June 12th 2016, having won a record seventy three games over the course of the season, the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors are leading the Cleveland Cavaliers three games to one in the finals. A win the next day would have captured a second championship and likely written the team into the annuls of history as one of the all-time greats. However, none of that came to pass. Cleveland went on to win three straight games off the backs of Lebron James and Kyrie Erving to claim the title, the team’s first in their forty-six year history. Whilst much of the ensuing focus has been on the city of Cleveland and local-hero Lebron James, the outcome for the Warriors is somewhat more of an unknown.
Before the play-offs there was talk of the Warriors being able to contend with the 1995-95 Chicago Bulls as the best team of all time. No other teams have ever won seventy or more games in a season (the Bulls went 72-10) and had the Warriors managed to retain their title, an argument could well have been made to this effect. Clearly failing to win the title will damage the legacy of the Warriors, some have even suggested that they will be all but forgotten when it comes to talking about the great teams. It is true that it is very rare for the runner up to be remembered but surely the all-time record for wins in a season must count for something?
In this regard the better comparison might be the 2007 New England Patriots, even if the sport is not the same. The Patriots went undefeated in the regular season (the only time this has been done since the move from a fourteen game season to a sixteen one and only the second time overall) and got all the way to the Superbowl only to be knocked-off by the New York Giants. What is often pointed out as the difference between these two is the nature with which they lost. The Patriots can hardly be described as being robbed by the Giants by David Tyree’s famous ‘helmet catch’ in the final two minutes to set-up the score that gave the Giants a 17-14 victory. If you haven’t seen the catch, lucky doesn’t being to describe it, having been described as the greatest play in NFL history by some. Whilst some will argue that the Warriors got unlucky in the finals, it is quite hard to argue that losing three straight by an average margin of 11 points shows anything other than that they got beaten by a team that simply played better.
Would it be fair then to say that the Warriors choked? They are only one of eleven teams to have blown a 3-1 series lead and the only team to have ever done so in the NBA finals. Leading just before the half of game five, the Warriors were just twenty-five minutes from a title. An argument can certainly be made that the Warrior’s star Steph Curry and Klay Thompson who over the season averaged over fifty-two points per game on more than forty-four percent shooting from the three-point line failed to deliver at the death combining for just one hundred and forty eight points in the final three games despite taking one hundred and eighteen shots and thirty free-throws between them (a potential three hundred and thirty nine points). Without going too deeply into analytics, it is fair to say that the pair massively underperformed, especially Curry whose steals and assists were down by two thirds compared to his season averages whilst doubling the number of fouls he committed and increasing turnovers by twenty percent.
Even before the finals there were strong clues that the Warriors were not the dominant teams that the 1995-96 Bulls and even the 1971-71 L.A. Lakers were. The Bulls lost just one game en route to the 1996 finals, and that was in overtime away to the Knicks. The Lakers lost just two and they were both to a reigning-champion Bucks team featuring both Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, both former 1st overall picks who combined to win seven championships, 7 MVPs and nineteen All-NBA 1st Team selections. Comparably the Warriors lost 5 games en route to the final, one to each of the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers and then were forced to come back from a 3-1 deficit of their own against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Coming back from a 3-1 deficit in this way is a testament to the toughness of the Warriors but also goes to show that despite the 73-9 record this is not the case of a dominant team that merely slipped up at the last hurdle, so how did they then obtain that record?
The Warriors are a system team, like most in the NBA, but unlike most they run very few set pieces. Instead, they tend to prefer to utilise their large number of excellent shooters by spreading defences out and then running pick-and-rolls to force defensive help thereby allowing for open shooters. This combined with Curry and Thompson taking and making shots that other players would laugh at taking has allowed them to lead the league in scoring, all behind three-point shooting. To put their dependence on the three pointer into some context, Steph Curry is the only player to have made three hundred threes in a season, and last season he made four-hundred-and-three, that is just on whole different scale (Klay Thompson made 280, the most ever by somebody not named Steph Curry). With teams playing such a tight schedule and therefore lacking the time to carefully game-plan in the same way as they do in the play-offs they were able to annihilate opponents with a scoring barrage and good defence.
The convenient answer then would be to describe them as a great regular-season team but not a great overall team but without making such a distinction (as the casual observer tends not to) the answer is still unclear. What certainly is clear is that the shooter-heavy model that the Warriors have pioneered is all the rage in the NBA after their recent success. Teams are looking to find shooters at every position and if nothing else this Warriors team will likely be seen as the origin of the three-pointer revolution, even if that revolution is ultimately unsuccessful. In that respect the 2016 Warriors will likely be basketball’s answer to Gustave Whitehead and if you don’t know who that is then that probably gives you an answer.