After starting the season with 24 straight wins, the Golden State Warriors capped their historic 2015–16 campaign with a 73rd win in their finale, breaking the '95–96 Bulls' record for the best regular season in NBA history. But will it all be for naught if the defending champions can't win a second straight title? SI.com paneled its NBA experts to ask if the Warriors' regular–season achievements would be overshadowed if they can't finish with another Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Does 73 wins matter if the Golden State Warriors don't win the NBA title?
Lee Jenkins: Yes. The 73 wins will always matter because of the phenomenon that these Warriors became. They were a great team last season, when they won the championship, but they were a forever team this season, when they captivated observers who don’t normally follow the NBA. Let’s say they somehow fall short, which I don’t believe is possible. In 20 years, I wonder if people will confuse their record–setting season for their title season. That may happen. But more likely, they will simply be remembered as victims of the biggest playoff upset ever, and a cautionary tale used by coaches who favor rest over milestones. One way or another, 73 will matter.
Ben Golliver: No. No one respects the consistent excellence or enjoys the night–to–night showmanship of the Warriors’ 73–win season more than I do. They have blown away expectations in every way, whether by avoiding regression and complacency, by smashing individual and team records left and right, or by hitting 73 wins, a mark that I had assumed was more or less impossible to reach as recently as the All-Star break.
Unfortunately, this season needs—NEEDS—to end with another championship parade in the Bay Area. If it doesn’t, the Warriors will find themselves ejected from the “Greatest Team of All Time” discussion and dumped into the “Greatest Team That Almost Was” conversation. That would be a shame. The NBA’s postseason format has a lot to do with it: An upset over a strong favorite (with a formidable home–court advantage) in a Best-of-7 series is exceedingly rare. Entering this season, seven of the eight teams with the best point differentials of all time and eight of the 10 teams to win at least 67 games in the regular season went on to win the title.
The list of historic underachievers is a pretty short one: the 1973 Celtics (67 wins), 2007 Mavericks (67 wins), 1972 Bucks (+11.2 point differential), 1994 Sonics (a 63-win team upset by the No. 8 seed in the first round) and 2009 Cavaliers (66 wins with LeBron James in his prime). With all due respect to those teams, the 2016 Warriors would jump straight to the top of the list based on their record, their top–10 all time point differential, and the fact that they have a back–to–back MVP in his prime. That would be true even if they lose to the Spurs, who have also put together a record–setting season and a monster point differential, or the Cavaliers with James. A milestone as magical as 73 demands and deserves total validation, and that can only come via a championship banner. Falling in the postseason wouldn’t tarnish Golden State’s regular season accomplishment, but it would definitely spoil it.
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Andrew Sharp: YES (sort of). Let the record state: If one or two guys get hurt or things fall apart some other way, it will complicate the legacy of this season, but this was all so incredible. I will never forget how good they looked every night, and how many times they came through when I was positive they were due to fail.
On the other hand ... Let's not kid ourselves. If the Warriors lose, 73 wins won't give them the benefit of the doubt as far as greatness is concerned. It will amplify the backlash. The volcano of takes has been brewing all year, and IT. WILL. ERUPT.
There will definitely be a large segment of media and fans who use any Warriors playoff failure as a way to invalidate everything that's happened in the past two years. They will say that the Warriors never had to beat a healthy contender last season. They will add that this year's regular season was brilliant, but the playoffs were proof that they were never as dominant as their three-point shooting made them seem. I'm pretty sure a decent chunk of the NBA's older guard already believes this. And in that case, there's no question that 73 wins will only fuel the rush to pretend that the past 24 months were a glitch in history. Or they could win, and nobody can question the Warriors ever again.
Chris Ballard:Yes. It stands as an accomplishment—one that may not be topped, considering all that needs to occur for a team to win 74. But its historical weight is predicated on titles—both the one the Warriors won last June and the one they aim to win this June. The team's late season push this year was akin to doubling down. Win a ring and they can make a claim to the most dominant two year stretch in league history; fail and we'll always wonder, rightly or wrongly, if that push hurt them in the postseason.
