H ow great are the Warriors? They just finished 73-9 for the season, topping the Michael Jordan-led Bulls of 1996 with the best record ever.
But how great are they, really? How should we best define their greatness?
Perhaps we can start with this: the Warriors are scary good. No, literally, they scare people. They’re haunting the NBA.
The Warriors are not the bad boys of the league (we already had one of those); every Steph Curry three from half court and ensuing smile endears them closer to America’s heart. But, for a world built on recency bias, some fans, media, and even former players are noticeably hesitant to embrace Golden State as one of the best teams ever, let alone the greatest.
Oscar Robertson thinks Steph Curry’s defenders just aren’t trying hard enough. Scottie Pippen thinks the aforementioned Bulls would sweep these Warriors in a series. Even former Warriors wingman, Stephen Jackson, thinks his 42-40 “We Believe” teammates from 2007 would beat the team that just won 89% of their games.
Doubt is nothing new for the Warriors. After stomping the league last regular season, their path to the title was asterisked by major injuries to their opponents. Their detractors called them “lucky,” and less than a third of ESPN experts picked them to repeat coming into this season. The Warriors disagreed. Now, you can thank the collective chip on their shoulder for helping unleash the monster they’ve become, as Draymond Green recently explained on Bill Simmons’ podcast.
Doubting the Warriors this historic season, as Charles Barkley insists upon doing, is inexplicable. The Warriors are more than just a bunch of overachievers, and everyone knows it. But not everyone will admit it.
Steph Curry suffered a knee sprain in the Warriors opening round against the Rockets, and the inevitability of a Golden State repeat was again in question. The Warriors proceeded to blow out their opponents without Curry the next four games, playing the same smothering defense and ruthless outside game. Their strong showing, combined with the Los Angeles Clippers (their would-be second round foe) losing their two best players to injuries, slammed the door on the idea that the beast in Golden State had a fatal wound. But until Steph returns at full strength, the basketball world wonders if their mortality will finally surface against the Spurs or Thunder in the conference finals. Meanwhile, the Warriors hum along without their MVP, carrying a comfortable two games to none lead over the Portland Trail Blazers.
While it’s impossible to read the mind of any naysayer, the level of disbelief it takes to doubt these Warriors comes from a primal instinct. The specter of this Warriors team has a handful of former greats — and Stephen Jackson — spooked out of their wits, bereft of all logic. One maddeningly consistent hot take floating around today’s NBA is that the players are too privileged, too flashy. They just don’t play the game “the right way.” But the Warriors are great because they excel at the things taught at every basketball camp in the universe: dribbling, passing, shooting. Their roster is overstocked with players who excel at the fundamentals. Their “death lineup” consists of five guys around the same height who do just that, and no one can stop it. Yet, the team is portrayed as an ethereal spectacle, fortunate to exist in the NBA’s current, cushy climate.
We could, like so many others, engage in some silly hypotheticals, era comparisons (more hard fouls!), and analytical breakdowns to try and answer whether the Warriors are as good as their record. But we don’t need to. The panic exuding from every corner of the basketball universe tells the story better.
The Warriors are a dark thundercloud hovering over everyone connected to the game. You can look up with awe, or terror. Or you can throw on your special edition Sports Illustrated hoodie, its 72-10 patch embroidered over shoddy fabric from an outmoded era, and pretend you won’t get wet from the Splash. The various forms of criticism leveled at the Warriors reveal different flavors of jealousy. Jealousy rooted in fear. Golden State is taking the title aspirations every current player wants along with the historic achievements every legend thought they would own for a lifetime.
To be fair, the reactions from the Warriors’ jealous contemporaries are milder, less desperate and more in touch with reality. Their loss is less severe for players still forging their identities and legacies within the game. While petty bitterness marks Russell Westbrook’s account of Golden State as “a pretty good team,” sad resignation marks Blake Griffin’s perspective. Griffin’s Clippers played the Warriors as close as anyone this season, losing by four, seven, and three points in their first three matchups. But after giving up a 23-point lead to Golden State in January, Blake Griffin couldn’t bring himself to accept any credit for hanging close. “I wouldn’t call this a rivalry,” he reacted, defeated and despondent about his team’s inability to overcome the
NBA’s final boss.
The former greats are jealous, too. It’s more complicated. When the Patriots came up a helmet-catch short of a perfect season, the ’72 Dolphins were “very pleased,” according to their quarterback Earl Morrall, celebrating a perfect season with his teammates. Holding an unbreakable record is a loophole in mortality that several athletes grip as their bodies fall apart. Kevin Durant says he’s not scared of the 73-9ers because he’s still balling. The former MVP has plenty of stones left in his slingshot. However, Horace Grant can’t put on the rec specs and lace ‘em up. The ’96 Bulls watched their number fall from the rafters, powerless to stop it. Luc Longley conceded his dread to his former teammate, Warriors coach Steve Kerr, when 73-9 was still on the horizon: no one would remember him if his name wasn’t on the record books. The Warriors are prying that prize out of their cold, did-you-know-they-were-dead? hands.
