SB Nation

Paul Flannery | March 29, 2015

Sunday Shootaround

No one can stop the Warriors

No one can stop the Warriors

When faced with a season as long as the NBA's, it's helpful to view it less as a collection of random events and more as a series of interwoven storylines. Someone will struggle, which will allow others to thrive. As observers, we will rewrite our stories to keep up with the evolving arc as we transition between plot devices.

The Cavaliers were a mess, until they got it together. The Hawks were a surprise, until they weren’t. The Spurs looked vulnerable, until they didn’t. And so on. While the season itself is a grind, things can change quickly. Miss a week or two and it feels like you’re starting over from scratch. The 76ers have a top-10 defense?

There’s been one story, however, that’s been consistent from the opening tip. The Golden State Warriors have been the best team in the league and it’s not really close. In fact, the Warriors have made a persuasive argument that they should rank among the most dominant regular season teams of the last 20 years.

They not only have the league’s best record, they also have the top-rated offense and defense per nba.com/stats. The last team to achieve that distinction was the ‘96 Bulls. Per 100 possessions, the Warriors outscore their opponents by more than a dozen points per game, which is almost double that of the next closest team, the Clippers. No other team has come close to equaling that kind of differential between first and second place this century.

The Warriors began the season by winning five straight games. They lost two and then ripped off 16 more wins, cementing their place at the top of the standings. That two-game losing streak equaled their longest skid, which has happened only two other times this season. Each blip has been met with a resounding answer. They’ve beaten every team in the league at least once and don’t have a losing record against anyone.

The Warriors have been so good we’ve become numb to their success. Instead, we’ve spent months contorting ourselves into various positions and predictions while the answer has been as clear as it was back in November. Unlike the Hawks, they have tons of individual star power. Unlike the Cavaliers, they have been together for years. Unlike most of the other contenders in the West, they have depth and relatively good health on their side.

This isn’t to say that the Warriors have been overlooked. No team has had more in-depth features written about them than Golden State. From the coaching transition to the front office machinations to quote machines like Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green, the Warriors have provided great copy all season. They wear their status well, with an ease that suggests they know just how good they’ve been.

Still, many seem reluctant to acknowledge their dominance. Their resistance often drips with old-school nostalgia. A common complaint is that jump-shooting teams don’t win championships, which completely ignores what the Spurs did last season. Wait until the postseason when the games will slow down and opponents will get more physical -- that’s another popular theory. Except that no one has been able to do that yet and all we have to go on is the here and now.

You can’t compete with ghosts, as Bill Russell famously said, meaning that you can only be judged by the standards of your era. From that standpoint, the Warriors have mastered the modern version of the game with a wonderful mix of shooting and individual creativity combined with an airtight defense augmented by versatile lineups. For their part, the Warriors have gone about their business unconcerned with outside distractions.

"We talk constantly about big picture stuff, getting better," Steve Kerr said earlier this month when the Warriors came through Boston. "We don’t talk about record. We don’t talk about playing seeding. We just talk about where we need to improve. You can’t cheat any of this stuff. You can talk about it but you have to grow organically. One of the great things about our team is that our group has been together for a couple of years, even though our staff is new. This group has been together and they know each other well."

I asked Kerr if he had more to learn about his team in the remaining weeks.

"I learn every single day from our team," he said. "We sort through lineups and combinations. There’s a lot of things. It’s not like all of a sudden you say, ‘Alright. We got it.’ You never have it. Everything is constantly changing."

Yet the Warriors have made all of this look remarkably easy. The transition from Mark Jackson to Kerr went more smoothly than anyone predicted. No one has thought twice about the offseason decision to keep Klay Thompson and pass on Kevin Love except to praise the non-move for its clear-headed rationale. They have avoided all of the usual pitfalls and dealt with very little drama on their way to the top, all of which has perversely had the effect of allowing people to take them for granted.

Consider the Most Valuable Player race, which has been one of the genuinely interesting sidebar discussions this season. There are no fewer than six deserving candidates and each player has a strong case, both in narrative and metric analysis. Really, any of them could win and the basketball world wouldn’t spin off its axis.

