities. Replacing an MVP's production likely means increasing the quantity of at least a handful of players, while the quality of attempts will decrease for everyone.

    "The Warriors can [...] afford to play a center without a viable shot when Curry is on the court," Bay Area News Group's Dieter Kurtenbach wrote. "[...] Kevin Durant rarely sees double teams, Klay Thompson, one of the greatest shooters to ever play, gets wide-open shots because Curry is pulling defenders his way, and Draymond Green can move with general impunity."

    Losing Curry, then, will spotlight who's best able to get by without him.

    Durant was an MVP before they joined forces, so he's least likely to suffer a great drop-off. That said, he lost nearly four field-goal percentage points (from 54.8 to 50.9) and nine from distance (39.6 to 30.6) when playing without Curry last season.

    Still, Durant fared better than most.

    Thompson was an elite shooter with Curry (54.3 overall, 51.3 outside) and really-good-but-not-great without (47.0, 42.1). Green was passable with his point guard (43.3, 33.0) and almost unplayable without (35.5, 24.6). Zaza Pachulia (54.3 to 44.0) and JaVale McGee (67.8 to 54.1) both plummeted at least 10 field-goal percentage points, as the non-Curry attack created congestion inside the arc.

    Everyone will feel his absence as lanes shrink, spot-up chances surface less frequently and the healthy All-Stars receive more defensive attention. But the more intel Kerr collects about each player's dependence on Curry, the easier it will be to build rotations that come closer to contributing 48 minutes of dominance.

Will This Sharpen Their Execution?

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Kerr tried to warn everyone—motivation is hard to manufacture on the heels of two world titles amid three straight Finals trips. And even though the Warriors are holding the NBA's best net efficiency, at different times they've looked drained and/or disinterested.

    Part of it is the physical price of historic success. Those three runs to the championship round have almost added an extra season to their odometer (62 games). Then, they've had promotional commitments, off-court endeavors, the 2016 Olympics (for Durant, Green and Thompson) and a trip to China during this year's truncated preseason. 

    They're also combatting mental fatigue. Hooping in June is unequivocally a good thing, but it doesn't change the fact they've lost out on vacation time and added prolonged periods demanding laser focus and hyper-competitiveness.

    “You exhaust your mind," Durant said, per Medina. "You play on a winning basketball team, and you're trying to win a championship. The mental part of it may be more exhausting than the physical."

    Oh, and they've spent most of this time being told by everyone (outside of Northeast Ohio) how great they are. And they've seen those words validated through a 73-win season and a 16-1 march through the playoffs.

    They aren't all the way engaged, and the numbers can attest to that. Their six losses are only two fewer than they suffered through the first 26 games of the last three seasons combined. Their worst winning percentage under Kerr has been .817; they're currently at .769. Their turnover percentage (15.9) and defensive rating (101.7) set or match the worst marks of his tenure.

    But this is where adversity can help—albeit with the admission the Warriors would much rather have a healthy Curry. Their cushion is considerably smaller without him, so they can't be as casual with their play. 

Is KD Ready to Lead?

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Consider all prior debates on Golden State's hierarchy to be time wasted.

    Any time multiple stars join forces, there's a fascination over how the power structure will take shape. But that presupposes all parties involved are clamoring for the top spot.

    As Durant relayed to GQ's Zach Baron, leadership wasn't something he sought during his move to the Bay:

    "Steph Curry is the face of the franchise, and that helps me out, because I don't have to. I don't want to have to be the leader. I'm not a leader. I'm bad at saying, 'Stand behind me and follow me.' No. I'm one of those guys that's just like, 'Let's do this s--t together. Let's just work everybody together. I don't mind being on the front line with you, but let's come and do it together.' That's my of leadership."

    That might not work with Curry out of the equation.

    While Golden State gets a lot of its emotional leadership from Green, his fire requires a cool complement. These players can't hear the voice of the short-fused forward/center only.

    When Curry sees a teammate overheating—a more frequent occurrence of late—he'll use his calming influence like a bucket of ice water. Livingston and Andre Iguodala bring a similar demeanor, but Durant's superior stats and stature would give his words a greater impact. Of course, if he's the one melting down, he can't save himself.

    His 2017 Finals MVP proves he's already made an indelible mark on this franchise, but this is his chance to add a second stamp. Curry carried the Dubs when Durant went down last season (26.9 points and 7.8 assists over 18 outings), and now Durant can return the favor.

Does Quinn Cook Have NBA Talent?

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    The Warriors used a literal interpretation of the next-man-up policy, moving Quinn Cook out of the G League—where he's been playing on a two-way contract—and into their first Curry-less starting group.

    This might be the break the 24-year-old has needed. Cook was an All-American and a national champion at Duke, but that wasn't enough to earn a selection in the 2015 draft. Every year since, he's been signed by an NBA team in September and then waived in October.

    But he's made the most of the few opportunities thrown his way. He won the developmental league's Rookie of the Year in 2015-16 and has continued to star at that level. At the time of his call-up, he was averaging 25.1 points, 8.4 assists and 5.6 rebounds in Santa Cruz. And while he's only played 18 NBA games, his career per-36-minute averages are 14.6 points on 50.0 percent shooting (40.6 outside) and 5.3 assists.

    "You see some of these guys, and I wonder why they're on a regular deal in the NBA and Quinn's not," Green said, per Bay Area News Group's Logan Murdock. "It's pretty ridiculous to me."

    Cook could make a lot of people agree with Green's assessment if he hits open shots, takes care of the basketball and plays energetic defense.

    But that's assuming Cook finally gets a real chance to showcase his talent at this level. His starting nod coincided with the absences of Patrick McCaw and Green, aka the team's assist leader and perhaps its preferred pick to keep Curry's seat warm.

    In other words, a rotation spot is far from being set in stone. However, he interested the Dubs enough to give him this look, and they're not exactly overflowing with young, cheap guards.

          

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.