Tuesday December 2nd, 2014

Over the last few weeks, as the 14-2 Warriors have run off a league-high nine straight wins, Marreese Speights has taken to uploading video after video from the team plane – totaling four rounds in all -- to celebrate the victories. The clips follow a strict script: the cameraman pans back and forth, capturing the Warriors merrily singing along to O.T. Genasis’s “Coco,” a daffy drug ode that features a hypnotic beat and toddler-level lyrics. From the outside, the Warriors’ giggling karaoke sessions appear to embody a degree of genuine chemistry and camaraderie rarely seen, or shared, in the modern NBA.

Digging into Golden State’s lineup data returns the same conclusion: the Warriors clearly enjoy each other’s company and have plenty to smile about one month into the 2014-15 season. Despite the arrival of first-time head coach Steve Kerr and the promotion of two new starters in Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green, the Warriors sit atop the Pacific Division and boast the league’s second-best record and No. 1 point differential (+11.7). They are winning in balanced fashion, thanks to a seventh-ranked offense (106.8 rating) and a top-ranked defense (95.1 rating).

Those surface-level achievements are impressive, but they still sell short exactly how dominant the Warriors have been in the early going. Although Kerr and company have had the benefit of playing a weaker-than-average schedule, they have nevertheless made mincemeat of their competition. In fact, Golden State’s well-balanced starting lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Barnes, Green and Andrew Bogut has virtually lapped the field so far this season.

Below, you'll find the NBA’s top 10 lineups by net rating this season. In other words, these five-man groups have outperformed their opponents by the widest margin this year. Note: minimum 150 minutes played; all stats through Nov. 30 via NBA.com/stats.

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That list reveals hot lineups (Portland, Cleveland), blistering lineups (Memphis, Dallas, Sacramento) and then whatever scorching adjective you might like to apply to Golden State, whose +28.7 net rating has been completely out of this world. How far out there are the Warriors orbiting? Digging through recent lineup data, Golden State’s starters have actually enjoyed the hottest start to a season for a five-man group since at least the 2007-08 season.

Below, find the NBA’s top 16 lineups from the last eight seasons. As you can see, Golden State leads the back by a healthy margin. Note: minimum 150 minutes played; all stats through Nov. 30 (or Jan. 31 during the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season) via NBA.com/stats.

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The big question facing the Warriors, of course, is whether their starting lineup's instant chemistry will translate into true championship contention. That’s a layered query. An injury to Bogut, as Golden State has learned in recent years, would blow the whole blueprint to smithereens. The Warriors are also bound to come back to Earth once their schedule difficulty evens out, and Kerr will need to massage veterans Andre Iguodala (a 2013-14 starter under Mark Jackson) and David Lee (a 2013-14 starter who is currently sidelined with a leg injury), who have taken back seats to Barnes and Green this season.   

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Still, the Warriors must be taken seriously, as they are capable of checking off a number of items on the “contender” checklist. The Warriors’ core has been together for a number of years, including multiple postseason trips, and its key players are currently approaching or are already in their respective primes. Golden State is capable of finishing the season as a top-10 team on both sides of the ball. Curry (23.8 points, 7.8 assists, 28.6 Player Efficiency Rating) is a legit superstar who can create offense for himself late in games. Thompson (20.9 points, 44.6 percent three-point shooting, 19.7 PER) has emerged as one of the best players at his position. Bogut (7.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.1 blocks) is an elite rim-protector, and Golden State is holding opponents to a league-best 53.5 percent shooting from within five feet. Kerr will have a number of serviceable veteran bench pieces – Iguodala, Lee, Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, and the pleasantly surprising Speights – at his disposal come April and May. And the Warriors can shoot the three, play big or small, and have multiple bodies to throw at elite wings – all crucial factors when looking ahead to postseason match-ups.

Let's look back at some of other fast-starting lineups from recent years on that second list above. It's a fascinating examination. For Bay Area fans with Larry O’Brien dreams, there are a number of exciting similarities: many of these lineups drove teams that advanced to the conference finals and beyond.

