The bottom half of the Western Conference playoff picture is extremely tight. For the Stephen Curry-less Golden State Warriors, that race suddenly matters.
There is no silver lining to Stephen Curry‘s MCL sprain for the Golden State Warriors, but there is one for basketball fans. Instead of waiting through a tedious month for the Warriors to face the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, the first round is now exciting.
Basketball fans should still want to see a fully healthy Curry, but if his absence leads to a more thrilling Round 1 and he returns at full strength come May, that won’t be the worst thing in the world.
Of course, everyone has a different prerogative. The Warriors have no interest in an exciting first round; they want to win as quickly as possible so that they can focus on rest and rehab. The Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers want Golden State to land a tougher draw — if not to knock them out completely, then certainly to wear them down. As for NBA fans with no particular rooting interest, they just want to be entertained.
Keeping those three groups in mind, let’s take a look at the best possible Warriors first round matchups. The Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz are all within 2.0 games of the No. 7 seed, making this the field of potential opponents for the almost-certain No. 2-seeded Warriors.
Easiest: New Orleans Pelicans
Really it’s the Clippers, but they feel like a cheap answer here. With only a 41 percent chance to make the playoffs according to FiveThirtyEight, their odds of ending up in the No. 7 seed are slim. The Nuggets’ chances are far slimmer than that, with only a 12 percent likelihood of making the playoffs at all.
New Orleans has an 84 percent chance at getting in, and is currently a half-game above the No. 7 Timberwolves. The Warriors should hope they slip.
Anthony Davis might be the best player the Golden State can face in the first round. We are unlikely to see a 100 percent version of Kawhi Leonard, and Davis has ascended above Russell Westbrook as an impact player this season.
Still, he is a solo act. As one, the Warriors will defend him like they do Westbrook. Davis can get his shots, but as long as Golden State denies easy buckets by conceding the jumper and doubling him down low, he won’t be able to be efficient enough to win a game single-handedly, let alone four of seven.
DeMarcus Cousins would have made a huge difference here. He would not only give the Warriors a second superstar to account for, but one that they simply could not match up against while playing their optimal lineups.
And then there’s the whole “Who guards Kevin Durant?” question.
Curry or no Curry, the Warriors should handle the Pelicans. They are the only matchup outside of Denver and Los Angeles we can say that about.
Hardest: Minnesota Timberwolves
I get that the Utah Jazz have outscored the Warriors by 49 points over their last two meetings, and that a defensive powerhouse is bad news for the Curry-less Warriors.
What people tend to forget, however, is that the Warriors can defend, too. We saw Durant, Thompson and Draymond Green wreak havoc on Utah’s offense last postseason, while Gobert struggled to defend in space. Curry — Rudy Gobert‘s kryptonite — might not play, but neither will Gordon Hayward, who was Utah’s only viable option to guard Durant last year.
Assuming Jimmy Butler is back, Minnesota has a guy to throw on KD. Their lack of other wing defenders and rim protection is extremely troubling against a full-strength Warriors team, but with Curry out and Thompson potentially compromised offensively, they can get away with this so long as Butler glues himself to Durant.
KD should still win that matchup, but if it is close at all, the Warriors are in trouble. When these teams faced off on March 11, Karl-Anthony Towns proved that he is among the toughest covers in the league for Green. His post game is absolutely devastating, and he has grown as a passer to the point where doubling is extremely risky.
Play a stronger guy such as Zaza Pachulia on him, and the Wolves feast on open 3s, either from Towns or from teammates he frees up with screens. Guard him out there, and the paint is wide open. Butler, Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague will attack the cup at will, while Taj Gibson annihilates the offensive glass.
Golden State should still be favored against the Wolves. Durant is the best player on either side, and Thompson and Green are not far off from Butler and Towns as a duo, if at all. But Minnesota has a real chance to send the Warriors home in Round 1, despite how weird it feels to say.
Most exciting: Oklahoma City Thunder
The Warriors are a shell of themselves without Curry, and Oklahoma City is the most talent-laden team they might encounter in Round 1. Even so, I am of the belief that Golden State would be better off with this matchup than one against Minnesota — or one against Utah or San Antonio, for that matter.
Think about the matchups. The Warriors can throw any combination of Thompson, Durant, Green and Andre Iguodala on Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Those three guys can still do damage, but all four of those Golden State defenders are capable in any of those matchups.
Even though the Warriors have just two offensive stars sans Curry, Oklahoma City has less versatility against them. George can guard Durant or Thompson, and that’s about it. Andre Roberson is out, and all of OKC’s other theoretical impact defenders — Westbrook, Steven Adams, Corey Brewer, Jerami Grant, Terrance Ferguson and Patrick Patterson — are exploitable in terms of size, quickness, proneness to lapses or a combination thereof.
Moreover, while the Warriors are likely to have their four best defenders on the court in every big moment due to their two-way value, the Thunder will be forced to choose between playing defensive liabilities in Anthony, Alex Abrines and Raymond Felton, or offensive ones in Brewer, Grant, Patterson or Josh Huestis.
Regardless of any of that, this series would be a ton of fun.
The star power, the rivalry, the clash in styles, the opportunity to see a Westbrook-led team take on a Durant-led team with massive stakes — this is the matchup every NBA fan should root for.