Warriors Panic Meter: Stephen Curry Injury Can Doom Golden State's Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured Columnist IVDecember 16, 2022

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - DECEMBER 13: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors walks backcourt during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks at Fiserv Forum on December 13, 2022 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Bucks defeated the Warriors 128-111. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Go ahead and smash those Golden State Warriors panic buttons you've been staring at, maybe even nervously thumbing, for most of this season.

Stephen Curry is set to miss "a few weeks" after suffering a left shoulder injury on Wednesday night against the Indiana Pacers, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. He isn't expected to need surgery and will be re-evaluated in two weeks, per The Athletic's Shams Charania.

The Warriors are now free to enter Existential Crisis Mode accordingly.

Full-blown dread is not a knee-jerk overreaction to Steph's injury. The absence of a concrete timetable beyond "a few weeks" does little to assuage fears. Frankly, this ambiguous wording and lack of context only amplifies the cause for alarm.

Maybe "a few weeks" really is just a few weeks—as in, like, two or three. We know that's not how re-evaluations work, but for argument's sake, let's say he's back in that time. Great. Grand. Wonderful.

Dr. Nirav Pandya, M.D. @DrNiravPandya

Shoulder subluxation = shoulder partially comes out of the joint. When it does so, the labrum is damaged. Mean return to play timeline for NBA players who have this injury is 3-4 weeks. <a href="https://t.co/ZcCS0DfR7V">https://t.co/ZcCS0DfR7V</a>

One thing, though: The Warriors don't have "a few weeks."

They sit one game under .500 at the time of this news, clinging to 10th place in the Western Conference and what would be the final play-in spot. Optimists will note that they are a mere five games back of the first-place—checks notes—New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies. Cool. Realists will (rightfully) counter by pointing out the Dubs are only 4.5 games in front of the 15th-place San Antonio Spurs.

This is all to say: Golden State's margin for error does not exist. The NBA is enjoying thermonuclear levels of parity right now, and the Warriors burned whatever breathing room they had on juggling (read: fumbling) visions of two timelines and on rest nights and off-efforts they weren't and still aren't actually good enough to have:

Shohei Ohtani Stan Account @AndyKHLiu

Charlotte, Detroit, Orlando, Dallas, Indiana, Utah, Indiana Ls. All awful unserious Ls that if the Warriors had simply won 3/4 out of the 7, they'd be in a good place to weather this Steph injury. But they've not 1. built the roster to maximize wins nor has

Shohei Ohtani Stan Account @AndyKHLiu

2. the coaching staff tried to develop guys to be better than their bad vet pickups<br><br>Now the Warriors have to decide whether to make a move soon or sit and wait on a season slipping away quick...

Going "a few weeks" without Steph in this competitive climate can absolutely torpedo the Warriors' already-fragile season. They can barely survive even a few minutes without him.

Golden State has outscored opponents by 145 points in the 894 minutes he's been on the floor. And it has lost the 503 minutes he's spent on the bench by 127 points. Steph's overall net-rating swing is still one of the six largest in the league, regardless of playing time, and the Warriors see both their offensive rating (17.8-point drop) and effective field-goal percentage (8.3-point drop) descend into hopelessness when he's on the sidelines.

Theoretically, this is why you extended Jordan Poole on a nine-figure deal. There is no replacing Steph's impact, neither on nor off the ball. And no team in the league is built to withstand the loss of 30.0 points and 6.8 assists on 66.8 true shooting, endless three-point volume and range and defense-warping movement.

Still, Poole is supposed to represent the pinnacle of Golden State's multi-timeline project, the ascending star who's both ready now yet not anywhere near his prime. The idea of his ball-handling and finishing and self-creation and table-setting should be the vehicle through which the Warriors navigate Steph's stint on the shelf.

In practice, though, Poole isn't ready. At least, he's not playing like it.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 14: Jordan Poole #3 of the Golden State Warriors dribbles the ball against the Indiana Pacers on December 14, 2022 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Career-high usage is accompanied by a personal-worst turnover rate and his lowest true shooting percentage since he was a rookie. His three-point clip has dipped below 32 percent for the year and has hovered beneath 30 percent for more than half the season. His 53.4 percent shooting inside the arc is a breath of fresh air, and he's knocking down 67.2 percent of his looks within five feet since mid-November. But there is more variance caked into his perimeter game than ever.

