The Golden State Warriors are having a record breaking season, but does winning the most games make them the best ever?
With an overtime victory away to Utah Wednesday night, the Golden State Warriors and their superstar Stephen Curry moved to 68-7 on the season, just four wins short of the NBA record held by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.
The stats geeks at the FiveThirtyEight website now put the Warriors' chance of reaching a record-setting 73 wins at 85%. They are two games ahead of the pace; the Bulls stood 66-9 at this point in 1996. Despite a shock loss to the Boston Celtics at home in Oakland, they have won 36 of their 37 matches this season, and still stand a chance of claiming the record.
The win over Utah was typical Warriors. Their first basket came off a four-pass move, almost a set piece, based on the old fashioned 'weave'. The basket that tied the game in regulation was a second-chance three-pointer by shooting guard Klay Thompson, who missed his first wide-open try after Utah rushed to double-team Curry, who passed him the ball. The miss was rebounded and returned to Thompson, who drilled the outside shot for the tying three. The Warriors won 103-96 after the extra time.
Image: Rick Bowmer / AP/Press Association Images
Since the Warriors are defending league champions, and won 67 games last year, this isn't totally unexpected. But would becoming what we Yanks call the 'winningest' team ever also make Golden State the BEST team ever?
To even enter that discussion, they need to repeat as NBA champs, which means beating the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs are only five games off Golden State's record-setting pace, and could easily finish with one of the top five records in league history themselves.
This means, for our immediate purposes, we are setting the Warriors against a Bulls' team coached by Zen-master Phil Jackson and led by Michael Jordan, the greatest NBA player ever, as well as the Spurs who have achieved consistent success for nearly 20 years under coach Greg Popovich with star forward Tim Duncan. And strangely enough, one thing ties those two teams together: Warriors' coach Steve Kerr.
Kerr, a deadly shooting but small guard, was a player whose role was crucial to five NBA champions. He won three rings with the Bulls, including that '96 championship, and another two with the Spurs with Popovich and Duncan. After retiring as a player, he became the general manager of the Phoenix Suns. He quit that job to take a step down, as it were, and began coaching the Warriors last season, winning the NBA title in his first year.
Image: Chicago Bulls head coach Phil Jackson, left, and guard Michael Jordan talk during a timeout in their Eastern Conference Final game. STEVE SIMONEAU / AP/Press Association Images
You can see the influence of both the mentors he played for in Kerr's team. First off, like Jackson, he knows what he has in his superstar. Curry, the league's reigning Most Valuable Player, is central to the Warriors' success.
The team's point guard, he averages 30 points per game, but also passes for 6.5 assists per game, and averages better than five rebounds and two steals as well. You could put together a highlight reel of Curry's last second shots this season, from ever-increasing distances. Even from half-court, he shoots, not heaves the basketball. With Thompson's 22.5 points per game, the Warriors' backcourt accounts for 46% of the team's scoring, and only two other players are even in double figures.
But the real secret of the Warriors' success is that, just like Jackson's Bulls, they play as a team, each player knowing his role. In fact, the similarities are striking. Jordan, like Curry, averaged 30 points per game. With his wingman, Scottie Pippen, hitting 19, they combined for 47% of the team's points, and the Bulls had only one other player in double figures, Toni Kukoc.
Kerr uses the famed triangle offense Jackson learned from Tex Winter, which made it easy to find open men when defenses concentrated on Jordan. Those Bulls rotated three centers, starting Aussie Luc Longley, with Canadian Bill Wennington and James Edwards. The Warriors start Aussie Andrew Bogut, with Nigeria's Festus Ezeli and Yank Marreese Speights sharing the pivot. If anything, they're better than Chicago's trio: together they average 20 points and 16 rebounds a game.
The Spurs' version of Dennis Rodman, who provided rebounding and defense, is forward Draymond Green, who not only leads them in rebounds, but assists, while scoring 14 points a game. He's part Rodman, part Pippen, part Kukoc.
The comparison isn't perfect, partly because Kerr the coach doesn't have Kerr the player to bring off the bench ('96 was his best season, averaging 8.4 points, but he shot over 50% on the long-range three-pointers, even better than Curry). Instead, like Popovich, Kerr uses everyone on his bench: 11 Warriors average at least 15 minutes per game. Offensively the Warriors keep spacing between players exactly as the Spurs do, and if anything are even quicker to run and get Curry open looks in transition. And oddly, Kerr has coached this team so well that when he was forced to take time off because of serious spinal problems, the team started 24-0 under assistant coach Luke Walton, son of NBA great and Hall of Fame Grateful Dead fan Bill Walton. When Kerr returned, the team's record was 39-4; they've gone 29-3 since. The Warriors, like the Spurs, play team basketball, and like the Spurs, they're fun to watch.
And then there's Curry.
Right now there are still seven games to play, but once the first seed in the playoff is clinched, how strong will the motivation to break the record be? No doubt the temptation to rest their stars in preparation for the added intensity of the playoffs will be resisted. Already NBA fans are looking ahead to April 10th, when San Antonio, themselves unbeaten in 38 contests at home, host the Warriors in the season's penultimate game, a championship semi-final preview (as they're in the same conference, they can't play for the title).
Of course even with the record and the NBA title, the arguments of greatest team ever will persist.
Old timers will recall the harder travel on commercial flights, the games on neutral courts, the tougher competition with fewer teams. Some will always favour Jordan's Bulls, after all they have Michael Jordan! Or Larry Bird's '86 Celtics, or the '73 Lakers, or even the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers. Arguments like that are what keeps sport alive year-round.
But spare a thought for those Sixers, whose record stands at 9-66, and who are on pace to match the 1973 Sixers with the second-worst record of all-time, behind only the 2012 Charlotte Bobcats who finished a shortened season with a 7-59 record. Oh, and the owner and manager of operations for those Bobcats? Some guy called Michael Jordan.