2014-15 Golden State Warriors’ Place Among Historically Great Teams

Ever since Bill Simmons got fired by ESPN, I’ve missed his writing about the NBA.  It couldn’t have come at a worse time—the middle of the Warriors’ playoff run and championship.  One of the topics I’d like to think Simmons would have written about is the 2014-15 Warriors’ place among historically great seasons.  What follows is my analysis of this season’s championship Warriors team, written in the style of Bill Simmons from the Book of Basketball.  And just like Simmons I took my sweet time writing and posting it.

  1. (tentative) 2014-15 Golden State Warriors

Regular Season: 67-15 (peak of 63-12)…39-2 at home…10.1 point differential (110.0-99.9)…10.01 simple rating system…1st in league in pace (98.3), 2nd on offensive rating (111.6), 1st in defensive rating (101.4)…1st in FG% (0.478), opponents FG% (0.428), effective FG% (0.540), 3-point % (0.398), and assists/game (27.4)…win streaks of 16 and 12 games…did not lose 3+ games in a row all season..45-9 in games decided by 10+ points…22-7 vs. 49+ win teams, 17-4 vs. western conference 49+ win teams.

Playoffs: 16-5, 9-2 at home…7.81 PD…close out game margins: +11, +13, +14, +8

Cast: Stephen Curry (super-duper star); Klay Thompson (super wingman); Andre Igoudala (super sixth man); Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut (wingmen); Shaun Livingtson, Mareese Speights, Leandro Barbosa, David Lee (supporting cast); Steve Kerr (coach).

I know, I know, I was supposed to discount the 2000’s teams.  And penalize level 1 teams.  But this year’s Warriors are an exception.  Their regular season resume is exceptional, and their playoff resume is good, though perhaps not great.  Still, they won the championship over the best player on the planet (albeit with a depleted supporting cast).  Let’s break things down by category:

Regular-season resume:

The 2014-15 Warriors submitted one of the best regular seasons in NBA history.  Their 67 wins were tied for 6th all-time, their 10.1 MOV was 8th, their 10.01 SRS was 7th, their 54.0% effective FG% was 9th, and their +5.0% net FG% was 15th all-time.  That net FG% was better than the ’86 Celtics, ’87 Lakers, and ’96 Bulls, by the way.  Their 27.4 assists/game was 79th-best all-time, but the best since 1994-95 and the only team in the 2000’s in the top 140!  In addition to the stats listed above, the Warriors also posted the second-highest ELO ratings (both peak and end-of-season) of all time.  They played in one of the toughest conferences historically and went 22-7 vs. 49+ win teams.  That’s a higher winning percentage than anyone else in Simmons’ top 10 except the ’86 Celtics and ’72 Lakers.  That’s also the most games against tough competition of any of the top 10.  In the western conference they went 17-4 vs. 49+ win teams.  Simply put, the Warriors played well against their toughest competition.

Postseason resume:

Obviously not as good as their regular-season resume, but still impressive.  Their 16-5 record is tied for 19th all-time, and their defensive rating was just as good in the playoffs as it was in the regular season (when they lead the league).  They also submitted several iconic playoff games, including games 4-6 against Memphis and game 3 vs. New Orleans (the 20-point comeback capped off by Curry’s 3 to tie).  Moreover, they faced some of the top players in the league in the playoffs, including Anthony Davis (tops in Simmons’ 2015 trade value) in round one, James Harden (MVP runner-up) in the Western Finals, and LeBron James (consensus best player on the planet) in the Finals.  This wasn’t the creampuff slate of opponents the ’87 Lakers faced on their way to the Finals.

Home-court advantage:

Almost as good as the ’86 Celtics.  Their 39-2 home record is tied for 2nd all-time and their 14.6 PD at home is tied for 7th.  They also went 25-1 at home against the Western Conference (historically tough, remember?) and 14-2 against 49+ win teams.  Oracle Arena (or Roaracle as some would call it) is one of the loudest arenas in the league and the Dubs’ fans some of the best, if not the best fans, in the NBA.  Game 5 in the Memphis was the loudest I have ever heard the Roaracle—it was loud a lot this season, but after Steph Curry hit a 3 to give the Dubs the lead at the end of the first quarter, the place erupted!  Few teams have had a home-court advantage as good as the 2014-15 Warriors.

Fun facts:

Like Jordan’s championship Bulls (after the start of the 1990-91 season), the 2014-15 Warriors didn’t loose three or more games in a row all season.  Also impressive: they won ALL the games in which they lead by at least 15 points.  Every.  Single.  One.  A record of 57-0.  You know the saying, “it’s the NBA, everybody makes a run”?  Well, nobody made a successful run against the Warriors.

Team chemistry:

Excellent.  We’ll see if the disease of more/me kicks in next season, but for 2014-15 everybody did what was needed and didn’t complain.  Chief among the good teammates were Andre Igoudala, who accepted his role of sixth man and excelled in it (winning Finals MVP), and David Lee, who lost his starting job to Draymond Green but accepted his diminished role.  Steph Curry was their best player, but Draymond Green was the leader in the clubhouse, even getting Curry to lighten up when the Warriors were down 2-1 in the Memphis series.  The coaching staff also contributed to the chemistry, with Kerr clearly defining players’ roles and getting buy-in from everyone.  It probably didn’t hurt that the coaches installed an offensive system that was downright fun to play (and watch).  The team thrived on ball movement (see the aforementioned assists per game stat).  And Kerr let players like Curry improvise (crazy off-the-dribble threes anyone?) at times.  All-in-all a fun team to play for, and to watch.

