Hopes haven't been this high for the Golden State Warriors since Rick Barry was tossing in granny-style free throws in 1974.
Maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but it's not a stretch to say that fans throughout the Bay Area are bursting with barely contained optimism in advance of the 2013-14 NBA season. Fresh off a 47-win campaign, chock-full of promising youth and looking to build on a remarkable postseason series win, the Dubs are looking strong.
But is it possible that Golden State is the subject of a little too much hype? Could the Dubs be—gasp!—overrated?
If they are, it's not entirely because of the groundswell of hope in and around the Bay Area. Positive predictions are pouring in from the wider expanse of the NBA analysis landscape.
ESPN's Summer Forecast pegged the Warriors for 50 wins this season. Quietly, that number was discussed and then discarded as insufficiently ambitious by players and coaches within the organization. But it's interesting to note that the more detached national media is pretty bullish on the Dubs as well.
And in the interest of full disclosure, I've been guilty of mentioning the Warriors and "championship contention" in the same unsarcastic breath.
Everyone is high on Golden State.
Optimism is a huge part of every team's preseason outlook. But that optimism has to be unreasonable—or at least founded on a couple of shaky premises—before it's really fair to go around calling teams overrated.
If it turns out that Golden State isn't quite as good as everyone seems to think they'll be, we'll look back in hindsight and realize that the rampant enthusiasm created by the Warriors' breakout 2012-13 season caused us to ignore the signs that pointed toward regression.
And like every team, the Warriors have plenty of glass-half-empty scenarios.
Injuries: Never Going Away
Despite a couple of frightening sprains that sucked the air out of Oracle Arena, Stephen Curry's troublesome ankles allowed him to play 78 relatively healthy games last season. He then gutted out two playoff series on—you guessed it—a sore ankle.
For the first time since 2011, he was able to enjoy a summer free from surgical procedures, a luxury that allowed Curry to actually work on his game.
It's great that Curry made it through an entire season without suffering a major injury to either of his balky ankles, but his history means there should always be lingering concerns about his health. If Curry goes down, the Warriors will be especially vulnerable.
Jarrett Jack is no longer around to shoulder the load, and while Andre Iguodala could function as a facilitator in Curry's place, it's difficult to imagine the Warriors measuring up to lofty expectations without their best player at full strength.
Andrew Bogut, the Dubs' other cornerstone, is in a similar situation—except his injury history is longer and far more severe.
The big Aussie has long made the point that his major injuries have been the result of bad luck. Before the 2012-13 season started, he told Rusty Simmons of The San Francisco Chronicle:
Anyone can go on Google, research my past two injuries and realize that they're not chronic. I do the right things in the offseason. These are just freak occurrences. These aren't issues of being overweight or being out of condition.
He's referring to the dislocated elbow and broken ankle that show up on his medical history. If you watch the two plays that caused those injuries (and by the way, don't), the video evidence backs up Bogut's claim. But the fact remains that he's a seven-footer who has had multiple surgeries.
Guys his size generally don't shake off injuries after a difficult couple of years. There can sometimes be short periods of good health, but generally, it's a waiting game until the next significant setback.
Right now, Bogut looks terrific. He's lighter, quicker and claims to be in perfect health. But if he were to go down at some point this year, Golden State's best-laid defensive plans wouldn't just go astray; they'd completely fall apart.
Much of the positive energy surrounding the Warriors' prospects this year comes from the team's potential to field a top-five defense. With a healthy Bogut anchoring the middle, that's a fully attainable goal.
Without him, it's a pipe dream.
So, if there's a case to be made that the Warriors are overrated, it has to start with the fact that there's entirely too much faith being placed on the good health of their two most important players.
Injuries aren't the only issue that could cause the Dubs to fall short of expectations.
The team has also lost a handful of key pieces from last year's run, leaving Golden State with voids in key areas.
Mike Malone, the defensive architect and chief strategist on last year's coaching staff, is now on the Sacramento Kings' bench. Nobody can question head coach Mark Jackson's skills as a motivator or his ability to command the total respect of his team, but it's fair to wonder whether he can also handle Malone's role.