  • 2011 Mavericks: The eventual NBA champions got out to a 19-4 start. Their preferred lineup featured star power (Dirk Nowitzki) scoring punch (Jason Terry), leadership and ball movement (Jason Kidd), rim protection (Tyson Chandler) and a solid glue guy (Caron Butler). A torrid postseason bookended the strong start, resulting in an upset of the newly-formed "Big Three" in Miami. 
  • 2012 Bulls: Before the season ended in disappointment and despair, thanks to Derrick Rose’s first season-ending knee injury and a shocking first-round exit, Chicago began the year with a 16-3 start. A potential Eastern Conference finals showdown between No. 1 Chicago and No. 2 Miami (the eventual champions) will go down in history as one of the greatest series that never was – although the seven-game series between the Heat and Celtics still proved to be a classic.
  • 2014 Pacers: Indiana coach Frank Vogel set the East’s No. 1 seed as his team’s goal, and the Pacers responded by beginning the season 16-1. The superstar emergence of Paul George and a super-stingy defense carried Indiana to the Eastern Conference finals, even though locker-room infighting and choppy offense nearly ended their season prematurely.
  • 2009 Cavaliers: A 66-win Cleveland team opened 20-3 with dominant results on both sides of the ball. LeBron James captured his first MVP award, but the Cavaliers fell to the Magic in the Eastern Conference finals.
  • 2008 Celtics: The offseason arrivals of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen pushed Boston to the 2008 title. Doc Rivers and company started 20-2 on their way to 66 wins. The NBA’s top defense was complemented by a balanced scoring attack.
  • 2013 Grizzlies: This group, which started 12-2, is easily forgotten: they were swept out of the Western Conference finals by the Spurs after triumphing over a Russell Westbrook-less Thunder squad in the second round. Still, Memphis was fearsome thanks to a No. 2 ranked defense captained by 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. The offense was less reliable, thanks in part to a dearth of outside shooting, but Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley all had their moments.  

There are also cautionary tales on the list, including the 2013-14 Warriors, who opened with an 8-3 record but eventually lost both Iguodala and Bogut for portions of the season due to injury. Drama on Mark Jackson’s bench also played a role in Golden State’s inconsistent play and first-round exit. The 2011-12 Clippers and 2007-08 Nuggets were among the other teams with high-performing lineups early in the season that failed to advance to the conference finals.  

As it turns out, the 2014-15 Warriors’ starting lineup isn’t just putting up historic numbers when it comes to net rating. Among all five-man lineups in this study group – through the first month of their respective seasons – Golden State’s starters boast the top assist ratio (24.7). In other words, Golden State's starters have shared the ball better so far this season than any other high-performing lineups over the last eight seasons.  

Look no further than a recent 114-97 win over Miami for evidence of this elite unselfishness: it took just 3:30 for all five Warriors starters to score and all five players went on to register at least two assists on the night. Some of these assisted hoops were Spurs-level pretty. Sip these GIFs slowly for maximum enjoyment, and note that the final product is a high-percentage look.  

Here's Bogut, who seemed an afterthought under Jackson, showing brilliant touch from the high post to a cutting Green. There's a canyon of space in the paint for Green to find his points.

On this one, all five Warriors starters touch the ball, executing a little outside-inside-outside-inside accordion action that brings to mind San Antonio's famous sequence in the Western Conference finals against Oklahoma City. The ball does all the work as it whips around from side to side.

Golden State has shown dramatic improvement from a ball-movement perspective under Kerr. Through Tuesday’s games, the Warriors ranked No. 1 in assists per game (up from No. 7 in 2013-14), No. 1 in assist ratio (up from No. 9 in 2013-14), No. 1 in points created by assists per game, and No. 1, by far, in secondary assists (also known as hockey assists). Most tellingly, SportVU stats tell us that the Warriors are averaging 314.8 passes per game (No. 11), up from 245.8 passes per game (which ranked No. 30!) last season. While many of the Warriors' faces are the same as last year, they are interacting in an entirely different manner.

Although quantifying a team's help defense isn’t as easy as tracking passes or assists, tape of the Warriors unsurprisingly shows countless examples of sacrifices being made by individuals for the good of the group. These plays might not always end in highlight-reel dunks or wide-open three-pointers, but there’s a beauty to them all the same.

Here, Green instinctively helps from the three-point line to swat a shot by Rockets forward Tarik Black. If Green hadn't made the play, Bogut was still in good position to get a second-effort block himself after contesting the initial drive. 

Here, Golden State turns defense into offense in back-breaking fashion against Brooklyn. Curry and Barnes defend a high screen-and-roll before Bogut does what he does best, stymiing the drive and then recovering for a block on Brook Lopez. Bogut then turns that into an outlet pass to Curry straight away, and he finishes the dagger sequence with a layup on the other end.

Taking all of these developments together, Golden State’s fast start presents an excellent opportunity for Kerr to preach the power of his process. Winning streaks will end. Injuries will pop up. Even the hilarious-for-now “Coco” videos will eventually become a forgotten fad. But the team-first approach demonstrated by the Warriors so far – on both ends – has delivered big results that place Golden State alongside some formidable teams, including recent champions and a host of contenders.

For Kerr, this hot start allows him to shift his message from “believe in my vision” to “trust your success.”

That, in itself, is a critical hurdle for any wannabe contender to clear.   

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