Opinions surrounding the Golden State Warriors varied entering the 2012-13 season, but there was one thing nearly everyone agreed on: The Warriors needed their two best players to buck their disturbing injury trends in order to compete for a playoff berth.
Nearly everyone was wrong.
Center Andrew Bogut, who was widely considered the Warriors most valuable player, played only four games before being shut down indefinitely. Despite the loss of the team's best interior defender and only starting-caliber center, Golden State had their best first half in over 20 years, going 26-17 before Bogut's return on Jan. 28.
People underestimated how good the 2012-13 Warriors could be without their star center. However, they also may have been wrong about whom the team's most indispensable piece is.
That title clearly belongs to 24-year-old Stephen Curry.
The fourth-year point guard is not only having a career year, but blossoming into the player that the Warriors only dreamed he would one day become.
Arguably the best shooter alive, Stephen Curry has greatly improved his passing, defense and court-awareness to become one of the better all-around players in the league and an elite NBA point guard.
While the Warriors certainly win with their entire roster, it has recently become abundantly clear that Curry is the team's most vital cog. Since Jan. 18, Curry has suffered two slight sprains to his troublesome right ankle.
Luckily, each sprain has only caused Curry to miss two games, and the Warriors are 2-2 in those contests. But a closer look reveals that the Warriors beat only a Cleveland team without a healthy Kyrie Irving and a Dallas team without Dirk Nowitzki (that was one foul call away from beating them in Oakland). The two quality opponents played during Curry's absences were San Antonio and Miami, and both made a Curry-less Warriors offense look dysfunctional and impotent.
This seemingly leaves Golden State in a predicament. On one hand, Curry's value to the team this season and for the long term is such that sitting him for an extended period of time appears worthwhile. At the same time, Curry's high value means that an extended absence could lead to the team plummeting down the standings.
Of course, Bogut's absence didn't hurt the Warriors in this way. But there are two dangerous assumptions made when using this argument. The first is that Curry and Bogut are of equal value. As I've already discussed, they are not.
The second is that Curry and Bogut have similar injury issues. This is where it gets problematic.
Andrew Bogut seems like a more "injury-prone" player than Stephen Curry, as he has missed 170 games over the past five seasons. While Curry's 52 games missed in three years is mild by comparison, the number of injuries Curry has suffered is much higher than Bogut.
It's likely even Curry has lost count of how many times he's sprained his right ankle during the past three seasons. Suffice to say it has been a far more frequent problem than Andrew Bogut's scattered freak injuries.
More importantly, the only thing we've really learned about Stephen Curry's ankle is that the best medicine for it is toughness.
Of course, a surgery to fix the ankle once and for all would be most preferable, but that surgery simply may not exist. Curry has already had multiple operations over the past couple years, and has sat for several months. Nothing has changed; Curry still rolls the ankle just about every time he lands awkwardly.
However, Curry has been gutting through the pain this season. He has seemingly accepted that his ankle will continue to bother him, and that the only way for him to have the career he wants is by learning to live with it.
In fact, the recurring injury has played an instrumental role in turning Curry into the all-star (or all-star snub) he is today. On the morning of Nov. 19, Curry was averaging 17 points, four assists, 40 percent shooting and 33 percent from behind the arc. That night in Dallas, Curry suffered his first ankle injury of the season early in the fourth quarter.
At that very moment, he took over the game. He finished with 31 points, including 20 in the fourth quarter and overtime. Since then, he has averaged 22 points, seven assists, 45-percent shooting and 49-percent three-point shooting.
The toughness Curry displayed in playing through that injury was arguably the single-most inspiring and defining moment for this Warriors team. He turned a situation that has done nothing but derail and demoralize in the past into fuel, becoming a true leader in the process.
For good measure, Curry's unstable ankle has helped the front office build a better basketball team. It allowed the team to tank and draft Harrison Barnes last season, prompted the acquisition of a potential starting point guard in Jarrett Jack over the summer, and allowed the Warriors to lock up an elite young player for the price of a good one.
None of this proves that Curry will remain healthy enough to play through injuries or just miss a couple games here and there. It's quite possible that Curry may hurt the ankle more severely and be forced to miss a large chunk of time.
This would be unfortunate, but the Warriors have no choice but to wait and cross that bridge if and when they get there. Curry is too valuable to a team that, at long last, is in "win-now" mode, and his absence from the lineup could very well set the franchise back—regardless of whether the absence is due to injury or precaution.