The race has been so tight that there has been a new favorite every few weeks. Each night offers the possibility for a new signature moment, particularly for the candidacies of Anthony Davis, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who have nobly carried their teams through crushing injuries. LeBron James can never be ignored, especially as the Cavs have made a compelling second-half run. Chris Paul is the dark horse gathering momentum.

Only one player has been the best player on the best team like Stephen Curry. There are many different ways to parse the words ‘Most Valuable,’ but that’s as good as any that we have. Especially in a season where no one is clearly superior.

That Curry lacks heroic moments only further demonstrates just how dominant he and the Warriors have been this season. It’s not that Curry isn’t capable of delivering clutch performances, they’re simply rarely needed. Curry doesn’t lead any of the other contenders in points, rebounds or assists but that speaks to circumstances as much as talent. Incredibly, he’s sat out 16 fourth quarters entirely. Even with a diminished workload, his numbers still stand up to scrutiny.

The best metric in his favor is the one that correlates with team success. Golden State outscores teams by 17.6 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, the best mark of any qualifying player. Curry is the biggest reason why the Warriors are so good and his game makes everyone better. If that’s not enough, so be it. That’s a persuasive MVP case in any other year.

Unlike the MVP, Coach of the Year awards have traditionally gone to those who have done more with less. But what of the coaches who do more with more? The argument against Kerr is that he inherited a loaded team that had already endured its growing pains and was ready to win. That may be true, but before Kerr’s arrival the Warriors never won like this.

That also discounts the individual growth many of his players have enjoyed this season. With Kerr at the helm, Thompson became an All-Star, Green became a force and Harrison Barnes got his career back on track. How much of that is directly attributable to Kerr is difficult to quantify, but there are enough hints to think that it’s not a coincidence.

One of his first moves was shifting Andre Iguodala into a sixth man role and elevating Barnes into the starting lineup. Kerr found ways to get Barnes more involved offensively, steering him away from an ISO post-up game that didn’t play to his strengths. Barnes is by no means the biggest factor and there are examples like his up and down the roster. They all help explain how the Warriors went from merely good enough to dominant offensively with roughly the same cast.

Much of the Warriors’ tactical success has been given to Kerr’s assistant coaches, Alvin Gentry (offense) and Ron Adams (defense). Yet that also underlines Kerr’s successful transition from the broadcast booth to the sidelines. Part of being a great NBA coach is creating a harmonious work environment, from the assistants to the best players. As every assistant coach will tell you, there’s a world of difference when you sit in the big chair.

Take the saga of David Lee, for example. The Warriors got lucky in a sense when Lee was physically unable to start the season, which allowed Kerr to move Green into the starting lineup. No player better symbolizes the revamped Warriors than the dynamic Green, a power forward who runs the court like a guard and defends multiple positions. Under Kerr, Green has evolved from a rotation player into a leading contender for Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved.

Kerr stuck with the alignment when Lee was able to return and has even phased Lee out of the rotation. Those seem like obvious choices until you’re the one telling the veteran All-Star that his job description has changed.

All of the outstanding questions about the Warriors will be answered in the postseason. It’s fair to wonder if they can do it under that kind of hothouse pressure since they never have before. But the regular season queries have long been decided. This has been their year and the accolades should follow.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

So if the Warriors are unstoppable, who or what can stand in their way?

Kawhi Leonard: The Spurs are 37-17 when Kawhi Leonard plays, which would translate to a 56-win team for a full season. They are 8-9 when he doesn’t, which explains why they’re in the lower tier of the Western Conference. Leonard is healthy and rolling, averaging 19 and 7 in his last 15 games, while the Spurs have gone 12-3 during that stretch. It seems inevitable that they will meet the Warriors at some point, and it will be fascinating to see if he matches up with Steph Curry or Klay Thompson when they do.

A trip to the Grindhouse: The Grizzlies have problems these days. They don’t score enough, their starting lineup is in flux and they’ve had issues fitting Jeff Green into a role that suits their needs and his abilities. But they still have Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph inside, along with Tony Allen to make life hard for Curry and/or Thompson. If nothing else, it’s a classic matchup of contrasting styles.

