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.