LeBron James’ unique place in history might explain his shifting attitude toward the Warriors. LeBron was the consensus best player in the world not so long ago, and he’s witnessing Steph Curry wrest that title away. But he’s also still a phenom on a great team, capable of resisting Golden State’s charge with more than a dubious thought experiment. LeBron has transitioned from bitter dismissiveness (framing the Warriors as the healthiest team in history) to collegial supportiveness (hype tweeting Curry’s shot-making) to a noticeable silence as the record fell and the teams drew near to a potential rematch of last year’s championship round.
Mark Jackson is another figure with his feet in multiple NBA corners. At his best, he’s a respected former player, successful coach of Curry’s Warriors (just before they morphed into Leviathan), and high-profile color commentator for ESPN. Though he was unceremoniously fired by the Dubs, he’s generally shown remarkable restraint and class when discussing the Warriors in public. Still, he’s strayed from the high road on occasion. Staring Goliath in the eyes is no small thing for mere mortals. He recently suggested that Curry is “hurting” the game of basketball by giving youngsters the impression that deep threes are good shots. (For Curry, they are.) Jackson is playing off his personal discomfort as a noble concern for the kids.
When things are this dire for the competition, rule changes start to surface. Wilt Chamberlain, a monster from the past, forced new rules designed to keep his giant frame from living at the rim, the mountaintop that was rarely crested before he started dominating the sport. The Warriors are doing to conceptions of horizontal space what Chamberlain did to vertical space. On cue, people have been talking about moving the three-point line back. Forward-thinking owner Mark Cuban made the suggestion, and Five Thirty Eight evaluated it as a legitimate option. Very smart people at the very smart basketball person event, the MIT Sloan Conference, weighed the pros and cons of such a change to the arc.
Deterring pretty, rainbow-like shot-taking is expressed as a league-wide trend concern, not a hypothetical Warriors handicap. But the league’s percentage on three-point shots is worse this year than its average over the last six seasons. Teams have increased those shots an average of 1.2 more per game each season over the same span. Alone, that’s not enough to sound the alarm. The Warriors, however, are alarming. Just one of 30 teams in the league, Golden State’s jump in three-pointers made this season accounted for 12% of the league’s overall increase. Steph Curry accounted for 7% of the league’s increase by himself, shattering the record for deep bombs in a year by 116 (!).
Klay Thompson links with Curry to form the best shooting pair of all time. Draymond Green, typically the second guy to touch the ball after Steph during a possession, splashes threes from the top of the arc while playing an unconventional point forward/center role. Everyone else lined up around them can sharp-shoot as well. The Warriors have nine players who have taken at least 62 three-pointers this season, but the only guy below league average is Andre Iguodala, and only by two-tenths of a percent.
The Warriors have abruptly put an end to the slow death of the midrange game. The three-pointer transitioned from an afterthought, to a bailout option, to a specialty, to the most lethal weapon in the league. It’s Plan A for the Warriors, the shot that at least four of their players are hunting at all times on the court. They take the fourth-fewest shots at five to nine feet from the basket and the third-fewest two-pointers overall. The perimeter is no longer where tall people stand because they’re too “soft” to bump around in the paint. It’s where the best basketball players play, and the Warriors have a lot of those. Now the midrange game, the bread and butter of almost every perimeter star from the past (including Jordan and Pippen), is the afterthought.
And the haunting doesn’t stop there. The Warriors racked up big victories more conventionally early in the season, but the last few months were marked by games they should have lost. Blowing a 13-point 4th quarter lead to the Nuggets, only to win without Curry in overtime. Down ten with six minutes to go in Memphis. Down to the Thunder with 10 seconds left and the ball in Durant’s hands, ending with Curry’s unforgettable heave. Like Jason Voorhees or T-800, they stroll toward their sprinting victim, supernaturally closing the gap. Annihilation is their mission, the league’s foregone conclusion.
Durant’s miraculous return to form from a recurring broken foot in Oklahoma City generated less interest than the possibility that he could join the Warriors in an unprecedented superstar relocation this summer. The Cavaliers competed in the Finals last year without two of their best three players. They’re better this season, everyone’s healthy, and LeBron still has the path of least resistance to the Finals (the Eastern Conference). But Golden State ripped Cleveland’s heart out with a 34-point drubbing in January. The embarrassment led to a long, bizarre PR storm, climaxing with coach David Blatt’s dismissal. The drama resembled a collapsing team, not a prohibitive favorite to win their conference.
The San Antonio Spurs efficiently conquer opponents on a nightly basis, while ranking dead last in percentage of shots taken from three. And yet, their dynastic franchise has a -39 point differential against the Warriors in four showdowns this season, numbing the memories of a throwback offense and historically dominant defense.
The Warriors have sickled through the souls of each of these teams, the memory gnawing at their collective psyches regardless of whatever success they’ve enjoyed otherwise. You can’t beat death, and you can’t win four quarters against the Warriors. The Warriors have lost just one game to any of their top-tier challengers, and blown out each at least once. There may be no path to catching up to them; even if LeBron’s dream team (himself, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony) assembles, they might not have an answer for Golden State.
Legends die hard. Michael Jordan is a living legend at that, and no one is prepared to attend the joint GOAT funeral of him and his Bulls. But the Warriors are coming. Golden State, theoretically, could lose this postseason. Every once in a while, Goliath falls. The haters would rejoice at such an upset, but all the tough talk and rule changes they can offer only mean one thing: they’re still sleeping with one eye open.