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Unstoppable and Immovable: The Warriors’ Epic Regular Season

The NBA regular season is a tortuous slog. It’s an overextended test of will that challenges the stamina of all involved. After recognizing accomplishment, we move on to the next story. Then Rudy Gobert breaks someone’s spirit and we’re on to that. And so on and so on.

Yet from the outset of the 2014-15 season, the Golden State Warriors were the story of the NBA. (No offense to the Hawks.) They shot out of the gate with a 21-2 record, rarely looking back to the rest of the pack in a loaded Western Conference. It was a truly remarkable run as they ended the season with a 67-15 record. They led the league with a 10.1 point differential and an 11.4 net rating, per NBA.com, and this number isn’t skewed by dozens of blowouts of bad teams:

Golden State blasted the Good and the Bad, the Tired and the Vibrant, the Title Contenders and the Poor Huddled Masses yearning for ping pong balls. They blasted pretty much everyone except the Spurs in San Antonio.  In fact, according to Basketball-Reference’s “Simple Rating System” (SRS), the Warriors’ 10.01 rating was the highest since the 96-97 Bulls (10.7), and the highest by a non-Bulls team since the 71-72 Lakers, who had a whopping 11.75 rating. They did this while playing in a hellacious conference and with no player logging more than 32.7 minutes per game. (Curry)

While legacy always revolves around postseason success, I’m confident we’ll look back on the 2014-2015 Warriors as having one of the most impressive regular seasons in the past 30 years.  How did they get here?

THE COACH

Selfishly, I wasn’t particularly happy when Steve Kerr decided to pick up the clipboard. He was one of my favorite television analysts and I knew I would miss hearing from him on a weekly basis. That being said, he showed impeccable judgment when he turned down the Knicks job and instead decided to replace Mark Jackson.

I can’t speak to Jackson’s relationship with the front office, but it didn’t sound functional.  I’m not sure how much this trickled down to the roster, but this team should’ve been better than the 12th rated offense in 2013-14. Offensively, the 14-15 team played at a slightly quicker pace, but Kerr didn’t necessarily need to reinvent the wheel since the team has two of the game’s best offensive players.

Defensively, Jackson deserves some credit for getting the team to buy-in on a nightly basis. Their continued improvement this season might best be attributed to the core’s third year together. However, while his hand was initially forced by David Lee’s injury, it didn’t take long for Kerr to realize Draymond Green needed way more than the 22 minutes per game he received last season. (Green still accumulated 3.8 Defensive Win Shares.) The team defense has been elite, often using interchangeable parts to switch on the wing, while the Green-Andrew Bogut duo has exhibited quite a feel for each other when they share the court. This resulted in a league-best defensive rating and a league-best opponent field goal percentage of 42.8 percentage.

Yet looking back, Kerr’s most important contribution may have taken place before the season’s opening tip. Count me as someone in the trade Klay-for-Love Camp last summer. Apparently, there were parties within the front office that agreed with that sentiment. But not Kerr. And looking only at 2014-15, this was unquestionably the biggest roster (non)move of the season.

Over the course of the Warriors’ blissful season, the affable Kerr accumulated 8 technical fouls. Why so mad, Steve?

THE PLAYERS

Unlike some, my feelings aren’t too strong as to who deserves the League’s MVP. I tepidly fall less into the “Two Horse Race” side, and believe there are viable arguments to be made for six players. (Curry, Harden, Davis, LeBron, Paul, Westbrook) But twist my arm and I’m going to have to go with Stephen Curry.

He’s the best shooter on the planet, so it’s not surprising there’s a considerable drop-off (16+) in offensive production when he leaves the floor. Somewhat interestingly, there’s also a defensive drop-off when he’s not on the floor. While that might be partially explained by the defenders he spent most of his time alongside, Curry is an improving defender both statistically and anecdotally.

But it wasn’t MVP-worthy Curry who turned in the most impressive single-game performance of the season. I’ve watched Klay Thompson’s 13-13 (9-9) 37-point third quarter outburst against the Kings 25 times and I still get chills. And on defense, Thompson takes the tough assignment a lot of the time even if it’s a point guard like Chris Paul. Even leaving future contract and cap considerations aside, I shake my head when I think about how much I thought trading Thompson for Love was a no-brainer. Because in retrospect, especially from a defensive standpoint, it makes no sense. Offensively, they might be the most prolific backcourt in NBA history. Klay and Curry splashed more than 500 threes this season. They’re called the “Splash Brothers” for a reason.

Draymond has been the glue guy and deserving of a Defensive Player of the Year award. His continued versatility and ability to thwart opponents’ sets will be the key to their postseason success. As noted, a healthy Bogut has been a defensive force for the second year in a row.  And Andre Iguodala keeps doing his thing, albeit with a smaller minutes load.

I wasn’t a believer in Harrison Barnes coming out of school. I thought he was just a monster athlete who was too raw to have a position where he could flourish. But he’s another guy who has found rhythm in his third year. They can play small with him at the 4 and he has shown range, particularly the ability to hit the corner three at a 40 percent clip.

Marreese Speights, Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa have given the team big minutes over the course of the season. Lee can give you an offensive boost off the bench if he’s not injured (he’s always injured), and even Festus Ezeli has contributed. Quite frankly, you can’t really cast a better roster for a first-year head coach.

THE FUTURE

In the beginning of the season, I opined that six teams had championship potential. While I included the Warriors in that group, in my mind I definitely had them towards the back of the bunch. That has all changed. If you’re asking me to choose between the Warriors and the field, I’ll probably take the field, but not by much.  And while the Western Conference will be a gauntlet to get through, the potential second-round matchups against the Blazers or Grizzlies, two teams dealing with key injuries, look a little softer than they did a couple of months ago.

They’re not a perfect team. They can get beat on the glass. They’re a little green, Kerr especially. They rely on jump shots, although look who’s shooting. Still, while they don’t have the Spurs’ experience (or LeBron), they enter the postseason as the league’s most complete team.

Regardless of what shakes out in the postseason, this was a truly historic regular season exhibition put on by the Warriors. Everyone from the front office on down deserves a lot of credit. So Kudos, Golden State. Now the real fun starts.

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