Dare I say, the Clippers? Few teams have L.A.’s resume, with an offense to match Golden State’s, a proven playoff coach and a pair of superstars. And yet, it seems that few people are taking the Clippers seriously, mainly because of their shaky depth. You can bet the Warriors have a different appreciation for their long-time antagonists. These two teams have an antagonistic history and the Clippers did take a seven-game series from the Dubs last season.

Russell Westbrook on a mission: The heavily-anticipated first round showdown with Oklahoma City looks like it will happen. But it will take place without Kevin Durant, who will have season-ending foot surgery. It’s unfortunate that we’ll be deprived of his presence, but anyone who thinks Russell Westbrook won’t make it interesting hasn’t been paying attention. This will still be a far greater test than most top seeds face in the first round, just not the one we had been expecting.

The gauntlet itself: No matter who the Warriors draw in the West it will be a challenge. Each potential opponent offers an array of stars and strategies that will push them to their limits. If they do reach the Finals, they’ll likely face a team that faced a relatively easier path. That figures to be either the Hawks, who most closely resembles their own team, or the Cavs, who feature the most dominant player of his generation in LeBron James. Survive all of that and we can start to think about where the Warriors would rank historically.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

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Too good for the Bulls

Nikola Mirotic is really good, and that might be a problem for the Bulls and their loaded frontcourt. Mike Prada explains.

Meet Justise Winslow

Duke forward Justise Winslow is going to be a lottery pick. Ricky O’Donnell gets you familiar with the do-it-all wing.

Prospects everywhere

More college prospects! Happy to have Kevin O’Connor doing draft stuff for us. He has a look at a few unheralded prospects doing their thing this weekend.

Don't sleep on Los Angeles

You really shouldn’t count out the Clippers. Tim Cato tells you why that’s a bad idea.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"It’s been a circus, man. It’s been a complete circus. We got off to a hot start. Unfortunately, I got sick, so it ruined the look of the team. I take some blame for that. I know for a fact, if I wouldn’t have gotten sick, things wouldn’t have happened the way it happened. It was no way it could. At the same time, a lot of it is not my fault and we all know why. But this has been a disappointing year." -- Kings center DeMarcus Cousins.

Reaction: The best thing the Kings can do is take a breath and figure out what kind of team they want to be under George Karl. The quick-fix approach has been maddening both for their fans, and apparently for their best player.

"I miss the socks. The socks were unbelievable. There’s something about N.B.A. socks." -- Former player Troy Murphy, who is taking classes at Columbia.

Reaction: Good for Murph, who had a fine 13-year career as a stretch four before the term came into vogue. He’s right about the socks. They are unbelievable.

"It makes me sick to my stomach. For somebody that’s been in this league for over 30 years, I don't think that's the way you do things, but that’s my opinion. Everybody else has got their opinion. I’ve read in the past here where people thought we should lose on purpose. I don’t believe in that. I’ve never believed in that. If I ever get that way, I’ll be out of the game." -- Pacers president Larry Bird on the notion of tanking.

Reaction: Before Paul George and Roy Hibbert came into their own, the Pacers were running hard on the infamous treadmill of mediocrity. Credit Bird with finding gems in the middle of the first round. The Pacers may be an anomaly, until you consider that every successful team is as well. There is no blueprint, kids.

"Every time I see someone, I just run and hide. This building has pretty good security. And I know it's not New York anymore. But I'm still kinda scarred from what happened." -- Laker guard Jeremy Lin.

Reaction: It’s hard not to have empathy for Lin after reading Pablo Torre’s terrific feature on the one-time phenom, who has been oddly marginalized since those three amazing weeks in New York.

"I take it back to my pro-am days in Chicago. It’s like an isolation game the whole time. You get put out there on that island and if you get crossed over and you get enough buckets, put in your behind with the whole city watching, trust and believe you gonna be the topic of discussion. I’m talking every barber shop." -- Tony Allen, describing his defensive mindset.

Reaction: Back in 2010, Tony Allen made his name as a defensive stopper when he checked Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Vince Carter and Kobe Bryant in successive series. It’s amazing that five years later he’s doing the same thing, night in and night out.

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

Considering the jumbled mess at the bottom of the East, this shot had consequences.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.