The 2022-23 NBA campaign is upon us. Preseason games are underway. On Friday, the Golden State Warriors beat the Washington Wizards in Japan.
But the bigger Warriors-centric story may well have dropped stateside, when ESPN's Kevin Pelton released his "stats-based win projections for all 30 teams," which had Golden State finishing eighth in the Western Conference with an average win total of 41.9.
Unsurprisingly, the projection hit Warriors Twitter, which was less than impressed (as evidenced in the replies to WarriorsWorld).
Last season, Golden State finished third in the West despite prolonged absences from Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. It won the title and beat the Boston Celtics in each of the last three games of the Finals by an average of 11.0 points.
Predicting this kind of slide is, in a word, bold. And Pelton clearly knows that. He closed his Warriors blurb by writing, "I expect Golden State to outperform this projection and be back near the top of the West."
That's a safe assumption, and it's one that's backed by bookmakers. FanDuel has the Warriors' over-under set at 52.5 wins. It gives them the shortest odds to win the West and the third-shortest odds to win the title.
But is there a world in which the computer outperforms our collective intuition and the oddsmakers? Certainly.
The West Is Better
Let's start with the improvements made throughout much of Golden State's conference.
Last season, the Denver Nuggets won 48 games without Jamal Murray. Michael Porter Jr. played only nine games, and he looked compromised before undergoing back surgery. In 2020-21, a COVID-19 pandemic-shortened season, Murray and MPJ combined for 11.5 win shares (even though the torn ACL that cost Murray 2021-22 limited him to 48 appearances).
Add in the additions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown, and a win total in the low to mid-50s feels like a modest prediction.
The Los Angeles Clippers, who are in Golden State's division, are in a similar situation. Kawhi Leonard missed 2021-22. Paul George played only 31 games, and the Clippers still finished over .500. Their returns should put L.A. back in the hunt for 50 wins (though Pelton's projections have them sixth with 43.6 wins).
Bad vibes notwithstanding, the Phoenix Suns are bringing back most of the roster that finished first in the West last season. The Memphis Grizzlies should get internal improvement from a number of key cogs, including the 23-year-old Ja Morant. The New Orleans Pelicans are getting Zion Williamson back. The Minnesota Timberwolves added Rudy Gobert. And there are good-faith arguments to suggest improvement by the Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings.
Meanwhile, the Warriors lost Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr., who were fourth and sixth on the team in win shares, with a combined total of 10.1. Their ostensible replacements, Donte DiVincenzo and JaMychal Green, combined for 3.4 last season.
Golden State Is Getting Old
Attrition is another reason to worry about this team.
Thompson and Green are 32, and they have suffered a slew of injuries over the last three or four years. The team survived plenty of missed games from those two in 2021-22, but that's far from an ironclad argument that it'd be fine without them in 2022-23.
The absence of one or both wouldn't just cost Golden State high-end talent, it would also strain the depth all the way down the roster.
An injury to Curry would be even more devastating. And though he has made 60-plus regular-season appearances in each of the last two seasons, history suggests age could be a factor.
During the three-point era, players in their age-33 seasons (2021-22 for Curry) have averaged 1,244.8 minutes. That mark barely dips to 1,238.6 in age-34 campaigns, but the larger point is that Curry already cheated Father Time by nearly 1,000 minutes last season. A decline is far from guaranteed, but it also can't be dismissed.
Are the Young Warriors Ready for More?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Golden State has signaled a significant amount of trust in a young core that includes James Wiseman (who missed last season with a knee injury and was historically bad as a rookie), Moses Moody (below replacement level as a rookie in 2021-22) and Jonathan Kuminga (who probably has the highest upside of the three).
The aforementioned departures of Payton and Porter, plus the losses of Nemanja Bjelica and Juan Toscano-Anderson, mean the young core will have to play and be effective for the Warriors to stay in the title hunt.
Jordan Poole, who broke out with averages of 18.5 points, 4.0 assists and 2.8 threes and a league-leading 92.5 free-throw percentage, is the success story the organization can point to on this front, but his ascent doesn't guarantee the same for Wiseman, Moody or Kuminga.
Will Golden State Really Be In Play-In Range?
Having said all that, barring some kind of catastrophe, it really is difficult to imagine the defending champion Warriors will have to scrap their way to a spot in the play-in tournament.
The West is deep (as usual), the Golden State core is aging, and the reserves will probably have growing pains to work through, but much of that could've been said leading up to 2021-22.
The Warriors still have Curry, perhaps the greatest offensive player of all time and the face of this era. And his recent injuries, including one that cost him all but five games of 2019-20, have generally been random. We're not dealing with a situation like the one he experienced earlier in his career, when there was a pattern of issues with his ankles.
The Warriors also have a generational shooter in Thompson, who has had the offseason to knock off the rust after injuries cost him two-and-a-half years. And Green remains one of the game's best and most unique point forwards and defensive anchors.
Like Pelton, everyone should be fairly confident Golden State will outperform the model that had the Warriors trending this week.
As he noted, projections have been low on them for the last two seasons. And while that may be the result of a variety of factors, the biggest issue could be the things that can't be measured.
First, perfect predictions about a player's future are impossible. Some numbers may be bad indicators for Wiseman, Moody and Kuminga, but their individual determination, good coaching (and development) and raw talent can wipe those away. The model doesn't have a formula for that.
More importantly, Curry, Thompson, Green and Andre Iguodala have made it to the top of the mountain four times. That matters. You could see that it mattered when the inexperienced Celtics went up 2-1 in the Finals. Computers and stats can't fully account for the steely nerves that helped the Warriors rattle off three straight.
And those same qualities should put this team well clear of play-in range.