Rob Mahoney: Yes. The regular season and playoffs are distinct for a reason; each has its own rhythm and its own unique challenges. To win 73 regular season games—and, more strikingly, to lose just nine—is an incredible achievement that no team in the history of the sport had managed previously. That’s worth celebrating independent of the title in the same way that any record-setting season of its magnitude would be. Championships are impressive and definite. But they aren’t the only way to measure success, and they surely don’t validate or invalidate all that came before.
NBA Championship Rings Through the Years
2017-18 Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors swept the Cleveland Cavaliers to win their third title in four years. The team got reversible rings with 74 sapphries on one side of the ring. The 74 represents the total number of victories the team earned during the regular season and playoffs in bringing home the franchise's sixth championship.
2016-17 Golden State Warriors
The Warriors beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2017 NBA Finals to win their second title in three years.
2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers
NBA Finals MVP LeBron James and the Cavs defeated the defending champion Warriors in seven games for these rings featuring the Cavaliers’ “C” wrapped around the Larry O’Brien trophy.
2014-15 Golden State Warriors
The Warriors took home these beauties after upending LeBron James and the Cavaliers in six games for their first title in 40 years.
2013-14 San Antonio Spurs
The Heat aimed to three-peat, but the Spurs had other ideas. Kawhi Leonard had a couple of breakout performances on his way to series MVP, and San Antonio ran away from Miami in five games.
2012-13 Miami Heat
These rings would have never seen the light of day had Ray Allen not made one of the greatest shots in NBA Finals history. Thanks to Allen, the Heat rallied and defeated the Spurs in overtime in Game 6, and then won two days later to repeat as champs.
2011-12 Miami Heat
LeBron James got his first ring as the Heat overwhelmed the Thunder in five games. James averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists.
2010-11 Dallas Mavericks
Dallas won three straight games to erase a 2-1 deficit and squash the newly formed Miami Big Three's title dreams. This was also the Mavericks' first NBA title in franchise history.
2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers
The Celtics held a 3-2 lead in this series, but the Lakers took care of business at the Staples Center in Game 6 and 7 to repeat as champs. This was the fifth and final set of rings for Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant.
2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers survived in a pair of overtime battles and then pulled away from the Magic in Game 5 to win their first NBA title since 2002's three-peat. Kobe Bryant won series MVP with averages of 32.4 points and 7.4 assists.
2007-08 Boston Celtics
Acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen during the off-season paid off quickly for Boston. In their first year, Garnett and Allen teamed up with Paul Pierce to defeat the Lakers in six games and bring the Celtics new jewelry for the first time since 1986.
2006-07 San Antonio Spurs
LeBron James' Cavaliers broke through to the finals, but they were no match for the Spurs, who completed the sweep for their third title in five years.
2005-06 Miami Heat
In their first-ever NBA Finals appearance, the Heat became the third team in league history to win a championship after trailing 0-2. Dwayne Wade averaged 39.3 points in the next four games as Miami won the series in six.
2004-05 San Antonio Spurs
This series was almost as close as possible. The Spurs and the Pistons entered the fourth quarter of Game 7 tied, and Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili led San Antonio in the fourth quarter to its third title under coach Greg Popovich.
2003-04 Detroit Pistons
Larry Brown had an NCAA title ring, and a 4-1 victory over the Lakers gave the coach his first NBA championship ring. Brown remains the only coach to win an NCAA and NBA title.
2002-03 San Antonio Spurs
In one of the great all-time playoff performances, Tim Duncan fell barely shy of a quadruple double with 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocks in the series-clinching Game 6.
2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers
The Nets did not put up much resistance as the Lakers completed a 4-0 sweep for their third straight title, giving coach Phil Jackson his ninth NBA title in 12 seasons.
2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers
Allen Iverson carried the 76ers to a Eastern Conference title and Game 1 victory against the Lakers, but Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were too much for The Answer. Los Angeles won the next four games, including three straight in Philadelphia, to win its second straight championship.
1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers
In his return to coaching, Phil Jackson guided the Lakers to a 4-2 series victory against the Pacers, coached by Larry Bird. Shaquille O'Neal averaged 36.3 points and 12.3 rebounds, earning his first of three straight Finals MVPs.
1998-99 San Antonio Spurs
In a battle of dominant frontcourts, David Robinson and Tim Duncan bested Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson as the Spurs defeated the Knicks in five games for their first NBA title.
