The last time we checked in on the Warriors, two weeks back, they were giddily bouncing off the walls of an airplane cabin, celebrating a winning streak that was being powered by one of the most dominant starting lineups in recent memory with the help of an unofficial anthem. The party hasn’t stopped rolling along, even if management stepped in to turn down the volume on their "CoCo" ode. Golden State enters a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in Memphis on Tuesday night holding the league’s best record and top point differential while riding a 16-game winning streak.
Also, over the last fortnight, the 21-2 Warriors officially graduated from “hot start” to “one of the best starts in NBA history.”
Here’s a simple win/loss rundown of the best starts through 23 games since the NBA went to an 82-game schedule in 1967-68.
Only seven teams have started at least 21-2 through 23 games; The other six teams on this list, except Golden State, won an average of 62 games. Five of the other six teams listed also advanced to the conference finals, with three of those teams winning the title. There are no assurances in the NBA, especially in mid-December, but playing .900+ basketball for more than a quarter of the season has been a pretty reliable indicator of a team that needs to be taken seriously come May and June.
One of the three fast-start-to-championship teams happens to be the 1995-96 Bulls, who won an NBA-record 72 games with Michael Jordan driving, Scottie Pippen riding shotgun, and Steve Kerr wedged in the the backseat.
Kerr, now the Warriors’ first-year coach, flatly dismissed comparisons of his team to the 1995-96 Bulls this week. “That year, I think we were 41-3,” Kerr told ESPN.com. “So if we can go 21-1 the next 22 games, come talk to me."
If Kerr dislikes the comparison based on record, he better turn his head from the following comparison by point differential (Margin of Victory or MOV) through 23 games.
- 1996 Bulls -- Points: 2,462; Points Allowed: 2,229; MOV: +10.1
- 2015 Warriors -- Points: 2,475; Points Allowed: 2,227; MOV: +10.8
Pretty… pretty… pretty much identical.
To take this just one half-step further, through 23 games, both teams led the league in point differential and held similar leads over the second-place team. In 1995-96, the Rockets were second at +7.8. This season, the Raptors are runners-up at +8.2. To boil that down: through 23 games, these two teams shared identical records, very similar point differentials, and comparable levels of dominance relative to the rest of the NBA.
Even if the side-by-side performance of the two teams through 23 games is a bit eerie, Kerr’s larger point is well-taken. As impressive as the Warriors’ start has been, they've really only traveled about halfway to the Bulls’ ridiculous midseason-ish mark. What did Chicago do after posting its league-leading +10.1 point differential through 23 games? It got better. Meaningfully better. By the time the Bulls were 41-3, their point differential was up to +12.6. By the end of the season, Chicago had settled at +12.2, the third-highest mark during the 82-game season era, trailing only the 69-win 1971-72 Lakers (+12.3) and the 66-win 1970-71 Bucks (+12.3).
The cold, persistent truth for streaking teams like the Warriors is that any comparison to such elite company could die with the slightest slip-up. Indeed, this very moment could represent the Warriors’ bubble, as they face the Grizzlies (19-4) on Tuesday and the Thunder (winners of six straight with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook back in the lineup) on Thursday. Something as simple as back-to-back losses against those quality opponents could burst the bubble, and trying to alleviate the pressure that comes with such strenuous – and immediately irrelevant -- standards is exactly what Kerr was getting at with his statement this week.
An obvious nit to pick with Golden State’s performance concerns its schedule to date. Only two of the 16 victories on its current streak came against one of the West’s top eight teams, while half of the wins came against bottom-feeding types (Orlando twice, Charlotte, Minnesota, Utah, Detroit, the Lakers, and the Thunder without either Westbrook or Durant). Basketball-Reference places the Warriors’ strength of schedule at No. 27 (-0.88) through Tuesday, while ESPN notes that their opponent’s winning percentage of .494 currently ranks No. 14. Things will get considerably harder over the next five weeks or so, with the aforementioned games against the Grizzlies and Thunder plus games against the Clippers, the Raptors, the Thunder again, the Cavaliers, and the Rockets twice. A nasal fracture suffered by Harrison Barnes on Sunday will also complicate Kerr's rotations if the injury sidelines Golden State's starting small forward for any length of time.
