Each era of the NBA is linked to its most dominant players. 30 years ago the Boston Celtics—at the peak of the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson rivalry—rolled through the regular season and playoffs with an 82-18 record (40-1 at home) en-route to the team’s 16th NBA title. The 1995-96 season saw Michael Jordan’s return from retirement fuel one of the greatest teams the league has ever seen, setting records at an unprecedented clip: 72 regular season wins (87 total), best start to a season (41-3), and second-best home record (39-2) to name a few. Two decades later, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors are etching their names into the history books.
The 2009 NBA draft was a pivotal moment for the Warriors and the Minnesota Timberwolves. With the fifth and sixth picks of the draft, the T-Wolves selected point guards Ricky Rubio, one of the worst shooters since the three-point line was created in 1979, and Jonny Flynn, last seen playing for the Italian club Orlandina Basket in 2014. You may have noticed neither of them are Stephen Curry who Golden State drafted one pick later (FYI, the New York Knicks had the following pick). The Warriors promoted Bob Myers to general manager in 2012 and continued its keen decision-making by trading ball-hog Monta Ellis for center Andrew Bogut, drafting eventual play-makers and acquiring key free-agents over the course of three years.
Emphasizing length and aggressiveness under head coach Mark Jackson allowed the Warriors to finish 10th in scoring offense and defense in 2014. Even after a hard-fought first-round matchup against a talented Los Angeles Clippers team, Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob fired Jackson because, “Part of it was that he couldn’t get along with anybody else in the organization,” according to Lacob. Management hired former Phoenix Suns executive and five-time champion Steve Kerr. Being groomed by Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich during his days in Chicago and San Antonio made up for his lack of coaching experience. Surrounding himself with long-tenured assistant coaches like Alvin Gentry (Suns head coach under Kerr) and Ron Adams was indicative of a shrewd self-awareness other rookie coaches may not have shown.
Kerr unlocked the full potential of his roster when a David Lee injury forced him to start Draymond Green at power forward. The team thrived under his pace-and-space approach in 2015, finishing first and second in defensive and offensive ratings. Curry broke the league record for threes made in a season with 286, surpassing his previous-best 272. He earned the Most Valuable Player award and took his daughter Riley along for the ride as the Warriors capped a milestone 67-win season with an NBA championship. Apparently, that was just the appetizer.
As their head coach recovered from complications from an off-season back surgery and Gentry moved on to coach in New Orleans, assistant Luke Walton assumed the lead position in the interim. Golden State not only won 24 straight games to open the season, but they also bulldozed teams by an average margin of 11.5 points per game—good for second in the league.
No other team can match what the Warriors do on both sides of the ball. Their crunch-time lineup of Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Green is unrivaled. Each player’s court-vision, ability to make three-pointers, handle the ball, and willingness to share the rock creates poetry in motion. Barnes is out with a leg injury? No problem; sub in Brandon Rush. Iguodala needs a breather? Throw Shaun Livingston onto the court. Golden State’s second-unit is more skilled than many team’s first.
What allows them to seamlessly swap out players is continuity. With their key contributors ranging between 6’3” and 6’9, opponents cannot take advantage of a size-matchup as the Warriors are able to switch defensive assignments multiple times in any given possession. What they lack in size they make up for in speed and agility. Kerr and his staff designed their sublime defense to flow as smoothly as their offense; at its best, it’s like watching five synchronized dancers move to the tune of sneakers squeaking on the hardwood.
Make no mistake, Curry is the straw that stirs the drink. It has gotten to the point where you just scoff at the stats he puts up, shake your head and realize how awesome it is to watch him play. As his team was the fastest to reach 50 wins in a season, he led the league in scoring with 29.8 points per game and is currently on pace to hit 400 threes, shoot 50% from the field, 40% from beyond the arc and 90% from the free-throw line, a feat only ever accomplished by six players in NBA. What’s most stunning is he inflicts all his damage in just 33.8 minutes per game, ranking 34th in the league.
Golden State’s efficiency and effectiveness puts them in contention for 73 wins, something the players have admitted they are gunning for. As such, everyone they face will give maximum effort; all-stars Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Damian Lillard and Dwyane Wade each racked up their best scoring output against the defending champs. A back-loaded schedule has 12 of their remaining 24 games facing prospective playoff teams, including two of their last four versus San Antonio.
The Spurs are situated as the two-seed in the conference and, like the Warriors, remain undefeated at home thus far. Their clash in January was, by advanced metrics, the greatest matchup of all time, the proverbial unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. Golden State didn’t just move San Antonio, they slapped 120 points on them and dispelled any notion of a competitive game from the start. The Oklahoma City Thunder have constructed the roster best suited to take down the Golden State, but have yet to break through after two nail-biting contests.
Trying to craft a scenario where the Warriors don’t overtake the Bulls’ record must include an injury to Curry, Thompson or Green. Of their five losses, two were without a member of their Big Three, one came at the end of a seven-game road trip after a double overtime win, and another was the result of a supernova performance by Lillard. Turnovers have been their Achilles’ Heel, but their cavalier style produces infectious eye-candy. Curry’s well-documented ankle troubles haven’t come back to haunt him since 2014 (knock on wood) and outside of a diagnosed concussion in last year’s Western Conference Finals, Thompson does not have a significant injury history—likewise for Green. In summation, good luck.
There is a line often attributed to Mark Twain that goes, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” We’ve seen generational superstars bolstered by elite supporting casts reach the edge of perfection. This Warriors team may eclipse them all.
Published in The Ticker