The Warriors Broke the Wins Record, But They’re Not the Best Team in the NBA
Not all records are meant to be broken.
Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak? Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 26-game losing streak?
There are some absurd numbers out there in the sports world, and sometimes, they seem untouchable.
Topping 72 wins in an 82-game NBA season? Inconceivable.
But, as you already know, that's exactly what the Golden State Warriors accomplished last night by besting the Memphis Grizzlies 125-104.
That particular win wasn't surprising, per se. They had an 89% chance to grab the victory, according to numberFire Live, and their odds at winning were pretty certain from the opening tip.
Still, getting to 73 sure was unexpected.
Back in late January, our algorithm thought the Warriors had just a 2.8% chance to hit 73 wins because of the demanding schedule ahead of them. They overcame it.
After becoming the quickest team ever to 50 wins, they had a 4.8% shot to hit 73 and a 10.9% chance to hit 72. But that pesky schedule, featuring games against the Clippers, Thunder, and Spurs, still loomed.
At 68-7, things seemed realistic (a 40.2% chance to break the record), but an improbable comeback by the upstart Minnesota Timberwolves dropped their record to 68-8 and their odds at 73 wins to 11.3%.
So, they overcame low odds of setting the record, and they set the bar high enough that they might never be beaten.
But they weren't even the NBA's best team this season.
Let Me Explain
If you've been around numberFire this NBA season, this statement shouldn't shock you. We've discussed before that our algorithm doesn't think the Warriors are the best team in the NBA and that another team has been outperforming them.
And, no, it's not just for show. And, no, it's not really just us who think the San Antonio Spurs should have a claim to the title of NBA's best regular season squad.
For instance, that the Warriors' schedule ranked just 28th-toughest, according to Basketball-Reference, this season. The Spurs didn't have it much tougher, coming in 25th. According to ESPN, they were two teams in a seven-way tie for 14th-toughest schedule.
This -- in part -- has led the Spurs to secure a team nERD score of 82.6, which is our in-house measure that is predictive of a team's ultimate winning percentage. Golden State's nERD was 80.8. For some additional context, the Oklahoma City Thunder were a distant third at 69.5.
San Antonio's nERD positions them behind only the 2007-08 Boston Celtics (82.8) of all teams since 2000. The Warriors' mark is fifth-best in that span, behind the 2014-15 Warriors (82.5) and the 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers (81.6).
Similarly, ESPN's Expected Winning Percentage metric saw the Spurs as a team that should win 85.7% of their games and the Warriors as squad that should win 83.5% of their games. Basketball-Reference's Pythagorean Win Formula led to the Spurs' holding a league-best expected record of 67-15. Again, the Warriors were right behind them at 65-17.
Well, according to the Four Factors (of Basketball Success), the Spurs were a better basketball team in many areas.
The Spurs' marks in the Offensive Four Factors (Effective Field Goal Percentage, Turnover Rate, Offensive Rebound Rate, and Free Throws per Field Goal Attempt) rival those of the Warriors'.
|Offensive Four Factors||eFG%||TOV%||ORB%||FT/FGA|
|Golden State Warriors||0.563||13.5||23.5||0.191|
|San Antonio Spurs||0.526||12.4||23.0||0.197|
Sure, the Warriors' Effective Field Goal Percentage was bananas, thanks to their elite three-point shooting, but the Spurs ranked second in the NBA by this measure.
The argument isn't even that the Spurs had a better offense -- just that they weren't exactly lightyears behind the show in Oracle Arena.
It's the defense that should really make you re-consider things.
|Defensive Four Factors||eFG%||TOV%||DRB%||FT/FGA|
|Golden State Warriors||0.479||12.6||76.0||.208|
|San Antonio Spurs||0.477||14.1||79.1||0.182|
The Spurs ranked top-three in all categories but Defensive Rebound Rate and top-eight in all. The Warriors, conversely, ranked below league average in Turnover Rate (league average was 13.2%) and Defensive Rebound Rate (league average was 72.6). Their 0.209 Free Throws per Field Goal Attempt ranked just better than league average (0.209).
This allowed the Spurs to be the only team to post a Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) below 100 -- theirs was 99. Golden State's 103.8 ranked sixth.
Sure, Golden State's 114.5 Offensive Rating paced the league, but the Spurs' 110.3 ranked fourth.
This gave the Spurs the biggest differential between the two (known as Net Rating) in the NBA: 11.3 compared to Golden State's second-ranked 10.7.
The Minutes Thing
A common rebuttal is that the Warriors rarely had to play their starters deep into the fourth quarter -- if at all. It's true that closer games probably would have led to more minutes per game for their top players. After all, Draymond Green (34.7 minutes per game), Stephen Curry (34.2), Klay Thompson (33.3), and Harrison Barnes (30.9) were the only Warriors to top 30 minutes per game, and by no means were they iron men pushing for 40 minutes per contest.
In fairness, the Warriors' most-used lineup (Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Green, and Andrew Bogut) boasted a Net Rating of 13.8 over 540 minutes of action.
But let's not forget that the Spurs ended up with the better Net Rating overall, a better defense, and an offense that wasn't too far off the elite marks of the Warriors'.
This overall difference in efficiency made them the better regular season squad.
The easiest defense against all of this may not even be the 73 wins but rather the 3-1 head-to-head record and a plus-39 point differential against the Spurs.
That's fine and good, and personally (for what that's worth), I still think the Warriors hold the upper-hand against the Spurs based on the matchup issues they can present.
Either way, with two teams this dominant, it's no surprise that the Spurs have a 30.6% chance to win the NBA Finals and that the Warriors own a 27.6% chance (no other team is above 9%).
The path to the NBA Finals will run through Oracle Arena, but against all NBA opposition from October through April, the Spurs were better than a 73-win team.
And we shouldn't forget that.