All of a sudden, the Golden State Warriors look mortal.
Just a month ago they were seemingly breaking records on a nightly basis, but after dropping four-straight for the first time in the Steve Kerr-era, they got past the Trail Blazers and needed dynamic fourth quarter performances in back-to-back games to beat the Sacramento Kings and Orlando Magic at home. A monster performance from Kevin Durant wasn't enough to get the Warriors past the league's hottest team in Toronto.
This flip in fortune wasn't random. It occurred at the exact moment Steph Curry landed awkwardly and strained his groin at the end of a 23-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks three weeks ago.
Since the injury, the Warriors went just 5-6 and their offensive rating went from an astronomic 118.8 to just 109.7 in their 11 Curry-less games.
Really, this isn't a new development at all. The Warriors have always looked human without Curry, but this team was supposed to be above the simple bumps in the road that burden the rest of the league. Even with Draymond Green sidelined as well, they have Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. It should work, but Curry's impact is so great that it can't.
The fundamentals of the team's offence are so heavily predicated on what Curry does to a defence that much of Golden State's system ceases to function in his absence.
Without Curry leading the way, the Warriors are simply a different team.
Settling for Mid-Rangers
Since their first title season in 2014-15, the Warriors have been seen as a 3-point shooting juggernaut. While that held true through 2015-16, it has become less and less accurate over time since Durant's arrival.
In 2014-15 the Warriors were second in the league with 10.8 made 3s per game. They jumped to first with 13.1 3s in 2015-16, but have gradually fallen to fourth, eighth and now ninth in the three seasons since. They're still taking 3s - in fact, they're making more this season than they did in 2014-15 - the rest of the league has just caught up.
Without Curry, however, the Warriors become one of the league's worst 3-point shooting teams. Since his injury, the Warriors are 24th in made 3s with 9.7 per game and 20th in 3PT% at just 34.4 percent. Without Curry pulling defenders out beyond 30 feet, the open 3s the few remaining shooters on the roster have become accustomed to just aren't available. Defences can key-in on Durant and Thompson on the perimeter, forcing both players to settle for mid-range jumpers.
Durant operating in that area isn't really the problem. He's shooting 55.1 percent on mid-range jumpers since Curry went down and his ability to remain efficient while taking tough, traditionally inefficient shots is part of the reason he's such a dynamic offensive force. More concerning is that the rest of the team - and Thompson in particular - are falling into the same tendencies.
For the first time in his career, Thompson is taking more mid-range jumpers than 3-pointers. He's still a marginally effective shooter from mid-range without Curry (45.7 percent) but that's his least efficient area on the floor. Even if he's knocking them down, defences would much prefer he sticks to mid-rangers rather than attack the rim or launch 3s.
As a team, the Warriors are leading the league with 27.0 mid-range attempts per game since Curry's injury. They've gotten so comfortable knowing Durant or Thompson can bail them out of a bad possession with a late mid-range jumper that it has become a crutch for the offence. It often works just given Durant's greatness, but it's a dangerous tendency that relies too heavily on making difficult shots.
A Change of Pace
When the Warriors are at full strength, they're devastating in transition. They thrive in the chaos, knowing the defence will inevitably lose Curry, Durant or Thompson in the shuffle and allow an open look from three or at the rim.
The Warriors were the tenth-fastest team in the league before Curry's injury but have slowed to the 27th-fastest pace without him . Their fast-break points have dropped by 7.8 per game and they've become complacent to play a slower, congested half-court game that feeds into their mid-range tendencies.
It's worth mentioning that Green has also missed eight of the 10 games since Curry's injury. He's isn't your traditional offensive weapon, but Green is an incredibly important offensive catalyst. His ability to grab defensive rebounds and immediately start the break allows shooters to fill lanes for easy transition looks, and his loss has only exacerbated the transition problems.
Shouldn't Durant and Thompson be enough?
In theory, Durant and Thompson should be able to keep the offence afloat. Even with Green and Curry in street clothes, plenty of teams operate high-level offences without the Warriors talent, but Golden State continues to struggle.
Largely, it comes down to the missing creation. Curry and Green are Golden State's two best passers, ball-pushers and assist leaders. The Warriors have led the league in assists for each of the past four seasons, but without Curry, they've averaged the tenth-most assists in the league and are totalling 11.7 fewer points off assists per game.
Durant and Thompson can survive without the easy looks those passes create, but the other Warriors struggle to score at all. They can still win this way, they just need superhuman performances on a nightly basis. In their last two wins, the Warriors needed 44 and 49 point nights from Durant to get past Sacramento and Orlando. Despite Durant's 51-point performance in Toronto, the Warriors fell to the Raptors in overtime Thursday night.
We know Durant is capable of putting up 40 points pretty routinely, but without Curry that has become a prerequisite to a Warrior victory.
In the big picture, these are pretty insignificant problems. Most teams expect to crumble without their offensive star, but the Warriors can just lean a little more on their other MVP and limp to 5-6. They'll still win games, they'll just look a whole lot more human while doing so.
Maybe more than anything, that is what makes Curry so special. With him, the Warriors might just be the best collection of talent the league has ever seen. Without him, despite two future Hall-of-Famers, the Warriors struggle for mediocrity.
If Golden State loses Durant, Thompson or Green for a week, the Death Star keeps on humming; but Curry misses time and the team forgets how to function without him. Curry has been the best player in the league this season when healthy but, in many ways, his absence reminded us of his importance far more than his play ever could.