For the second consecutive season, the Golden State Warriors have raised the bar for a franchise that used to operate free of any expectations. Or standards.
After trading hollow, frenzied excitement for something more controlled and far more successful, the Warriors now find themselves at a point where good is no longer good enough. The most patient fanbase in professional sports is tired of waiting. They're ready for a winner.
With a lockdown defense and incendiary offense, this team has the pieces to deliver one. It just may not be as successful as the one fans can't help but envision when the Splash Brothers start tossing up liquid fire or Andrew Bogut literally blocks all memories of the days when defense was optional.
Especially when those same aspirations are shared inside the locker room.
Granted, the defensively challenged Dubs of yesteryear may have held the same goal, but this group is different. This one has championship ingredients: a bonafide superstar in Stephen Curry leading a roster masterfully mixed between battle-tested veterans and high-rising young guns.
These players have already produced results the organization hasn't seen in nearly two decades:
With the win, #Warriors improve to 44-26. It's the first time the Dubs have been 18 games over .500 since end of the 1993-94 season (50-32).— Golden St. Warriors (@warriors) March 21, 2014
"There’s people (fans) that are 19 years old that have never seen this," Warriors coach Mark Jackson said following their 115-110 win over the Milwaukee Bucks Thursday night, via Diamond Leung of the Bay Area News Group. "That’s a ‘wow’ moment. It’s an incredible accomplishment."
The Warriors shocked the basketball world in 2012-13, but not for the reason you might expect.
Yes, they opened eyes with a first-round upset of the third-seeded Denver Nuggets. Yes, they flashed their might in a hard-fought, six-game series loss to the eventual Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs.
Those performances were nearly awe-inspiring. The numbers said they never should have happened, that the Warriors weren't ready to make that kind of leap.
The stat sheet (specifically, net rating, point differential and expected winning percentage) holds no surprises this season—it paints them as an elite-level team capable of wreaking havoc come playoff time.
|Season||Net Rtg||Rank||Pt Diff||Rank||EWP||Rank|
NBA.com and ESPN.com
Yet even with the aforementioned success, this season has a certain hint of disappointment to it.
The Warriors sit sixth in the Western Conference standings—exactly where they finished the previous campaign. They're tied for 12th in offensive efficiency (104.8 points per 100 possessions), a puzzling position given how much firepower this roster holds. Their good-not-great 23-11 home record includes losses to the Nuggets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Charlotte Bobcats and Minnesota Timberwolves.
They even dropped a contest at Oracle Arena to a San Antonio Spurs team playing without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili earlier this season.
"We can't lose that game. Period," Bogut told The Associated Press afterward, via ESPN.
He's right, they can't lose that type of game. But they did.
Does a loss like that undo everything the Warriors have tried to build? Of course not.
They're 13-4 since the All-Star break and now sit just three games behind the fourth-seeded Houston Rockets. Hosting a playoff series—something they haven't done since 1992—remains a possibility.
"We want to try and get that home court" in the first round, Klay Thompson said after Thursday's win, via Antonio Gonzalez of The Associated Press. "It's in striking distance."
But this season, at least in the minds of the fans, is supposed to be bigger than that. It's not about making the playoffs or even starting that journey on their home floor. It's all about surviving and advancing, a journey that ideally takes them to the Western Conference Finals—or beyond.
Is it possible this team will make that trip? Absolutely. Is it likely, though? That's a different question.
With a core built around Curry and Bogut, injuries are always an concern. But they're a concern all across the basketball landscape.
They have much more pressing issues. Like their self-stalling offense,which is perhaps over-reliant on the long ball and far more dependent on isolation plays that Jackson dials up despite not having the pieces needed to run them.
"Some isolations are fine," Lowe wrote. "But the team needs to dial back the one-on-one stuff, especially with Thompson and [Harrison] Barnes."
"You can also question the mental toughness of this team," Marcus Thompson II of the Bay Area News Group wrote. "It's not that the Warriors don't have the fortitude to address adversity. They just don't show the maturity to muster it consistently."
That means playing tenacious defense despite whatever is happening at the opposite end. It means leaving bad shots or careless turnovers behind them. It's learning from mistakes and ultimately avoiding them in the future.
It's a process of growing from a good team to a great one, of defining success with an NBA title instead of a playoff appearance.
The Warriors are still making their way up that learning curve, no matter how hard the rest of us are trying to speed up that development.
Golden State is having a brilliant season, as good as these fans have seen in a long time. It's not, however, having the championship-caliber campaign many thought (or simply hoped) they would witness.
That time may yet be coming, but it's not here today. Patience, once again, is key in Northern California.