The Golden State Warriors attract analytics the way food attracts ants. It’s so tempting to try to quantify the sweetness of their play: Geometrists sketch the parabola of Stephen Curry’s shot, and gangs of statisticians evaluate their records and probabilities of repeating as NBA champions. All the numbers are useful and interesting, but they’re really just an attempt to find the right language to explain this team, to pin it down. Sort of like trying to paste a butterfly to a page.
The most interesting thing about the Warriors is how unmeasurable they are. There is no stat that adequately illustrates their singular blend of ambition, collaboration and flair. Arguably no team has reached so aggressively, so openly, for all-time greatness or set itself up for a fall with less fear. They unrepentantly went after the NBA record for wins in a season. There was no coy ducking of pressure; they wanted it, and they said so. They got it with a 73-9 mark, and now the next thing is a second straight championship because, as Curry said a few weeks back, “We don’t want to be the team that gets the record and doesn’t win.”
That would just let all the doubters back in, the ones who consider them a statistical anomaly — not truly great, just a blip. It’s an outlook advanced unapologetically by Charles Barkley, who says there is no way the Warriors will repeat, and if they do somehow happen into another fluke of a title, “I will get down on my knees.” Barkley is a smart guy, and you sense that he’s enjoying poking a stick at the Warriors, and he also knows just how hard it is to repeat — unless you are indeed the next dynasty, as opposed to a splashy team that got a little lucky when the Cleveland Cavaliers wore down with injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
The enemies of a repeat are well known. A team can fall into complacency, what Pat Riley called “the disease of more”: players worrying more about their playing time and paychecks than winning. Then there is the risk of physical burnout, the reality that another run means playing 20 or so extra games under increasing pressure from teams that have spent an entire year thinking about how to beat you.
The Warriors so far have countered with a simple and all but lost quality that the NBA seems to distrust: They’re unselfish. If they have a hallmark, it’s that they’re superb cooperationists. They’re so flexible that they don’t rely on one stud to carry them despite Curry’s awing pyrotechnics, which tend to distract from how deep they really are. Curry goes out with a sprained foot against the Houston Rockets? No problem. As Andre Iguodala said, “It’s good for us.” In Game 2, Iguodala stepped off the bench to shoot 7 for 10, while Klay Thompson had 34 points and Draymond Green was two passes shy of a triple-double. Oh, and Shaun Livingston scored 16 as Curry’s replacement, too.
“We have guys with a lot of confidence and guys who do a lot of sacrificing,” Iguodala said afterward. “And they kind of hold back their total game for the better of the team. We know what each guy is capable of, so when guys are playing this well, this is no surprise for us.”
Critics like Barkley consider the Warriors just a historically hot jump-shooting team — which they are — but that’s the least of it. They’re a historic jump-shooting team because they’re a historically open jump-shooting team. If there is one meaningful number that captures them, it’s this: 68 percent of their baskets come off of assists, best in the league. Curry and Green both ranked in the top 10 in assists and also in the more subtle category of secondary assists, the pass to set up the pass. Again, Curry’s flash is almost a distraction that prevents observers from seeing their substance. Green is a power forward. Name another power forward who rivals a point guard in assists. You can’t. The only other non-guard to finish in the top 10 in the league in assists in the past 20 years is LeBron James.
Their slogan is “Strength in numbers,” and Thompson says they “really live by that.” The entire organization is permeated with an attitude of easy cooperation. General Manager Bob Myers spent the offseason re-signing players, keeping the band together. Coach Steve Kerr radiates a sense of partnership — he bowed to their wishes and let them go after the record for wins when he may have instead wanted to sit some starters to be fresh for the playoffs. Not since Phil Jackson has a coach seemed such an interesting cross between lenient and demanding.
Then there is Curry, whose fundamental self-effacement despite doing stupendous things is the chief ingredient in their chemistry. As Kerr describes him, “He’s incredibly humble off the court and incredibly arrogant on it, and what a wonderful combination.”
If the Warriors repeat, it will be because their star player refused to become obnoxious, his demeanor didn’t change and dollars didn’t move him.
“When the leader or most important person in the franchise is a really decent human being, it’s hard not to fall into that line,” Myers said.
All of this is why they haven’t slackened or stalled: A team that finished last season by winning 16 of 21 playoff games picked right back up with a 73-win season in which it never lost back-to-back games or to the same opponent twice. That’s unheard of. It’s not the feat of a bunch of jump-shooters. It’s the feat of a team with real freight.
And one that is perhaps just waking to its own greatness.
“We always said we wanted to do it with the big picture in mind,” Curry said.
We’ve seen this before, and we know what it is. It’s the real thing.