Evaluating the Golden State Warriors in a Historical Context
Up 3-0 in their Finals series against the Cavaliers, Golden State are likely headed towards their 3rd championship in 4 years, establishing them as a legitimate dynasty. Now that their supremacy in the current NBA landscape has been established, it is time to determine how they measure up to some of the all-time great teams.
One caveat: hypothetical head-to-head matchups will not be discussed here. Given the vast change that the league has undergone over the years, such speculation would not have much meaning. It doesn’t make much sense to compare the 3-point shooting greatness of the Splash Brothers to teams such as Bill Russell‘s Celtics, who dominated in an era before the 3-point line. Vice-versa, it would not be fair to say that teams from the relatively rough-and-tumble ’80s and ’90s would bully the best of a more finesse league into the ground.
So if you really want to see what would happen if the 2018 Warriors went toe to Chuck Taylor-ed toe with the 1972 Lakers, get on NBA 2K and let me know how it plays out.
Otherwise, here we go:
The current Warriors feature, arguably, 4 of the top 20 players in the league.
Curry and Durant, two of the elite players of their era, are already locks. Klay, a superb sharpshooter prone to clutch playoff performances, has precedents in James Worthy and Dennis Johnson as supporting players who were great in their own right.
Green’s case is more complicated, but Dennis Rodman, a similarly low-scoring defensive star, and a member of numerous championship squads, eventually got in.
Draymond has his supporters. In fact, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr just referred to the outspoken star as a “future Hall of Famer.” ESPN’s Kevin Pelton wrote that Green is “currently on a Hall of Fame path.”
Assuming there are 4 Hall of Famers in their prime on the Golden State roster, how many championship teams could have said the same? Lets see:
The ’50s and ’60s Celtics had too many to name.
And that’s pretty much it. So you’d have to go back at least 30-plus years to find a similar concentration of talent as the Warriors have right now.
What do the Numbers Say?
Despite their obvious greatness, the Warriors won “only” 58 games this year, probably partly due to injuries and a focus on the postseason. They have also lost 5 games so far in the playoffs, so this year’s iteration of the Dubs can’t really compare to other classic teams in a statistical sense.
Of course, the 2015-2016 Warriors won a record 73 regular season games. However, they didn’t win the championship, which is pretty much mandatory for a place on the Mount Rushmore of NBA teams. Instead, we’ll look at last year’s edition, the first Warriors team to feature Durant.
First, the regular season. On their way to 67 wins, despite 20 games without Durant, Golden State outscored teams by a massive margin of 11.6 points per game, actually a larger differential than the 73-win team. Only, the aforementioned ’72 Lakers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s 1971 Bucks, and the 1996 Bulls had a wider margin of victory.
Last year’s Warriors also had a sky-high offensive rating of 115.6 points/100 possessions, a figure that is only matched by the 1987 “Showtime” Lakers, that had Magic Johnson running the show.
Despite arguably the most dominant offence of all-time, the less-glamorous side of the court has been far from neglected in the Bay area. Last year’s team also finished with the league’s 2nd-ranked defence.
Perhaps most impressively, the 2017 Warriors steamrolled their way to a 16-1 playoff record, only dropping a single game to the Cavaliers in the Finals. This is the highest single-season postseason winning percentage ever.
The only comparable teams are the 12-1 1983 Sixers, who nearly fulfilled Moses Malone‘s promise to go “fo-fo-fo,” and the 15-1 Shaq-Kobe 2001 Lakers.
On a side note, those Lakers settled for 56 regular season wins, and are prime evidence of how some teams (such as this year’s Warriors) wait until the playoffs to get their act together.
We know about the numbers. What do those who played on these teams think about today’s premier squad?
Legends such as Magic Johnson and Julius Erving have claimed that the Warriors would be no match for their respective teams. This is unsurprising, given the competitive, perhaps stubborn edge that still persists within these classic players.
What about someone who has gone head-to-head with Golden State on numerous high-stakes occasions?
“It’s probably the most, most firepower I’ve played in my career,” said Lebron James of the 2017 Warriors. “I played against some great teams, but I don’t think no team has had this type of firepower. So even when you’re playing well, you got to play like A-plus plus, because they’re going to make runs and they’re going to make shots and they got guys that’s going to make plays.”
Despite some hiccups, the same can be said of this year’s Warriors. During the playoffs, they have been notorious slow starters, before 3rd quarter explosions that have begun to seem inevitable.
Kerr was also a member of the ’96 Bulls, a team often still referred to as the greatest. As such, he is uniquely qualified to offer his opinion on the debate.
Of Jordan, Pippen and co., Kerr says: “That’s a lot of long, rangy guys who can handle the ball and make a play, that was pretty impressive. That group in today’s game would have been devastating.”
Ultimately, however, his star player (at least one of them) sees little point in such speculation, and prefers to respect each team for what they accomplished in their respective era.
“It’s kind of comedy to me,” says Curry. “The hypothetical game is never one I’ve played. I don’t want to be in that situation where you’re having to argue that.”
“Every team that talked about it was great in their era, great in their time. It was great for the league, inspiration for up-and-coming hoopers like myself watching that type of competition. It’s our time to do that now too.”