1997-98 Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan's jump shot with 5.6 seconds remaining in Game 6 gave the Bulls their second three-peat of the decade. Since then, Chicago has no NBA Finals appearances and only one conference finals appearance.
1996-97 Chicago Bulls
In a series featuring six Hall of Fame players, the Bulls defeated the Jazz in six games as Michael Jordan fought through food poisoning to lead Chicago to wins in Game 5 and Game 6.
1995-96 Chicago Bulls
Dennis Rodman tied an NBA Finals record in Game 2 with 11 offensive rebounds against Seattle and then did it again in Game 6, the series clincher, but Michael Jordan was once again the no-brainer series MVP, averaging 27.3 points 5.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists.
1994-95 Houston Rockets
Hakeem Olajuwon taught young Shaquille O'Neal a few lessons in this series as the Rockets swept the Magic for their second consecutive NBA title. The Rockets were the first No. 6 seed to win a Finals series.
1993-94 Houston Rockets
The Rockets ended a five-season title drought for the Western Conference as Hakeem Olajuwon charged victories in Game 6 and Game 7 in Houston.
1992-93 Chicago Bulls
The Bulls became the first team to three-peat since Bill Russell's Celtics in the 1960s. Chicago defeated Phoenix in six games, leaving Charles Barkley without a ring.
1991-92 Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan shrugged his way to a NBA Finals record six first-half three-pointers in Game of 1 of this series, and the Bulls went on to win in six games.
1990-91 Chicago Bulls
The Bulls recorded their first-ever NBA title as Michael Jordan led the way averaging 31.2 points, 11.4 assists, 2.8 steals and 1.4 blocks to defeat the Showtime Lakers in five games.
1989-90 Detroit PIstons
For the first time since 1979, the NBA Finals did not include at least one of the Celtics or the Lakers. The Bad Boy Pistons faced Clyde Drexler and the Trail Blazers, winning in five games for their second straight championship.
1988-89 Detroit PIstons
The Lakers led entering the fourth quarter three times during this series but could never hold on as the Pistons swept them in four games.
1987-88 Los Angeles Lakers
This time, the Lakers got the best of the Pistons in a thrilling seven games series where the final two games were decided by a combined four points.
1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers
In a high-scoring series, the Lakers and the Celtics each broke the century in the first five games. Then Los Angeles held Boston to 93 points to win the series in Game 6.
1985-86 Boston Celtics
The Celtics captured their second title in three years, defeating the Rockets in six games. Larry Bird fell just shy of averaging a triple with 24 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists.
1984-85 Los Angeles Lakers
In a series that featured nine Hall of Fame players, the Lakers got revenge from one year earlier with a 4-2 victory against the Celtics.
1983-84 Boston Celtics
The Celtics came out on top in the first of three 1980s finals meetings with the Lakers. Larry Bird averaged 27.4 points and 14 rebounds, getting the best of Magic Johnson, who's Michigan State team got defeated Bird's Indiana State squad in the 1979 NCAA championship.
1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers
In a rematch of the 1982 finals, Moses Malone tore up the Lakers front line for 25.8 points and 18 rebounds per game as Philadelphia swept Los Angeles.
Matt Dollinger: Yes. I stayed up all night drinking coffee while contemplating this question, cutting out newspaper clippings and pinning them to the wall Beautiful Mind–style. Eventually, I was able to decipher the hidden hot–take code: Yes, 73 wins matters without a title. In fact, 73 wins might mean even more than a title.
Think about it: Who won the NBA title in 2006? How about 1996? Or 1986? You might not remember, but chances are you know the Bulls won 72 games in '95–96. Do you remember if they won a title or not? Well, they did, but the memory that stands the test of time is that Michael Jordan's squad cemented itself as the greatest regular–season team of all time. That is, until the Warriors topped them this season, racking up a mind–boggling amount of victories and setting a record that's unlikely to ever be broken.
I'm not trying to diminish the importance of an NBA title—it's the ultimate goal of all 30 teams. But Golden State's historic regular season could trump anything it does in the playoffs. Is winning 73 of 82 games more impressive than winning four straight playoff series? Is six months of sustained success more challenging than two months of brilliance? Both are debatable, but the 2015–16 Warriors' place in history is not.