Although Curry is scheduled to be reevaluated at the start of the playoffs, Warriors coach Steve Kerr has already said Curry won't play in the team's first-round series. That decision should have been expected anyway given the timetable for Grade 2 sprains like the one Curry suffered, which typically sideline players about six weeks.
So Golden State will have to win at least one playoff series without Curry, then hope to get him healthy for deeper rounds of the playoffs. How good are the Warriors without the two-time MVP? And how well should we expect Curry to play when he returns? Let's take a look.
How good will Golden State be without Curry?
The Warriors are 14-11 in games Curry has missed this season. However, in some of those games, none of Golden State's four All-Stars saw action. The other three besides Curry should be back in time for the postseason.
In games in which Golden State has its other three All-Stars healthy, but not Curry, the Warriors have gone 6-4 while playing at a level adjusted for opponent and location of about 3.4 points per 100 possessions better than an average team. That's about equivalent to the plus-3.6 net rating of the Utah Jazz, Golden State's most common first-round opponent in simulations using ESPN's Basketball Power Index.
Before you start predicting an upset, let's note that there's reason to believe that performance underrates the Warriors without Curry. Largely because of a dismal performance against the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 23, Golden State's offensive rating with the other stars but without Curry is just 0.6 points per 100 possessions better than its opponents typically allow. We'd expect more from a team that still boasts a former MVP in Kevin Durant plus the outside shooting of Klay Thompson.
In a playoff setting, Kerr will probably extend Durant's playing time beyond what he has played in the regular-season games Curry has missed (35.2 minutes per game), keeping a go-to scorer on the court as much as possible.
The depth chart at point guard also figures to be different in the playoffs. Quinn Cook, who has been starting at the point in Curry's absence over the past three weeks, isn't currently eligible to play in the postseason because he's on a two-way contract. Though the Warriors will surely waive a player to make room for converting Cook to a standard NBA contract before the playoffs, he's unlikely to play such heavy minutes as the 33.9 he's averaging in that span.
Veteran Shaun Livingston will probably see more action in the postseason -- he logged 27.7 minutes per game during the 2016 playoffs before Curry returned. Kerr might even toy with lineups that don't have a traditional point guard, using Durant, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala as primary ball handlers to get his best players on the court as much as possible in a competitive series.
Add in home-court advantage and Golden State should be favored against any possible first-round opponent. It's also a reach to suggest that teams in the bottom half of the West playoff race should prefer to play the Warriors rather than whichever teams end up third or fourth. Still, a first-round series without Curry looks much more competitive than one with him.
How well will Curry play when he returns?
Given the way Curry was limited in the 2016 playoffs after suffering an MCL sprain during the opening round, concern about his level of performance when he returns is understandable -- particularly given that this is a more serious injury. (Curry's 2016 MCL sprain was rated a Grade 1, the least severe category, and he missed only two weeks before returning.)
The good news is Curry's experience wasn't typical for players coming back from MCL sprains. For a more hopeful perspective, Golden State fans need look no further than Durant, who suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain in late February 2017 and returned near the end of the regular season. Durant certainly didn't appear hampered, as he was the best player on the court during the NBA Finals, winning MVP honors after the Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 4-1 for their second title in three years.
When Durant was preparing to come back, I took a look at the performance of players after Grade 2 MCL injuries. I started with a list compiled by Jeff Stotts of InStreetClothes.com in 2015 and added players who missed the typical time for a Grade 2 sprain but had no specific severity announced by their team.
Of that group, 15 players saw at least 250 minutes of action in the same season both before and after their MCL sprain. Here's how their performance in those spans compared.
Players actually had a slightly better rating per 36 minutes by John Hollinger's game score after the injury than before it. That's surely a fluke, but over the full sample of 28 players, performance after the injury was almost exactly what my SCHOENE projection system forecast for them before the season.
There is one interesting exception, which should be a concern with Curry: Players have not shot as well from 3-point range after returning from a Grade 2 MCL sprain as expected. Curry was, in fact, less accurate on 3s in the 2016 playoffs, shooting 40.2 percent after returning compared to 45.4 percent during the regular season. But the larger issue for Curry was inside the arc; he shot 56.6 percent on 2s during the regular season and just 48.5 percent in the playoffs.
Of course, every player and every injury is unique, so the average performance of all players with the same injury is only a guide to what we can expect. But the broader history does suggest a repeat of 2016 is unlikely. Golden State should expect to get Curry back at something close to full strength.