If you are a longtime basketball fan who can’t shake the notion of the Warriors as a sad-sack franchise, or if you pay too much attention to Charles Barkley-class pundits’s ramblings about jump shooting and experience, this is going to sound crazy to you, but let’s get straight to it: the Golden State Warriors are going to win the NBA Finals. Vegas and the prediction markets give them a 25% chance of winning a championship, while FiveThirtyEight’s comparatively bullish model gives them a 48% chance, but those are all overly pessimistic calculations. Because the Warriors are definitely going to win it all.
It has been said some this season, but not enough, and usually with a hint of disbelief, so I am going to shout it: THE GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS ARE A HISTORICALLY GREAT BASKETBALL TEAM. They aren’t just good, they aren’t just great, they aren’t just the best team in the league. They are one of the best basketball teams in the history of the NBA.
The Warriors finished the season 67-15, tied with a few other teams for the sixth best record ever. Of the ten teams to finish 67-15 of better, seven won the NBA championship. If you prefer talking about margin of victory, their average margin of victory was 10.1 points per game. That is eighth best all-time, and of the seven teams better, six won the NBA championship. The Warriors were the best team in the league by a wide margin this season, having seven more wins than the Hawks (who played in the garbage Eastern Conference) and an average margin of victory 3.51 points per game better than the Clippers.
A historically superb regular season points to the Warriors hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, but of course doesn’t guarantee it. They still need certain uncontrollable factors to break their way, and a little bit of luck. But they are good enough that instead of justifying picking them, one needs to justify why they aren’t picking the Warriors. For a number of reasons beyond just “they smash on teams,” it makes sense that the Warriors are going to win the NBA Finals.
The NBA season is a brutal slog, and this one especially so. There were already too many back-to-backs and four-games-in-five nights, and then the league decided to dump a week-long All-Star break into the middle of the season without starting it earlier or ending it later. The players are exhausted and banged up, and fatigue plays an important role in determining playoff outcomes, and the Warriors shouldn’t have any.
The Warriors beat the shit out of teams so badly this season that their starters got plenty of rest, often sitting out entire fourth quarters. In the 80 games he played, Stephen Curry didn’t play a single second in 17 fourth quarters. Despite being healthy, a superstar, and the main driver of the Warriors’s success, Curry only played the 19 th most minutes in the league. He played 350 minutes fewer than the leader of the West’s second seed, James Harden. That’s ten full games less wear and tear on Curry’s body. Curry only played 100 more minutes than LeBron James, despite playing in 11 more games.
Curry is the most important example, but everybody on the team should be well-rested and free of knocks and bruises. Besides Curry, nobody averaged more than 32 minutes per game. The older of the Warriors’s key players, Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala, only averaged 24 and 27 minutes, respectively. This won’t particularly matter in the first round, but in a month-and-a-half from now when these players are on their 100 th game of the reason, the hundreds of fewer minutes played and thousands of fewer screens run into will win the Warriors an important game.
Crucially, the entire team is healthy. That could obviously change, but it could also change for any other team too. But going into the playoffs Steve Kerr will have the entire team to work with, not something many of their rivals can say.
Oracle Arena has always been a special place to play, with fervent crowds making it the loudest and most intimidating building in the NBA. Fans filled the place even in the decade plus when they were garbage, and they frequently had a winning home record. Any Game 7 the Warriors find themselves in will take place at Oracle, where they went a ridiculous 39-2 this season. Their only two losses were early in the season to the Spurs, and a close overtime loss to the Bulls.
And if it was nearly impossible to beat the Warriors at home this season, it becomes an even tougher task when everybody is wearing yellow shirts and the team sells standing room tickets and referees legitimately feel like they are going to get jumped by the crowd if they make a call against the Warriors. Their 10.1 points per game margin of victory rises to 14.5 points per game at home: they are simply a goddamn steamroller in Oakland. To beat the Warriors means, at the very least, winning once at Oracle, and probably twice. That doesn’t seem too likely.
By far the biggest threat to the Warriors in the West is the Spurs. They are one of the two teams to beat them at home, the only team to beat them twice, and look to be figuring out how to integrate their next star, Kawhi Leonard, into the offense at just the right time. And historically, the Warriors struggle against no team like they struggle against the Spurs.
But by virtue of losing their final game of the regular season to the Pelicans, the Spurs are the sixth seed in the West. This means the Warriors won’t see them prior to the Western Conference Finals, and even to get there the Spurs face an uphill climb. They’ll have to go on the road and beat the Clippers (season series tied 2-2) and then probably the Rockets.* There is a pretty decent shot they get knocked out before the Warriors ever have to face them.
Similarly, their biggest competition in the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers, doesn’t have the smoothest road. They are going to beat the Celtics in the first round, but Brad Stevens is a smart coach, and the Cavs will have to work harder (and maybe play a game or two more) than they would’ve if the Nets or Pacers had snuck into the seven seed. And on the final day of the season the Bulls won to ensure their three seed, and set themselves up as the Cavs’ likely second round opponent. They are a more difficult match-up than the Raptors, if only because Tom Thibodeau will absolutely grind them to death. And then, of course, they’ll likely have to beat the Hawks on the road. They’ll still probably make it through these tests, but they’ll leave the Cavs more tired and beat-up than it could’ve been otherwise.
There is a fiction that people assume is true about the NBA, that eventual champions have to be battle-tested by years of playoff losses before they can win, like they are Republican candidates for president or something. This line of thought is an integral part of the narrative about the Chicago Bulls, that Michael Jordan and co. had to lose to the Pistons for years to “learn how to win,” but it is entirely bunk.
Michael Jordan’s Bulls didn’t win a championship until 1991 not because they didn’t have enough playoff “experience,” but because they weren’t a great basketball team yet. The year prior, they had the ninth best margin of victory in the league; the year before that 13th best. They won the championship in 1991 because Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, and other players improved enough to make them the best regular season team in the league, and that team was good enough to win the championship.
The Warriors don’t have anybody that has played in the NBA Finals, they are led by a seemingly (though not actually) frail point guard, and they have a rookie head coach. It is a unique template, but also a weak reason to believe they won’t win the championship. For better or for worse, compared to other American professional sports, upsets don’t happen very often in the NBA playoffs. With few players on the court that can touch the ball whenever they want, and long seven game series, the team with the best players usually wins. This year, that team is the Warriors, and they are going to win the NBA Finals.
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