Are the Golden State Warriors Pulling Away From the Rest of the NBA?
At 58-13 and with a winning percentage of 0.817, the Golden State Warriors are the number-one team in the NBA, winning their first Pacific Division title in 39 years. That in itself is a huge accomplishment, considering the competitiveness of the Western Conference this year, but it also puts them on pace to have one of the best winning percentages of all time.
The last team to have a winning percentage of 0.817 was the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks, and that mark sits tied with four other teams as the sixth-best ever. Even if they win out, it's impossible for the Warriors to reach the 72-10 mark put up by the 1995-96 Bulls, but the top five is certainly in play.
But wins and losses only tell part of the story. Perhaps even more impressive than how many games Golden State has won, is how convincingly they've been doing it. With a point differential of +10.7 this season (+15.7 at home), the 2014-15 Warriors are on pace to be one of only eight teams in the history of the NBA to have a double-digit margin of victory in a season. Here's the complete list of the teams that have done it, including how they fared once they reached the playoffs:
|1||Los Angeles Lakers||1971-72||69-13||.841||12.28||Won Finals|
|2||Milwaukee Bucks||1970-71||66-16||.805||12.26||Won Finals|
|3||Chicago Bulls||1995-96||72-10||.878||12.24||Won Finals|
|4||Milwaukee Bucks||1971-72||63-19||.768||11.16||Lost West Finals|
|5||Chicago Bulls||1996-97||69-13||.841||10.80||Won Finals|
|6||Golden State Warriors||2014-15||58-13||.817||10.72||TBD|
|7||Chicago Bulls||1991-92||67-15||.817||10.44||Won Finals|
|8||Boston Celtics||2007-08||66-16||.805||10.26||Won Finals|
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
As you can see, every team that has ever had a margin of victory (MOV) greater than 10 in the history of the Association has gone on to win the title or at least lost to another team on the list (the only non-title team, 1971-72 Bucks, got bounced by the Los Angeles Lakers -- the team with the best point differential ever recorded -- in the Western Conference Finals that year).
If you go beyond the double-digit club and further down the list of the all-time best point differentials, you'll keep finding even more of the greatest teams in NBA history. The 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers (9.44, champs), the 1985-86 Boston Celtics (9.41, champs), and the 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers (9.30, champs) are the next three in line and they all come up frequently in conversations about the best teams of all time.
So, considering they're on a list of all-time great teams, is there any reason for us to consider this year's Warriors team as anything other than clear and obvious title favorites?
Because the 10 best teams in the West are all over .500 and several of them could contend for the title under most circumstances? Because the Eastern Conference has the better-than-we-expected Atlanta Hawks and the LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers creeping up the other side of the playoff bracket? Or because the Warriors haven't proven anything in the post-season yet, making only three appearances in the last two decades, neither time getting past the second round, and bowing out in the first round last year?
Some combination of those things is preventing people from fully backing Golden State as championship favorites, without a doubt, but it might be time to simply stop the debate. The Warriors have done more than enough to separate themselves from the field, to the point where any other team winning over them might qualify as one of the greatest upsets in NBA history (given their historic company).
They currently lead the league in Offensive Rating (109.6 points scored per 100 possessions), Defensive Rating (97.5 points allowed per 100 possessions), Net Rating (12.1), and pace (100.63 possessions per 48 minutes). For the record, being the leader in all four of those categories has never once been accomplished and the 1995-96 Bulls are the only team that has ever led the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency by year's end (via NBA.com's John Schumann).
The Warriors also lead the league in field goal percentage (47.9%), while allowing the lowest field goal percentage on the defensive end (42.4%). If that holds up, they'll be the first team to accomplish that since the 1980-81 Philadelphia 76ers (via ESPN's Marc Stein).
Somehow, the Warriors have found a way to balance running-and-gunning and efficiency on offense like the Phoenix Suns of the mid-aughts, while grinding teams to a pulp on defense like the Memphis Grizzlies, Indiana Pacers, and Chicago Bulls of recent years. It sounds hyperbolic, but in a way, they may have perfected a model for team basketball through their manipulation of pace.
The credit for that should go largely to Steve Kerr, who is looking more and more like the obvious candidate for Coach of the Year. What Mike Budenholzer has done to bring the Hawks from being a sub-.500 team to a title contender in just one year is certainly impressive, but we might be under-appreciating how Kerr has taken a middle-of-the-Western-Conference-pack team last year and turned them into an all-time great squad.
For that matter, the Golden State Warriors could run the table for the major end-of-season awards this year. Stephen Curry is a leading and deserving MVP candidate, Draymond Green is making a bid to be the first non-center Defensive Player of the Year in over a decade (and his teammate, Andrew Bogut, could very well come second), both Dray and Klay Thompson deserve their share of Most Improved Player votes, and even Andre Iguodala is making a late push to get some Sixth Man of the Year love.
That's all of the major awards with the exception of Rookie of the Year. James Michael McAdoo is the team's only rookie and isn't exactly in the running for that hardware with only 62 minutes logged this season, but perhaps Steve Kerr could garner some consideration as a rookie head coach, if you wanted to get cute with it.
According to our algorithms, the Warriors now have a ridiculous 40.6% likelihood of winning the title this year. That's almost quadruple the chances of the next closest contender, the Atlanta Hawks, at 10.5%. We're talking Kentucky-versus-NCAA-level dominance here, so it has to be championship or bust for this Golden State team.
Regular season and playoff success are, of course, two entirely different beasts. The Warriors are putting up a truly amazing regular season -- one that we'll likely talk about decades from now -- but it will serve as nothing more than a disappointing asterisk on the above list of all-time great teams if they don't carry it over and become champions this year. They certainly deserve the title of "championship favorites" at this juncture, but you don't get a banner, parade, and ring for that kind of distinction, and you certainly can't stay on the "best NBA teams of all time" list without the championship hardware to back it up (the 1971-72 Bucks notwithstanding).
The 2014-15 Golden State Warriors have earned a feature chapter in NBA history, that much is certain. Let's see if it ends with their being one of the best of all time, or simply the best not to win the title.