Prematurely dousing cold water on the Warriors’ flames just isn’t much fun, though, is it? Not when only 14 teams have longer winning streaks than the Warriors' 16-gamer during the 82-game season era. Not when All-Star guard (and early MVP leader) Stephen Curry is keeping his team’s winning streak alive with a vicious dribble combination slash pull-up three-pointer against Orlando…
Or when Curry dribbles behind his back with his off hand before executing an off-hand, behind-the-back pass to Klay Thompson in transition. The highlight fittingly ends with Thompson swishing the three as Curry raises his arm to celebrate, knowing that the shot is going down…
Or when Golden State’s starters as a group continue to pulverize the competition. Here, again, are the most dominant high-minute lineups from this season. The Warriors’ preferred starting five of Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut continues to blow everyone out of the water by net rating, per NBA.com/stats.
There continues to be no recent comparison for the spread between Golden State’s starters and their opposition this late in the season. Pulling back to look at point differential for the entire team, the Warriors’ current mark of +10.8 is the best for any team through 23 games since the 2008-09 Cavaliers (+13.5), who were led to 66 wins and the Eastern Conference finals by LeBron James.
Indeed, Golden State’s current point differential ranks No. 17 since the NBA moved to an 82-game schedule, and it’s the third-highest posted during the last 10 seasons (trailing only the 2007-08 Celtics, who won 66 games and the 2008 title, and the 2008-09 Cavaliers mentioned above).
Here’s a full look at all the teams that had better starts than the Warriors through 23 games, from a point differential perspective.
Note that a whopping seven of the 16 teams won the championship and 14 of the 16 teams advanced to the conference finals. The 16 teams in this group also won an average of 63 games and no team in the group won fewer than 57 games. This point differential history only reinforces the promising comparison points set up by teams with the best early records listed above.
By playing so well for such a large portion of the season, Golden State has joined a really intriguing cross-section of teams. Included among these 16 teams are two of Jordan’s title teams, both Knicks championship teams, an all-time great 1971-72 Lakers squad, and back-to-back Bucks juggernauts powered by the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/Oscar Robertson combination during the early 1970s.
Even this group’s cautionary tales and “underachievers” are incredibly memorable. The 1977-78 Blazers, for example, looked destined for greatness, if not for a Bill Walton midseason injury. The 2003-04 SuperSonics will be remembered for decades thanks to Dikembo Mutombo’s joyous cradling of the basketball after his No. 8 seed Nuggets shocked the world by upsetting the No. 1 seed in a best-of-five first-round series.
Those last two examples look like pretty appropriate reference points for these Warriors, given their reliance on the oft-injured Bogut in the middle and the incredible strength of the Western Conference's projected playoff field. A Bogut injury would clearly take a major toll on Golden State’s superb team defense, and any 1 vs. 8 match-up in the West, assuming the Warriors do succeed in claiming the top seed, is going to be a nightmare. (How soon we forget that the Spurs, last year's chainsaw champions, needed seven games to get past the No. 8 Mavericks in the first round.)
That Kerr wants nothing to do with the Bulls comparisons is understandable, especially during a week that was already saturated with headlines devoted to Kobe Bryant’s chase of Jordan’s spot on the all-time scoring list. But it seems unlikely that Kerr -- a student of the game who has supplemented his life experience in Chicago by spending time with winners in both San Antonio and Phoenix -- would totally ignore the impressive precedents his team is approaching. Shunning the 72-win talk is a no-brainer, but finding inspiration in the journeys of contenders and wannabe-contenders of the past seems like a worthwhile endeavor for a fun-loving Warriors group that’s flirting with history.