On the court, Golden State will be without departed free agents Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack. A combination of unproven young players and budget-friendly veterans will step in, but there's no guarantee that guys from either category will be able to match the bench production the Warriors got last year.
Draymond Green and Kent Bazemore are now potential rotation pieces. But we have yet to see if Green can become anything resembling an offensive threat, and Bazemore hasn't yet shown he can do more than dominate summer league competition.
Essentially, the Warriors have six starter-quality players in Curry, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, David Lee and Bogut. Beyond that group, the rotation is simply not as impressive as it was a year ago.
There are a couple more reasons to pump the brakes on the momentum that has been building behind the Warriors, the first of which is a frightening statistic: Golden State posted a per-game point differential of just plus-0.9 points last year, which was only eighth-best in the Western Conference.
Despite that narrow per-game margin, the Warriors managed to finish in sixth place.
How is that significant this year? Well, it indicates that even if the Warriors manage to improve their performance by a significant margin, they might not be in line for a big uptick in the win column.
Grantland's Zach Lowe pointed out that the Warriors had a statistical profile that matched up more closely with a .500 team than it did with a 47-win outfit. Basically, the Warriors had some good luck in close games, a trait that varies wildly from year to year.
From an analytical perspective, it'd be unwise to assume they'll be as fortunate this season.
Maybe the Warriors possessed some kind of mental toughness or grit that allowed them to prevail in tight contests. But it's difficult to quantify something like that, which makes it hard to put a lot of stock in that theory.
As long as we're on the topic of hard-to-defend cliches, it's worth mentioning that we don't yet know how the Warriors will play in their first season with real expectations. It's tough to guess at how Golden State's players will react to the pressure of high hopes.
For most of them, this is a new situation.
There should be enough veterans on the team to keep things running smoothly. But now that Richard Jefferson is gone, no player on the roster has filled a major role on a championship contender.
In the past, the Warriors played like they had nothing to lose. How will the players respond now that they have the capacity to disappoint legions of believers?
I'm not looking to throw stones, but it seems like somebody ought to mount some kind of defense against the idea that the Warriors are more overrated than any other NBA team.
There are plenty of questions surrounding the rest of the league's top clubs.
For example, the Oklahoma City Thunder have progressively lost their bench scoring over the past two seasons. Plus, they've got a coach who has yet to prove he knows what he's doing, and Russell Westbrook is out for the first few weeks of the season.
The Los Angeles Clippers can't defend the paint, the Miami Heat are going to play a season without knowing whether their stars will stick around and the Brooklyn Nets are relying on a couple of card-carrying AARP members to get them over the top.
Sources of doubt exist for every good team, and the Warriors don't necessarily have more than the rest of the NBA's upper echelon.
So, Are They or Aren't They?
Ultimately, even the most optimistic predictions have the Warriors falling far short of being an ironclad lock to make the NBA Finals. Instead, the consensus seems to be that they'll finish somewhere between the third and sixth seeds in the West.
That's certainly a great forecast compared to where they've ended up in recent seasons, but it's not really such an outrageous thing to imagine.
Last year, the Warriors won 47 games with Bogut playing on one leg, a rookie starting 81 contests and young players making up most of the rotation. Bogut and Curry are healthier than they've been in years, and it's totally reasonable to believe that guys like Barnes, Thompson and even Curry could improve.
Expectations are high for the Warriors because they should be.
Are they vulnerable to bad luck? Absolutely. Could they also benefit from internal growth and more experience? You bet.
Maybe the problem is that so many people are assuming the Dubs will catch all of the good breaks while avoiding the bad ones. That's a common mindset on the eve of a season, though. Hope springs eternal.
Assuming neutral fortune, it seems like the Warriors have what it takes to win more games than they did a year ago, which is really what most forecasters are saying.
And if Warriors fans are a little too caught up in the hype, why don't we all agree to just let them enjoy the moment. They've been through enough to deserve it.
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