We May Never Know How Good 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, Steph Curry Really Are
When the Golden State Warriors close out the 2015-16 season, having inevitably surpassed the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls as the best team in NBA history, there should be an italicized asterisk next to their name, followed by a brief explanation.
*The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, almost universally recognized as the best squad ever, never reached their true potential.
Seemingly absurd? Of course. How could a team ostensibly fated to clear 72 victories and repeat as champions, with a reigning MVP in Stephen Curry, who's on pace to earn MVP honors once again while breaking or reinventing every offensive record imaginable, fall short of its ceiling?
Nothing about this slant is logical. It's not supposed to be. The Warriors are illogical—the exception to history's laundry list of exceptions.
No matter how they finish this season, the reality will be that they could have been better.
Steve Kerr's absence is among the various obstacles Golden State is still fighting through.
mportant disclaimer: Less continuity is not to be confused with a lack of continuity.
More than 96 percent of minutes played this season by Golden State players have come from those who were on the roster in 2014-15. The league average in this department is less than 72 percent, and only the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder enjoy higher levels of personnel consistency.
Still, Lady Luck isn't being as kind to the Warriors overall.
Curry and Green have yet to miss a game, and for that, the team should be beyond thankful. But Andrew Bogut has already registered nearly half as many absences (seven) as he did last season (15), and Harrison Barnes has missed more contests (10) than he did through his first three years combined (five). Even Shaun Livingston and Klay Thompson have missed a pair of games apiece.
Various absences, with different players sitting out on different occasions, have forced the Warriors to experiment more than they would normally. Six starting lineups have taken the floor for them thus far, compared to the eight they deployed all of last season.
Last year's preferred starting five of Barnes, Bogut, Curry, Green and Thompson mustered 57 opening appearances. The most it can see this season is 62—and that's assuming perfect health from all five members through the latter three-quarters of the schedule.
To top it all off, head coach Steve Kerr, author of the offensive system that turned a good Warriors team into a squad for the ages, has yet to reclaim his spot on the sidelines as he recovers from complications that followed offseason back surgery.
That hasn't prevented these Warriors from getting out to the best start in league history. Associate head coach Luke Walton is doing a tremendous job of keeping his troops engaged, and as Kerr preps for an eventual return, his players are starting to feel like he's unreservedly back.
But that doesn't make Kerr's involuntary furlough any less of an obstacle. Like the injuries, it's something the Warriors have needed to transcend.
Absences and other unanticipated blips are part and parcel of any season, but without them—or with fewer of them—just imagine where the Warriors could be.
The Warriors aren't apt to using their best players as much as other teams because, well, they don't have to.
OK, so, forget the injuries. Instead, let's just say that those who are healthy played more than they do now.
Not a single Warriors player is averaging even 35 minutes per game, and for good reason.
"The Warriors have won plenty of games in the first quarter—shattering spirits and building leads too massive to overcome," Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote. "In the process, they're setting themselves up to win something bigger."
Andre Iguodala leads the team in fourth-quarter burn but doesn't even rank in the top 30 of total floor exposure during the final frame. Just one starter, Green, falls inside the top 150 of fourth-quarter minutes. The Warriors' best player, Curry, doesn't even rank in the top 170 of this category.
Together, Green and Curry have combined for 288 final-period ticks. C.J. McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers has logged more than that on his own (296).
Think about what the individual numbers of Golden State's most important players would look like if those same players began seeing 36 minutes per contest. And then think about what that would mean to the rest of the team:
Combined Production of Curry, Green and Thompson Curry, Green, Thompson...
PTS REB AST STL BLK
Per Game 65.4 17.7 15.8 4 2.4
Per 36 Minutes 69.5 18.5 16.6 4.1 2.6
Some of that hypothetical luster is lost in knowing how immune the Warriors are to struggling. They rank first in net rating, outscoring opponents by an average of 15.2 points per 100 possessions. The San Antonio Spurs are right behind them, standing at an impressive plus-13.8. The Toronto Raptors, meanwhile, are a distant third at plus-9.1
Only when they trot out lineups sans one or more of Curry, Green and Thompson do the Warriors fail to average a net rating that would rank inside the top two. That's it. Remove anyone not named Draymond, Klay or Steph from the equation, and Golden State is outpacing rivals by at least 10.4 points per 100 possessions.
This would seem to diminish, even if marginally, the importance of having any one or two players in the game at any given time. But the Warriors are a plus-23.3 when Curry, Green and Thompson share the hardwood. And while those three make up Golden State's most used three-man partnership, barely 15 percent of their floor time has come during the fourth quarter.
Regularly upending opponents from the jump works against the Warriors in this way. They own the best first-quarter net rating, and it isn't even close. Their best players aren't needed as much as the game wears on, which means their best lineups aren't used as much. And that adversely impacts their cumulative bottom line, as their quarter-by-quarter performance shows.
A dearth of fourth-quarter purpose has the Warriors closing out games as a plus-5.7 per 100 possessions. Their worst mark through the first three 12-minute installments is a plus-12.9, and they average a plus-17.6 through the first 36 minutes of action. That's just an idea of how much better they could be overall if they decided to approach every quarter as if it meant the same.
The Warriors' use of their small-ball "Death Squad"—a lineup featuring Barnes, Curry, Green, Iguodala and Thompson—is something else to consider. Barnes' lack of availability has helped limit this amalgam to under 70 total minutes on the season. During this time, however, Golden State is pummeling opponents by 69.9 points per 100 possessions.
To be more exact, the Warriors' Death Squad has outscored its foes by 91 total points in just 64 minutes. For perspective, consider that the Atlanta Hawks, Bulls and Los Angeles Clippers, each of whom is at least four games above .500, have combined on the season to outdo their opponents by 92 points.
Crazier still, more than half of the Death Squad's playing time has come in the fourth quarter, when the Warriors are, statistically, at their worst.
What if the Warriors went to their nuclear small-ball weapon earlier, health-permitting? What if they played them more in general?
Untapped, Unneeded Greatness
Golden State doesn't need to tap into its full potential to lord over the rest of the NBA.
The difference between how good the Warriors actually are and how good they're playing is only going to get more pronounced.
Now that their pursuit of the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers' 33-game winning streak is over, the incentive for playing every available body every game has evaporated. The odds of them scrambling like hell on any given night to erase a 20-plus point deficit, as they did during a Nov. 19 come-from-behind victory over the Clippers, are next to nothing.
Expect the Warriors to instead liberally rest key players—especially down the stretch. The gap between them and the Western Conference's second-best team, the Spurs, is fewer than four games, but they have enough of a cushion, not to mention enough experience, to know that planning for the long haul takes priority over everything else.
Extrapolating potential is also tricky business. There's no guarantee the Warriors we see through the first 36 minutes of regulation can play that way, to that exact degree of success, for a full 48 minutes.
But almost everything the Warriors do, from first-quarter blitzes to fourth-quarter minutes distributions, is by design. So much so that it's impossible to view them as anything other than what they want to be.
And, clearly, what they want is to be as good as they need to be, not as good as they can be.
This article says alot. This team really is so dominant this season. Pretty much most key points on the topic are covered here and it really leaves no doubt that this team is close to the best ever, at least so far after one third of the season done.
I haven't checked but it'd be interesting, for comparison, what the stats and in particular the minutes for the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls were. Think the minutes for the likes of Jordan and Pippen were quite a bit higher than for the likes of Curry, Klay and Draymond.
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