Poole posted an effective field-goal percentage of 48.3 on his pull-up jumpers last season—unspectacular but not necessarily dire. That number has plunged to 42.4 this year. Equally problematic, Poole has gone from burying 37.9 percent of his catch-and-fire triples to just 34.7 percent. And he's been even worse since mid-November.

Granted, the best version of Poole hasn't routinely qualified as an offensive lifeline independent of Steph. Look at where Golden State's offense has ranked during Poole's solo minutes the past three years:

This is not Poole's failure alone. More than anything, it reiterates the immense and immeasurable value of Steph. This season, especially, it's also an indictment of the front office and its decision to tether too much of the second unit's livelihood to prospects and unprovens and JaMychal Green.

To their credit, the Warriors have discovered some semblance of balance by adding Draymond Green to bench-heavier combos. They have actually outscored opponents by 4.3 points per 100 possessions, with a top-tier defensive rating, when he headlines Steph-less lineups. Jonathan Kuminga is coming along, at both ends, too.

That's big. It is not a panacea.

There's a difference between surviving extended stretches against non-starters and turning this setup into your entire existence. And that's before accounting for Andrew Wiggins' own absence. He hasn't played since Dec. 3 after suffering an adductor injury.

More urgently than ever, the Warriors must now look inward and decide, once and for all, whether it's officially time to look outward.

sam esfandiari @samesfandiari

OR they lose something like 13 out of 14 and every player w/ a sizable contract is up for trade @ deadline to lower tax bill and tank

If they care at all about this season, about respecting Steph's timeline when he returns, they will make a trade. It doesn't necessarily need to be for a star. They might have the ammo, but that market doesn't seem to exist right now.

Targeting flat-out upgrades is fine. A stretchy big who can still move to pair with Kuminga, depth and size on the wings and, of course, another ball-handler or self-starter who doesn't crimp the spacing would all be essential additions. But the Warriors must commit to ponying up for them.

Maybe that involves selling low on James Wiseman, who got recalled from the G League on Thursday, or Moses Moody. Perhaps it involves flipping a draft pick. Or draft picks, plural. (Kuminga should be off-limits in non-star trades.)

Surrendering any one of these chips or some combination of everything will sting. Parting with Wiseman, specifically, mandates a level of self-awareness the Warriors brass has not yet indulged—an admission that, yeah, they f--ked up in the 2020 draft, and then again over the 2022 offseason by still not doing something about it.

That's hard to do under any circumstances. It's even tougher when you're talking about turning a 21-year-old No. 2 pick into someone like Josh Richardson or Kelly Olynyk or P.J. Washington or Mo Bamba or Eric Gordon or Jae Crowder. It's much less painful if that someone is on the scale of, say, Myles Turner. But you're not getting him for Wiseman and filler alone.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - NOVEMBER 19: Myles Turner #33 of the Indiana Pacers and Mo Bamba #11 of the Orlando Magic battle for a loose ball in the fourth quarter at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on November 19, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

There is, of course, a chance the Warriors take the more patient approach. They could use Steph's absence to double-down on self-exploration and see what they have without their franchise lifeblood and hope they'll have enough time upon his return to put it all together.

They could also just not care what becomes of this season. They own their first-round pick and aren't exactly worlds away from spiffy lottery odds. Prioritizing development for prospects and unknowns and then rest for the vets in the name of an impromptu gap year is technically on the table. They could then recalibrate over the offseason, with a better idea of who they are outside Steph and another glitzy prospect to peddle or groom.

This latter scenario would certainly be a choice. Klay Thompson turns 33 in February. Green turns 33 in March and hits free agency at season's end (player option). Steph will celebrate his 35th birthday in March, as well. Golden State's core is not designed to just punt on another year and regroup.

That's the dilemma, the same as it's ever been: The Warriors cannot cater to one timeline without entirely jeopardizing or damaging the other. There might be a right answer (maximize Steph's window), but there's not an easy one.

Whether Golden State even has a choice anymore is debatable. There's nothing it can do without Steph to improve its position. Anything the Warriors do will be meant to bide time and re-optimize the roster once he's back. But how can they do anything, at all, without knowing for sure how long the one player they couldn't ever afford to lose will be sidelined?

Truthfully, the Warriors already made their decision. They opted for dual agendas, and in doing so, they missed their window to make a move, expand their margin for error and maybe, possibly withstand a blow such as this.

And their season may have just ended because of it.

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Thursday's games. Salary information via Spotrac.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and subscribe to the Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes.