SAN FRANCISCO -- If you didn’t show up early, you missed it. About an hour before tipoff on Sunday, Stephen Curry put on a show with Golden State Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser, running through his signature pregame warmup and dazzling the fans with his effortless swishes from just about every spot inside halfcourt.
After about 20 minutes of the Curry show, it was John Wall’s turn. The Wizards’ five-time All-Star worked up a sweat on the other side of the floor, running through dribbling drills and jump shots before walking across halfcourt toward the tunnel. Once he reached the Warriors’ side of the floor, he looked around to see if any of his opponents in blue and yellow were coming around.
With the coast clear, Wall put the ball in his left hand, trotted toward the rim and skied for a left-handed tomahawk jam worthy of a dunk contest reel. That would be the last we’d see of Wall and Curry in action on Sunday.
With that, Curry and Wall -- two of the top four highest-paid players in the game -- went to their respective locker rooms, showered up and dressed in their street clothes to watch their teams play from the sidelines in a Sunday matinee. The Wizards won 124-110, giving the Warriors a league-high 48th defeat, another reminder of the void left by Curry’s increasingly long absence.
This is the new normal in the NBA. While many expected Curry to play on Sunday, the Warriors are taking extra precaution to make sure he’s ready. The same goes for Wall, who, in all likelihood, won’t return from his Achilles injury until next season when he’ll have accrued a staggering 21 months away from the game. Caution has become one of the NBA’s sexiest buzzwords, with star players seemingly taking longer and longer to suit back up.
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When Curry makes his highly-anticipated return this season, it’ll be a refreshing statement that the regular season does matter.
When it comes to major injuries to star players, it seems the timetable for return keeps getting stretched further and further in the regular season. Rather than have players return for the final month or two of the season like in Curry’s case, teams have often elected for the gap year. Here’s a quick summary of extended timetables to big-name players over the past couple years:
• Kristaps Porzingis took 20 months to return from his torn ACL suffered in February of 2018, an injury that typically comes with an 11-month recovery time. Porzingis is a bit of an anomaly at 7-foot-3 and transferring teams in the midst of his rehab, but it’s still nearly twice as long as what we normally see.
• Victor Oladipo, who suffered a torn quad tendon, was out for 12 months, more than five months longer than Tony Parker’s timetable in 2017 with a similar injury.
• John Wall, who hasn’t played in an NBA game since 2018 and suffered an Achilles rupture in February of last year, is still projected to miss the season. If he returns next October, 20 months will have passed since his Achilles procedure, 21 months since his last appearance in a game.
• Zion Williamson was projected by the New Orleans Pelicans to miss six to eight weeks after meniscus surgery. He ended up missing 13 weeks.
• DeMarcus Cousins took almost 12 months with his Achilles tear, slightly longer than the average timeline of 9.8 months. A 10-month timeline would have Kevin Durant returning sometime in April, but he’s expected to miss the season. Klay Thompson has already been declared out for the season as well.
• Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers’ starting center, has been sidelined 11 months with a compound fracture in his right leg and still has no timetable for return. The only comparable injury in recent NBA history was Paul George’s horrific injury in Las Vegas. It sidelined him for eight months. (You can quibble with Nurkic’s star designation here, but the Blazers’ spot in the standings say otherwise).
So, what’s going on here? Polling some executives over the past few weeks, it’s clear that the league over the years has shifted the power structure to appear more player-centric, erring on the side of caution to protect their star player and also demonstrate a certain appreciation for the player’s long-term career.
As for the origin of this recent trend, several pointed to a single event: Kawhi Leonard forcing his way out of San Antonio in 2018 after a disagreement over how to handle his quad issue.
“Kawhi scared the living hell out of everyone,” said one GM. “If it can happen to the Spurs, it can happen to anybody.”
Kawhi Leonard winning the 2019 NBA Finals after an aggressive rest strategy in Toronto also gave teams more validation in taking their time with a player’s injury recovery. Last week, the Minnesota Timberwolves were fined by the league for violating the league’s resting policy after resting a healthy D’Angelo Russell in the first night of a back-to-back set on Feb. 23. The Wolves issued a statement, defending their action:
“We are a player-centric organization that's focused on learning and optimizing our players' bodies. As a new player in our program, we chose to rest D'Angelo in order to learn his body better and to optimize his health during a difficult stretch of games and travel.”
