The Golden State Warriors may not have needed the extra motivation supplied by so many preseason skeptics, but they got it anyway.
And now, halfway through the 2015-16 season, the doubt-smashing NBA champs are following an improbably improved MVP into the record books.
"It's probably better for us to come into a season after winning a championship and then being doubted once again," center Andrew Bogut wrote in his column for NBA Australia earlier this season. "It gives us more fire and drive, and maybe that's the reason why we've started the way we have.
Maybe some of the Warriors' biggest doubters should have just kept quiet.
Better Lucky Than Good?
We have to be careful with Doc Rivers' now infamous thoughts on the Warriors' good fortune, relayed to Zach Lowe of ESPN.com in the preseason: "You need luck in the West," Rivers said. "Look at Golden State. They didn’t have to play us or the Spurs."
Rivers was stating objective facts, but the Dubs didn't have to work very hard to find motivational doubt in his comments. To them, Rivers was saying they were lucky in a way that diminished what they'd accomplished.
Kyrie Irving piled on.
The second part of Irving's comment should have softened the blow, but the Warriors clung to the first half. Curry offered a mock apology, per Diamond Leung of the San Jose Mercury News:
Diamond Leung @diamond83
Sarcastic Stephen Curry: "I just want to say, 'I apologize for us being healthy. I apologize for us playing who's in front of us.'"2015-10-13 19:00:50
Diamond Leung @diamond83
Sarcastic Stephen Curry: "I apologize for all the accolades we've received as a team and individually. I'm very, truly sorry."2015-10-13 19:01:36
There was a pervasive implication that the Warriors' championship was somehow less valid because they had a relatively easy road through the playoffs—which naturally dampened expectations about what they'd do next.
Never mind that it ignored the luck element present in every champion's success, or that it unfairly overshadowed the Warriors' legitimate dominance all season. They won 11 more regular-season games than anyone in their conference during the 2014-15 season, and their average margin of victory ranked (at the time) as the eighth-highest in league history, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Those statistics didn't persuade many critics until the very moment the Warriors won the title.
So that’s funny. We’ll continue to prove ourselves, but if they feel we’re not top three in the West, that’s fine. But what they don’t know is we don’t even feel we’re anywhere close to being as good as we’re going to be, so…be careful because we haven’t even scratched the surface of where we’re going, so good luck.
To Barkley's credit, he was a good sport about being proved wrong:
NBA on TNT @NBAonTNT
#Truth (cc @warriors) https://t.co/h9RNMnvHad2015-10-28 06:43:59
Even after all that, just 17.9 percent of the league's general managers gave the Warriors the best shot to win this year's title (behind Cleveland and the San Antonio Spurs). The Dubs' win didn't sap any of the previous year's motivation.
All they've done since then is finish the first half of this season with a 37-4 record, putting them on pace for the winningest campaign in history. Oh, and their net rating of plus-12.9 through the first 41 games of 2015-16 is higher than the league-best plus-11.4 they posted last year.
The MVP Debate That Never Should Have Been
There was a case to be made (though not a very good one) that Harden could have won MVP last season. But Curry's team won more games, and he marginally outplayed the Beard in the process. That didn't stop everyone from discounting Curry's chances of winning it again, though.
ESPN.com's panel of experts gave Curry just one first-place vote in its preseason award predictions, ranking him in a fourth-place tie with Kevin Durant behind LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Harden. The league's general managers gave Curry just a 7.1 percent chance of winning a second MVP, which tied him with Russell Westbrook for the fifth-best odds.
In October, Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN.com highlighted the strange disconnect between Curry's award and the way he's been viewed by his peers: "His MVP award doesn't come with a popular expectation that he'll ever claim status as the NBA's top player."
After what Curry's accomplished this year, perhaps motivated by the doubts surrounding his fitness as league MVP, the discussion comparing his and Harden's candidacy is already over.
Curry is doing things no player has ever done, improving on an MVP season by stretching the bounds of what we believed was possible for a perimeter shooter. He is on pace to attempt over 800 threes this season, which would obliterate the previous mark of 678 set by George McCloud 20 years ago.
And at a conversion rate of 44.6 percent, Curry is going to easily surpass the single-season makes record of 286 he set last year.
The league leader in player efficiency rating has improved his game across the board and would win MVP handily if the season ended today. Harden has slipped, and his team is not a championship contender.
So much for that debate.
Just What They Needed
And as the Warriors keep responding to trash talk, questions and minimizations of their achievements—as they continue to play as though no one in the world believes in them—the rest of the league might just get more annoyed by the whole thing.
We've already seen it this year. Opponents bring their absolute best against the Warriors because they want to knock off the champs, but also because Golden State ups the stakes by taking even the tiniest slights and firing back with word and deed.
It's a perpetual motivation machine, and the Warriors don't even need to do anything to keep it running anymore.
As long as they keep winning, they'll have all the fuel they need.
Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.