Will Stephen Curry and the 73–win Warriors still be remembered fondly if they don't win the NBA title?
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.
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.