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You couldn’t blame fans who were watching Sunday’s pregame performances and wondering why Curry and Wall couldn’t play. By the untrained eye, they certainly looked capable. Recovering from a broken hand, Curry had been eyeing this game for quite some time as his highly-anticipated return from four months of rehab. But late in the week, the Warriors decided to hold off at least for a few more days, sending Curry to scrimmage with its G League affiliate Santa Cruz Warriors. On Friday, the Warriors said they expect Curry to play “at some point in March.”
Perhaps it was destiny that Curry would sit Sunday out; the Warriors and Wizards rank No. 1 and No. 2 in most games lost due to injury this season, each logging over 250 player-games worth of unavailability, according to Man Games Lost injury tracking. Thompson, recovering from a torn ACL suffered in June, wasn’t in attendance and, like Wall, isn’t expected to return this season.
Curry coming back will be a huge lift for not just the Warriors, but the NBA as a whole. Ratings across the board have been in a tumble this season. The reasons for that audience decline can be debated ad nauseum, but it’s hard to get past Sunday’s Chase Center scene. The league’s best players were in street clothes or, in the case of Draymond Green (knee) and Thompson, not there at all.
The NBA needs the regular season to matter. Fair or not, each time a star player sits out in the regular season, it’s a signal to fans that regular season games just aren’t worth the risk. Over time, it’s worth wondering what that will do to trust in the product.
The Warriors certainly could have held Curry out for the season, protected his body from harm and maximized their draft night ping-pong balls. But instead, it’s expected Curry will suit up for the bulk of the final two months. It’s a little later than many expected, but the Warriors should have around 20 more games with their two-time NBA MVP this season.
Curry has been itching to come back. He privately targeted this game against the Washington Wizards as his return to the court and has been preparing as such behind the scenes. Whispers about the March 1 target date reached the public in mid-January and when reports surfaced a week ago that Curry would come back March 1, the Warriors weren’t exactly thrilled.
Shortly after the injury on Oct. 30, the Warriors sat down with Curry and his camp at Chase Center with an extremely detailed spreadsheet outlining the day-to-day rehabilitation schedule with specific target metrics and plans for each progression. Brandon Payne, Curry’s longtime trainer, was in that room and came out of it with confidence that Curry would be back stronger than ever.
“Really well planned out and detailed,” Payne said.
The Warriors’ medical staff has endured a brutal several months with high-profile injuries when stakes were highest. It’s impossible to view Curry’s timetable without considering that backdrop. The team is fighting a league-wide perception that players have strong-armed the team’s expert medical opinion. In an interview with Yahoo! Sports in August, Durant scoffed at the notion that the Warriors were to blame for his torn Achilles, saying he personally targeted Game 5 before the Finals even started. He played in Game 5, and the worst case scenario played out -- a torn Achilles.
Last month, DeMarcus Cousins, who has suffered a torn Achilles, torn quad and torn ACL in the past two years and change, told the “All The Smoke” podcast that he doesn’t regret fast-tracking his rehab from a torn quad to return to the NBA Finals, but admitted that he “had no business on the floor. None, whatsoever.”
Given their commentary, it’s understandable why the Warriors have stood firm on Curry’s return and pushed back on his wishes to return sooner. Team trainers and physicians are employed to protect the hyper-competitive players from themselves and outline the most medically-sound plan of action when it comes to their health. Cousins’ and Durant’s comments put the Warriors in a tough spot, suggesting that the players were willing to override the medical opinion and lay it all on the line for the potential glory of winning the Finals.
Curry returning in March, though a little later than he hoped, is a refreshing turn of events for those who want the regular season to have some juice while gap years seem to be considered the norm these days. This is not a knock on players or teams who are operating in good faith, utilizing the best medical data and expertise that billions can buy. When it comes to player health and careers at stake, exercising caution is a noble and worthy means to an end.
The Warriors are certainly doing that with Curry, even if it makes him frustrated in the short-term. But if we’re looking for reasons why NBA audiences seem to be shrinking, the longer timetables and sitting stars simply can’t be ignored as a factor. In the long run, taking a few extra months now could mean an extra year later in a player’s career. The hope is that fans will stick around long enough to see that benefit.