This NBA season has been full of glorious surprises. Only the most steadfast Atlanta Hawks fans could have predicted their rise from a fringe playoff team to the best team in the Eastern Conference, a surge that included an early 33–2 stretch. Equally surprising was the performance of the Houston Rockets defense, which—despite missing three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard for 41 games—managed to rank in the league’s top tier of defensive efficiency. The Milwaukee Bucks, meanwhile, became only the third team in more than 35 years to climb from the worst record in the league one year to make the playoffs the next, despite playing much of the season without early Rookie of the Year contender Jabari Parker and former starting center Larry Sanders.
The biggest surprise of the season, though, has to be the Golden State Warriors. With rookie coach Steve Kerr at the helm, the Warriors have catapulted from a good team—a squad that had made the playoffs in consecutive years in the bottom half of the ultra-competitive Western Conference—to one of historical significance. Golden State is one of only 10 teams in the nearly 70-year history of the league to win 67 games. But even though their statistical achievements suggest they are one of the great teams of all time, the Warriors have remained underrated by the basketball public. TNT commentators Shaquille O'Neal and Tracy McGrady recently predicted the defending champion San Antonio Spurs would beat them in the playoffs, and they’re not the only ones who favor the Spurs. Meanwhile, just last month, oddsmakers had LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers as the favorites to win the title. The doubters could not be more wrong.
The Warriors are one of the best teams since Michael Jordan’s Bulls and are almost definitely going to win the NBA title. If they don’t, it will be an upset of historic proportions. The team finished the season ranked first in defensive efficiency—points allowed per 100 possessions. They ranked second in offensive efficiency—points scored per 100 possessions. They were also first in pace factor—possessions per game. This combination of top-ranked defense and highest pace in the league hasn’t been done in 37 years. Perhaps more strikingly, no team since the 72-win 1995-96 Chicago Bulls of Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson (and yes, Steve Kerr) has finished in the top two in offensive and defensive efficiency in a single season. And the Warriors’ best player, guard Stephen Curry, has consistently embarrassed some of the best defenders in the game. (Witness what he did to Chris Paul last month.) According to metrics developed by advanced analytics pioneer John Hollinger, the Warriors have a 37.3 percent chance to win the title, which puts them at more than double the odds of the next-closest team, the Spurs.
All of the statistical dominance and Curry flash aside, there’s one number that demonstrates why it would be unprecedented for a team like the 2014–15 Golden State Warriors to lose the NBA championship. The Warriors beat opponents by 10.1 points per game this season, which ranks them among the best teams of all time. This statistic has historically proved to be a surefire indicator of postseason success. Only seven previous teams have ever finished the season with double-digit point differentials. Six of them won titles. The only outlier, the 1971–72 Milwaukee Bucks, lost in the Western Conference finals after finishing the season having outscored opponents by just over 11 points per game. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Bucks, however, lost to a Los Angeles Lakers team that starred Hall of Famers Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, and Gail Goodrich, but more importantly had the highest point differential of all time, besting foes by an average of 12.3 points per game.*
In the case of the other five teams with double-digit differentials—Kareem’s 1970–71 Bucks, three Jordan/Pippen/Jackson Bulls squads, and the 2007–08 Boston Celtics—basketball fans rightfully saw the postseason as a coronation. Yet this season, it doesn’t take much searching to find fans and experts alike who will pick either the Cavaliers or Spurs to go all the way. Almost all of the justifications for the widespread skepticism are unfounded.
One big reason the team is viewed so unfavorably is that we haven’t seen much of them before, and NBA fans have come to expect that only “experienced” teams can win championships. Between 1984 and 2014, only eight teams—Houston, San Antonio, Chicago, Boston, the Los Angeles Lakers, Detroit, Dallas, and Miami—have won a title. During that 31-season span, the Warriors made the playoffs only eight times. Prior to the 2012–13 season, the team made the playoffs once in 18 years. Basketball fans have grown unaccustomed to seeing blue and gold teams as a title contender, and that biases them against this particularly impressive blue and gold team. But after years of glacial change to the NBA hierarchy, teams move up and down in the standings much faster nowadays. The Warriors and Atlanta Hawks—and to a lesser extent the Bucks—are the poster children of this new upward mobility.
The second knock on Golden State is their style of play. This critique of the Warriors’ offense says that the team relies excessively on three-point shots. Critics view this as an untenable playoff strategy—get a couple cold games from behind the arc in the postseason, and you’re done. It’s true that Curry and his backcourt mate Klay Thompson led the league in three-point field goals made with more than 500 between them and a video-game-esque mark of better than 43 percent that one would imagine being impossible to maintain in the second season.
Despite the impressive three-point numbers, though, the Warriors are not one-dimensional. As is true of many NBA teams today, their outside marksmanship actually sets up their strong inside game; an appropriate analogy is how most NFL teams actually tend to pass the ball to set up the run nowadays, rather than the other way around. The Warriors take about 31 percent of their shots from behind the arc, but about 33 percent of their shots come from within 5 feet of the rim, and their percentage on those shots—62.9 percent—is second in the NBA.
And although these Warriors play at a fast tempo, they are a far cry from Don Nelson’s old run-and-gun Warriors squads that would beat you in a shootout, or not at all. These Warriors are the best defensive team in the NBA. In other words, they can sustain a slight drop-off in their offensive efficiency during the playoffs if necessary. When it comes to the question of their reliance on three-pointers, it’s also worth noting that historically this isn’t such a bad thing. During the 2013–14 regular season, another team led the league in three-point percentage at 39.7 percent, and in the playoffs they actually took more shots from distance per game and improved that percentage. That team was the San Antonio Spurs and they won the title.
This year’s Spurs team actually poses the only real threat to a Warriors coronation. After playing at a less-than-championship caliber for the first two-thirds of the season, the defending champs have gotten healthy and found their groove. They entered the last two games of the regular season on a 21–3 tear, a span that marked a return to the lineup of last season’s NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard. That stretch included a 107–92 win over the Warriors at home. And during those 24 games, the Spurs outscored their opponents at a ferocious rate of 14.4 points per game. For comparison’s sake, the Warriors “only” had a 21–5 record over that same period—a time they were in cruise control with the top seed safely in hand—with a 9.5-point differential.
But don’t forget: The Warriors would have home court advantage in a potential series with the Spurs, and since the beginning of the Tim Duncan-Gregg Popovich era, San Antonio has lost five of the eight playoff series when they lacked home court advantage. A dream Western Conference final between the two teams would likely be close—the Spurs are one of two teams to beat Golden State at Oracle Arena this year—but barring catastrophic injury, the Warriors would be the deserved favorites. They would also very likely advance to the NBA championship and ultimately win the title. If the Spurs or some other team somehow managed to topple the Warriors on their road to the Larry O'Brien trophy, it would be a truly historic upset of a truly historic team.
*Correction, April 16, 2015: Due to an editing error, this article originally misstated that the 1971–72 Bucks lost to a Lakers team starring Elgin Baylor. Baylor retired from the league early in the season.