— -- The MVP is hurt, and that changes the championship outlook for the Golden State Warriors. But how much? Can they still win the title? Or could they suddenly be underdogs to the Los Angeles Clippers in the next round?
When Stephen Curry slipped to the court awkwardly just before halftime of Sunday's Game 4 against the Houston Rockets, the Warriors were forced to confront the possibility of trying to win a second consecutive title without their star.
Curry was diagnosed with a sprained knee, and an MRI scheduled for Monday will determine the severity and help set a timetable for his absence.
With Curry playing barely more than two halves in the series (an ankle sprain knocked him out of Game 1), the Warriors have been able to beat the self-destructing Rockets in two of the past three games to take a 3-1 lead in the series.
Assuming the Warriors can survive the Rockets, let's do the math on how the Warriors' chances shape up without Curry.
Warriors still elite without Curry
A simple first glance at Golden State's performance without Curry creates a misleading impression.
According to NBA.com/Stats, the Warriors were outscored by 3.7 points per 100 possessions during the regular season with Curry on the bench -- the same net rating as the Denver Nuggets, who went 33-49.
Remember, though, that most of those minutes came with Golden State's second unit on the court or sometimes even the third string to close out one of the Warriors' many blowout wins.
When we break down Golden State's performance sans Curry by who else was playing using NBAwowy.com, it's clear Golden State is still an elite team, as long as Curry's fellow All-Stars Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are out there.
Because Curry missed just three games and Warriors coach Steve Kerr tended to play his starting lineup together rather than staggering minutes, Green and Thompson were on the bench with Curry about half the time he was out of games during the regular season.
A better way to estimate Golden State's level of play without Curry is by using the multiyear version of ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM).
RPM suggests the Warriors are 1.6 points per 100 possessions better than league average on offense without Curry. That rate would made Golden State about the NBA's eighth best offensive team (tied with Houston).
On defense, the Warriors would rate third in the league, at 4.4 points per 100 possessions better than league average (behind only San Antonio and Atlanta).
So, using the minutes distribution we saw in Games 2 and 3, with Curry out, the Warriors would be about 6.0 points per 100 possessions better than the league average overall. That is a slightly better than Cleveland (at 5.8), and it translates to about 57 wins over a full season.
That estimate is similar to how Las Vegas has treated the Curry-less Warriors this series. The final line for Game 2 favored Golden State by 8.5 points at home after Curry was ruled out, and the Warriors were 3.5-point favorites for Game 3 on the road, suggesting that gamblers consider Golden State about six points better than the Rockets on a neutral court. The line went up just five points (to the Warriors as 8.5-point favorites) for Game 4, when Curry was available.
Two or three teams would be favored over Golden State
Assuming Golden State finishes off Houston, next up will be the winner of the 4-5 series, where the Clippers lead the Portland Trail Blazers 2-1.
Even without Curry, the Warriors would be heavy favorites over the Blazers, who had a plus-0.5 net rating during the regular season.
A Warriors-Clippers matchup without Curry would be much more even. The Clippers' plus-5.6 net rating this year was similar to our estimate for the Warriors, suggesting the teams would be close to even on a neutral court. Fortunately for Golden State, they'd have the home-court advantage in the series. As a result, I estimate the Warriors would beat the Clippers a little less than 60 percent of the time.
The injury Curry suffered is consistent with a sprained MCL, and according to Jeff Stotts of Rotowire.com, the average recovery time from a low-grade (or non-severe) MCL injury is a little more than two weeks. Such a timetable would put Curry's return at somewhere from Games 3 to 5 of a second-round series.
Curry's potential return would have the most impact before the hypothetical series shifts to L.A. for Games 3 and 4. Even without Curry, I project nearly a 50 percent chance Golden State would win the first two games at home. But the Clippers would be favored to win their home games if Curry is out, something that wouldn't likely be true if he were available.
If the Warriors were to reach the conference finals but had to play without Curry, the path would become much more difficult. The net rating of one potential opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder, is 6.9, which is better than our estimate for Golden State without Curry.
And the Spurs are at 11.8, far ahead of the Warriors without Curry.
Golden State would have home-court advantage in either series, but I estimate the Warriors would be about 50-50 to beat Oklahoma City and would have just a 20 percent chance of beating San Antonio without Curry in their toughest possible matchup.
In the worst-case scenario, where Curry's knee injury keeps him out the remainder of the postseason, Golden State would be favored against any Eastern Conference contender except Cleveland. By my estimates, the Warriors would have only a 40 percent chance of beating the Cavs without Curry.
What are the odds?
I estimate only a 5 percent to 10 percent chance of the Warriors winning the title, depending on matchups, if Curry doesn't return at all.
Most likely, depending on the results of Monday's MRI, Golden State won't have to confront that doomsday scenario. While any extended absence from the MVP will be tricky to navigate, the Warriors have enough healthy talent on hand that they should be able to survive if Curry misses part or all of the next round.
If they can survive that round, the real trouble begins. And the Warriors hope they don't have to find out the hard way exactly how good -- or not -- they are without their superstar.