The Golden State Warriors just completed the greatest season in NBA regular-season history.
After beating the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night, 125-104, the Warriors finished 73-9, the best regular-season record the NBA has seen. It beat the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ previous best mark of 72-10.
Nobody saw this season from the Warriors coming. After going 67-15 last year, winning the Western Conference with ease, and going generally unchallenged through the playoffs and winning the championship, it seemed hard for the Warriors to get better. Stephen Curry admitted to Yahoo’s Michael Lee that while he thought the team might be more cohesive this season, he didn’t expect to surpass last season’s win total.
The Warriors’ ascension can’t be traced to any one factor. At work is the game-breaking shooting of Stephen Curry, the versatility of Draymond Green, the genius and long-cultivated work of Steve Kerr, the open-air culture throughout the organisation, and some nailed roster moves along the way.
And as is the case on any successful team, there is a lot of luck and timing involved.
Curry, the face of the Warriors, exemplifies this. That Curry landed with the Warriors in the first place is a minor miracle.
Before the 2009 draft, Curry was considered a top-10 pick, but one who might struggle with defence and athleticism in the NBA. He was also angling for a way to the New York Knicks. The Knicks, with the eighth pick in the draft that year, had to hope Curry would slip through the cracks, while Curry and his camp had tried to avoid teams who might take him earlier, going as far as to refuse working out for them.
Amazingly, the Minnesota Timberwolves had the fifth and sixth picks in the draft — and passed over Curry twice. Instead, they drafted Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn, the latter of whom is now out of the NBA. The Warriors came in at No. 7 and took Curry, despite already possessing a combo guard in Monta Ellis, and despite Curry’s wishes.
Curry still almost didn’t end up in Golden State. Steve Kerr, now the Warriors head coach, was the Phoenix Suns GM at the time and said Suns and Warriors had a trade in place that would have sent the seventh pick to the Suns — they wanted Curry. However, when Curry fell into the Warriors’ laps and made it past Minnesota, the Warriors reneged on the deal and took him.
There are also breaks that had to go Golden State’s way with Curry. His talent was evident from the get-go, but in his third season, his career seemed in jeopardy due to recurring ankle injuries.
As ESPN’s Pablo Torre detailed this year, those ankle issues — which led to an extremely team-friendly, four-year, $44 million deal that Curry is still locked into — may have been the best thing to happen to Curry. After an ankle surgery, Curry had to re-work the way he moved. He had to strengthen his legs and core, become more explosive, and less reliant on his ankles for his shifty movement. It’s helped.
Curry has taken over the NBA. He’s having the best year of his career and posting one of the best scoring seasons the NBA has seen, averaging 30 points per game on 50% shooting — 45% from 3-point range — to go with five rebounds and nearly seven assists per game. He’s broken his own record for made threes and changed the way offenses and defences behave across the league. He’s such an obvious choice as repeat MVP that there’s more debate over who could be runner-up MVP.
Much like it was impossible to see this Warriors season coming, it was also impossible to predict Curry reaching these heights after an MVP season. As Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton told Business Insider, Curry has improved to a level he didn’t see coming.
“It’s tough to imagine that he can play any better than he’s playing,” Walton said in a recent interview. “But you could have said the same last year when he won MVP of the league, and he came back and he’s an even better player now. To put the limit on him that says he can’t play any better than he is, I would never do that.”
If Curry’s game-warping shooting is the foundation of the Warriors’ greatness, it’s Draymond Green’s uniqueness that unlocks the team’s potential.
The 6-foot-6 forward fell to the second-round of the 2012 draft, considered by many NBA scouts to be too unskilled to play as a wing but too small to be a traditional big man. The Warriors took him with the 35th pick, but he languished on the bench as a backup for the first two seasons of his career.
However, an injury to starting power forward David Lee during training camp in 2014 gave Green his shot. Lee was having a strong training camp but would have to sit out with a torn hamstring.
Lee, now on the Mavericks, recently recalled to ESPN’s Tim McMahon how his injury kept him out longer than expected. When he returned, the team was winning, and Kerr asked him to come off the bench. All the while, Green was turning into a game-changing player:
About midseason, you start to go from, “Wow, [Green’s] had a couple good games,” to, “He’s had a good month,” to, “Oh man, this guy is an All-Star-calibre player.”
[…] I think with his competitiveness and his skill set, he’d be successful on any team, but specifically with Steph and Klay, with the shooters that they have and also how they play small ball with the versatility that they have out there, he’s been an unbelievable fit and deserves all the recognition that he’s been getting.
His rookie year, me and him were always cool, so as awkward as the situation could have been, it never was that. He gives me a lot of respect and I’m always cheering for him and giving him a lot of respect.
Green’s ability to guard all five positions, pass, shoot threes, and rebound the ball unlocks the Warriors’ deadliest weapon — their small-ball lineup. The five-man unit with Green at center, surrounded by shooters, averaged 142 points per 100 possessions, as opponents simply can’t find a way to stop five players spreading the court.
As ESPN’s Zach Lowe once noted, team executives now spend more time trying to find the next Draymond Green than the next LeBron James. Green may not have gotten his chance to shine if Lee didn’t get hurt.
Perhaps the Warriors ascension doesn’t happen at all without the hiring of Kerr. Prior to Kerr’s arrival, the Warriors were a solid playoff team. They boasted an elite defence and a competent, unimaginative offence under Mark Jackson. However, Jackson and the front office were not on good terms, and he was fired after a second-round playoff exit in 2014, creating vacancy.
Kerr, after leaving the Suns, spent years as a broadcaster, all the while developing a manifesto of plays, schemes, procedures, and philosophies to bring to a team. He looked set to join the Knicks as head coach, when at the last minute he backed out and joined the Warriors.
Kerr has not only taken the team to new heights by utilising his players’ versatile, unique skills. He’s also created an enviable culture. He encourages Curry to take shots nobody else can, he lets Green be a vocal, at-times overbearing force. He lets his players be themselves and handle themselves. His decision to let players decide for themselves whether to chase 73 wins, as opposed to resting for the playoffs, shows the trust he puts in them.
The overall trend is increasingly obvious: As prepared as any team can be, as smart as the decision-makers can be, as talented as the players can be, luck is still needed. There’s a reason why only seven teams have won championships since 2000 — finding the proper recipe and getting all of the necessary breaks is extremely difficult.
This doesn’t diminish the Warriors’ greatness — instead it highlights that perhaps the greatest team the NBA has seen doesn’t get there without help. The Warriors, thanks to those breaks, look poised to become the NBA’s next great dynasty.