There is nothing more entertaining in sports talk than team projections year in and year out. And unfortunately, nothing more inaccurate.
The Los Angeles Lakers were supposed to win another championship this year. They are in the midst of a six-game losing streak and just gave up another transition dunk.
The Golden State Warriors were supposedly a year or two away with all the injuries and question marks. They are fifth in the Western Conference and riding All-Star performances from Stephen Curry and David Lee.
Combine the solid and improving contributions of Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and the impending return of Andrew Bogut, and the Warriors would appear to be in good shape. Despite a tough next few weeks and end of the season schedule, the Dubs will finish 25-22 the rest of the way (48-34 record) and claim the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
In order to fully understand how this pick arose, we must take a look at several factors that go into a projection: statistical trends/regressions, strength of schedule and external factors (yeah, that would be you, Andrew Bogut).
Strength of Schedule
Only 23 of their last 47 games are on the road so there will be stretches where the Warriors will find themselves playing comfortably at home. This was evidenced in the past couple of weeks when the Dubs had plenty of time off between the Clippers and Blazers games.
So far this season, the Warriors have beaten tough teams like the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers and the Brooklyn Nets, but they've been able to catch them off guard thus far. Without the element of surprise and the league aware that they are one of the top teams in the West, teams will bring their A-game every day. Unlike in football, basketball teams can play up or down to their opponents on a regular basis, but teams may fail to do so from now on.
The toughest stretches will come in early February (on the road against the Thunder, Rockets, Grizzlies and Mavericks), and end of season against the Timberwolves, Thunder, Lakers, Spurs and Blazers all in a row.
This prevents the Warriors from running away from the lower seeds and brings them to the back a bit as they finish a little above .500 the rest of the way instead of the 11 games they are now.
Curry's Dubs are currently third in the league in defensive rebounding, according to Hoopdata. This is bound to regress to the middle of the pack, as it was years before, if they continue playing Carl Landry and Lee at the same time. While it has been extremely effective on offense and solid on defense, some of its holes have been shown in the past three games. They have been outrebounded against the Clippers twice as well as against the Blazers.
Of course, this can be all be solved with the return of Bogut.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this excellent start to the season is the shooting percentages of Curry and Thompson. Even though they are shooting lights out from three, they are faring differently from the field, shooting 43.1 and 40.4 percent, respectively. That is bound to shoot upwards as Curry is a 46.5 percent shooter and Klay is becoming more comfortable facilitating off the dribble on offense, thus opening up more space.
What will help the Warriors most is their ability to shoot the three and guard the three. The new statistical trend is for teams to shoot more threes because they are worth more than two, to explain the theory simply. The Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs do this, albeit to mixed results as the Spurs are third in the league in three-point percentage and the Rockets are 13th.
The Warriors, led by Klay, Curry and surprisingly, the veteran leader Jarrett Jack, are fourth in the league in three-point percentage. On the other side of the ball, they are fourth-best defending the three-point line, allowing a paltry 32.8 percent per game, according to TeamRankings. While the torrid shooting should get better with Curry, Klay, Jack and even Barnes holding down the fort, the defensive three-point percentages may regress back to the mean.
The Warriors haven't been good the past couple years defending from distance, and Mark Jackson's new pick-and-roll defense has provided stark improvement. However, there will be leakages with a tough schedule ahead.
The Warriors' ability to sustain their shooting and rebounding should pave the way to second-half success.
The return and health of Bogut was the key to the playoff hopes of the Warriors during the preseason. Now it is his return that will decide whether the Warriors get out of the first round.
His ability to defend at an elite level, pass and do something as elementary as catching the basketball will prove significant in a center rotation that "boasts" Festus Ezeli and Andris Biedrins. Four-on-five basketball on offense is offensive. Seeing that Bogut thinks he will come back and if there aren't any setbacks, I expect to see him return sometime after the All-Star break.
How big of an impact does Bogut make on the defensive end? According to NBA.com, Andrew Bogut in 2010-11 gave up 90.1 points per 48 minutes when he was on the court and 92.7 when he was off. Then in 2011-12, despite the small sample size, when Bogut was on the court his five gave up 90.3 points. When his terrifying beard wasn't protecting the rim? The five without Bogut allowed 97.7 points per 48 minutes.
Once he is back, he will be the key factor as to whether the Dubs succeed in the playoffs, or are just a one-round team. It's safe to say the Warriors can add a couple wins (50 wins!) to one of their most successful seasons in team history.
Another huge factor that is harder to measure is the growth of both Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes. Amidst the Rudy Gay trade rumors, it is the improvements of both Thompson's ability to harness his dribble-drive game, and Barnes ability to stay aggressive, that will tell the tale for the rest of the season.
Barnes sometimes plays as if he doesn't understand just how much talent he owns. The problem is that there are so many options on offense when he is on the floor, from the Lee-Curry pick-and-roll to Landry down low and Klay outside. Barnes knows this and it may be affecting his game. However, when the games get tougher, he will be asked to assert himself more often.
By the end of the season, Barnes will be playing more than his current 25.5 minutes per game, shooting above 45 percent along with solid defense and Klay will approach 20 points per game.
In the last 82-game regular season, 48 wins got the Portland Trail Blazers the sixth seed in the Western Conference. In 2013, the numbers will mirror that as the Warriors finish 48-34 and face the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round.
And what a first-round slugfest it will be.