The San Francisco Giants have won three championships in the past five years. The 49ers made it to the Super Bowl in 2012, and in 2013 they made it to the NFC Championship. The San Jose Sharks have won the Pacific Division in the NHL four out of the past seven years. But what about the Golden State Warriors?
The Warriors have slowly been moving up the ranks in the NBA, fighting to make it into the playoffs. Only in the past two years have the Warriors managed to make it into the playoffs. However, halfway through the 2014-2015 season they have surpassed all expectations, playing possibly the best basketball the franchise has ever seen.
In late October, at the beginning of the 2014-2015 NBA season, few analysts considered the Golden State Warriors to be contenders to win the NBA Championship. Three months later, the Warriors have made it clear that they are more than capable of winning the Championship.
Although the Warriors are only half-way through their season, they have already rewritten their franchise record books and added a few league records along the way. In December, Steve Kerr got off to a hot start and became the first rookie coach to win 21 of his first 23 games, as the Warriors won a franchise record 16 straight games. On January 7, Stephen Curry hit his 1000th three-point shot, making him the fastest player to reach the achievement. 16 days later, Klay Thompson scored 52 points against the Sacramento Kings as he set a new league record for most points in a quarter: 37. Then, in late January Curry once again made headlines as he scored 51 points against the Dallas Mavericks.
How did a team that has struggled through years of mediocrity suddenly land on top of the Western Conference standings?
The most obvious change between last season and this season has been new head coach Steve Kerr. When the Warriors fired former head coach Mark Jackson, who had taken the team to the playoffs twice, many fans were confused and upset. The replacement, rookie head coach Steve Kerr, seemed inadequate and inexperienced.
In spite of this, Kerr has turned the team around. One of the biggest shifts has been the team’s defense. As a high-scoring team, the Warriors have relied on their offense for years to win games, leaving their defense looking lackadaisical and sloppy. Kerr’s new defense is intense and suffocating, leaving opponents with no option but to throw the ball away. Additionally, the Warriors average 6.2 blocks per game, compared to only 4.9 last season. The Warriors also have the highest shooting percentage in the league at 48.4%, as well as the highest as the most assists per game and possessions per game at 27.3 and 102.6 respectively.
The thing that sets the Warriors apart from other teams in the league is the margin by which they are winning. The Warriors outscore their opponents by an average of 11.6 points per game. The Los Angeles Clippers hold the next highest average of 7.0 points. In comparison, last year’s champions, the San Antonio Spurs, had a win margin of 8.1 points. This statistic bodes well for the Warriors, as 6 of the 7 teams to have average scoring margin of over 10 points went on to win the NBA Finals.
The statistics only tell half of the story. As much work as Kerr has done, a large part of the Warrior’s success can be attributed to their team chemistry and dynamic both on and off the court. On the court, the Warriors’ behind-the-back passes and alley-oop dunks make opponents look like amateurs. The Warriors also have a sense of unselfishness that has allowed them to flourish while still having fun. During Thompson’s recent 52 point game, his teammates repeatedly fed him the ball as he scored an NBA record 37 points in the third quarter. After the game, Draymond Green told reporters, “I think if you shoot the ball at that point, you get booed.”
Off the court, the Warriors have a strong team dynamic that reflects their unity and chemistry on the court. In late November, forward Marreese Speights began posting videos of the team after road wins singing along to O.T. Genasis’s song, CoCo. The videos, which were later banned due to the drug-related content of the song, highlighted the team’s fun-loving and close-knit dynamic.
However, the Warriors are by no means perfect. Veteran players such as David Lee and Andre Iguodala who were both starters last year are now playing fewer minutes from off the bench. In December, when asked about his new role in the team Lee told reporters, “If this is a temporary thing, a permanent thing, that doesn’t matter to me at all. I’m so excited that I’m on this winning team.” In spite of this optimistic outlook, rumors throughout the season suggested discord among these veteran players. However, both Lee and Iguodala have been playing more in recent games, and bring invaluable experience to the team.
Many critics argue that the Warriors depend too much on their shooting. Some nights, their shots just won’t fall. This weakness was exemplified on December 23, 2014 when the Warriors lost to a Kobe-less Lakers team. Although Curry had a decent game, starter Draymond Green was only 1-6 and Thompson went 6-15 in the loss.
Some critics are also skeptical of the Warrior’s ability to win the NBA Finals. A recent loss to the Eastern Conference leaders, the Atlanta Hawks, seemed to echo this idea. The Warriors played just as they did every night, shooting well from the field and playing their trademark defense. However, their effort wasn’t enough to defeat a surging Hawks team. This preview of a potential championship match-up showed that while the Warriors are playing the best basketball the franchise has ever seen, winning the NBA Finals will by no means be an easy task.