The eye test:

Passed with flying colors.  Did I mention they were fun to watch?  Also, unlike the Don Nelson-era Warriors, this team wouldn’t let their opponents back into games.  I arrived late to game 5 in the Memphis series, with the Warriors down 25-15 in the first quarter.  They then went on an 11-0 run and never looked back.  Most impressively, they never let Memphis back in the game.  After halftime, the Grizzlies never got closer than 6 points (and that was early in the third quarter).  And they never got closer than 15 in the fourth quarter.

Ability to play different styles:

The Warriors were the ultimate pace-and-space team in 2014-15.  Yet they were able to handle all styles of opponents.  This wasn’t because of their ability to change styles, but rather because of their defensive prowess and their ability to exploit mismatches offensively.  During the regular season the Warriors mostly played with a conventional rim-protecting center (Andrew Bogut).  In fact, for most of the season it seemed like Bogut was their second-most important player after Curry.  In the playoffs the Warriors went to their small-ball lineup more often, especially crunch time in the Finals.  This lineup featured Draymond Green at center with Andre Igoudala, Harrison Barnes (or Shaun Livingston), Klay Thompson, and Steph Curry.  Defensively they were vulnerable to good offensive rebounding teams, but their hyper-switching defense prevented teams from getting good shots off.  And by going small, with 5 legitimate offensive threats on the floor, they forced their opponents’ hand: go big and the Warriors would kill you offensively with mismatches, go small and they would kill you because your small lineup wasn’t as good as theirs.

How would the Warriors have fared against other great teams?  It depends on which era’s rules they’d use.  Obviously they’d be most effective in the current era.  With no illegal defense calls the Warriors could play their switching defense and not be abused on the low post.  And their spread offense would not get bogged down by physical defenses.  That’s not to say they wouldn’t be effective in the 80’s.  They could run as well as anyone other than the Showtime Lakers, and they could shoot the lights out.  They just wouldn’t be quite as dominant.

I can’t see them beating the ’86 Celtics, I just can’t.  Those Celtics were like this season’s Grizzlies on steroids and with great shooters.  Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes aren’t stopping the Bird-McHale-Parish front line.  Maybe Bogut could neutralize Parish and Green could stay with Bird, but that leaves McHale on the low post to abuse poor Barnes.  Switch Green and Barnes and Bird and McHale would both have advantages.  The Warriors would also get killed on the boards.  In the backcourt DJ could contain either Curry or Thompson, though Ainge wouldn’t fare well against whoever DJ wasn’t guarding.  Then again, Curry has the quickest release ever, and the Dubs are great at freeing him up on screens…who am I kidding, even with 2015 rules the Warriors would have a hard time handling the ’86 Celtics.  Yes the paint would be clogged, but the Celtics could space the floor too with Bird, Ainge, and Wedman.  Plus their passing would enable them to be a superior version of the 2013-14 Spurs.  Put it this way: the 2015 Warriors aren’t better than the mid-80’s Lakers whom the ’86 Celtics swept in the regular season.

The matchup between the 2015 Warriors and the 1987 Lakers would be a tough one.  Nobody on those Lakers could guard Curry.  Then again, who on the Warriors could guard Magic?  Or Kareem?  I would love to see that game though.  Probably end up 140-135 or something like that.

Although the 1996 Bulls did not have a great supporting cast, they did have the best player ever.  Michael Jordan’s pathological competitiveness gives the Bulls the edge in that series.  Plus his defense along with Pippen’s would slow the Warriors’ attack.  I watched the ’96 Bulls dismantle the ’96 Warriors in person (my family has had season tickets since 1988).  During Jordan’s baseball sabbatical there were some sportswriters who wrote that Latrell Sprewell was as good as Jordan (Spree made first-team All-NBA in 1994).  That was all the motivation Jordan needed.  Sprewell may have finished the game with 18 points, but for the first half he barely touched the ball.  Jordan (with help from Pippen) shut him down, denied him the ball, and held the Warriors to 8 points in the first quarter.  I don’t doubt 1996 Jordan would find some way to handle Curry.

The 1989 Pistons are an interesting case.  The Warriors are actually similar to those Pistons in that both teams went 9-10 players deep, both played great defense, and both had players willingly accept “lesser” roles for the good of the team (two starters coming off the bench: Igoudala for the Warriors and Aguirre for the Pistons).  But those Pistons were too physical for the Warriors to beat under 1980’s rules.  In the current NBA?  I think the Dubs have the edge there.  So much of the Pistons’ game was based on their physical intimidation that taking it away (with the flagrant foul call and other changes since the 80’s) would hamper them.  Though Curry vs. Isiah would be a fun matchup.

That leave the 2001 Lakers.  The Dubs would have trouble handling Shaq, but who on those Lakers would guard Steph Curry?  Kobe?  Then Klay Thompson would run amok.  The Warriors have the edge at the forward positions.  Barnes is too athletic for a hobbled Ron Harper to guard.  And Green is a better defender than Horry.  And that Warriors bench is too deep.  No, I don’t see those Lakers winning a 7-game series against the Warriors.

In the end, I have the 2014-15 Warriors as fifth-best all-time.  Maybe it’s a provisional ranking, as we still have to see how their title defense goes next year.  But still, they had a damn good season, one of the best ever.

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