When Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors this past offseason, there was a sizable contingent of fans and commentators who bemoaned the move not out of a sense of impropriety or imbalance, but rather out of a sense that it would turn the regular season into a car ride across South Dakota. Sure, you end up at Mount Rushmore, but there’s jack squat to see along the way.
For a moment on Tuesday night after Zaza Pachulia’s admittedly large and inherently weaponized skull crashed into Kevin Durant’s left knee – on 3/1 eve, no less, after the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals last year – it looked like the “Check Engine” light might have just come on for Golden State’s season. That the injury turned out not to be a fracture or tear that would end his season, but a Grade 2 MCL sprain and bone bruise that would keep him out for four weeks before being re-evaluated, was some comfort to Warriors fans, but likely not much of a silver lining for fans of other teams. After all, without Durant last year, the Warriors merely won 73 games and came within a few minutes of being repeat champs. On any other team, losing a player of Durant’s caliber even for a month might reasonably torpedo any title hopes. For Golden State, this is like finding out your Bugatti’s in the shop, so you have to settle for a Ferrari, a Porsche and a Range Rover that likes to kick people in the nuts.
In short, the 50-10 Warriors might slip over the next several weeks, they might even slip behind the San Antonio Spurs in the standings, but they’re not suddenly heading to Draft Express to size up lottery picks. In fact, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that this ultimately helps the Warriors in certain ways.
Yes, this might well be a crisitunity. Consider 2015-16, when Golden State looked every bit the unstoppable juggernaut. In the regular season, they never lost back-to-back games and didn’t lose at home until they dropped the 76th game of the year to the Celtics. They lost a middling number of games to injury, but of the contending teams they lost a relatively small amount of salary to those injuries. Their starters stayed healthy in the regular season. The injury that hurt them the most was Steph Curry’s in the first round against the Houston Rockets – it could (and has been) argued that Curry was never 100 percent after that for the rest of the postseason. Without Curry’s full offensive spark, the team stumbled. Durant’s signing was in some ways a hedge against that happening again, the team doubling down on some superstar insurance.
It would be hard to call an offense as dynamic and thrilling as the Warriors’ was last year stagnant, but as their frustration grew over the course of their difficult series against the Oklahoma City Thunder and then in their ultimately fatal series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, it sometimes felt like they didn’t have a sense of how to adjust. When Klay Thompson went off in Game 6 against the Thunder by making 11 3-pointers and scoring 41 points, that was the kind of adjustment they needed to fluidly move into and out of more often. Instead, they got bogged down in flashy but too often stultifying play – nowhere more symbolically than when Curry tried and failed to break down Kevin Love on the final possession of the series. When things didn’t go their way, you could almost feel their frustration with the refusal of the fabric of the game to bend to their whim.
So maybe, just maybe, this Durant injury is the kind of obstacle they need to break themselves against to come back stronger. No one should wish an injury on a player, and even if it’s not as serious as at first thought, Durant is hurting and will have to work hard to come back if he wants to be ready for the stretch run and the postseason. But life – and especially competition – is less about getting everything lined up just right and staying there and more about getting there, then getting knocked off, then getting back there, then getting knocked off again.
It was tempting before the season began to feel like a rematch between the Warriors and the Cavaliers was a fait accompli, the preordained climax to a season without drama. This wasn’t a case of being impatient for the destination at the expense of the journey. We desperately wanted the journey to matter but were worried it wouldn’t. What Durant’s injury reminds us is that even if the destination stays the same, the journey is rarely as straight a line as we think it will be and sometimes the twists and turns along the way can substantially change what the destination looks like when we get there.