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How Does the Warriors' 20-2 Start Compare to the Greatest Starts in NBA History?

Jim Cavan@@JPCavanContributor IDecember 14, 2014

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A hot start is one thing—a dime a dozen, all sports considered.

But when a season’s opening stretch becomes historically hot? That’s when all eyes become fixed, rather than merely fleeting.

With their 105-98 road win over the Dallas Mavericks Saturday afternoon, the Golden State Warriors—now 20-2 following a 15th consecutive W and with no signs of slowing down—have made exactly that leap.

The production came from predictable places, with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combining for 54 points on 19-of-43 shooting (including 8-of-22 from distance) and the revelatory Draymond Green (20 points and eight rebounds) leading the onslaught.

Playing without sturdy center Andrew Bogut, out temporarily after having his right knee drained, the Warriors seized control early and held on despite a furious second-half comeback from Dirk Nowitzki and Co.

Dec 13, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks forward Brandan Wright (34) and guard Jameer Nelson (14) fight for the ball with Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) during the second half at the American Airlines Center. The Warriors defeated t
USA TODAY Sports

Needless to say, Golden State is hoping Saturday’s quasi-collapse doesn’t become a writ-large harbinger for what has been, to date, one of the NBA’s all-time best starts to the season.

Just how rare is the air the Warriors are breathing? ESPN Stats & Info explains:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Warriors are 12th NBA team to start 20-2 or better. Six of the previous 11 teams won championship

Catch 20-2
TeamSeasonStartFinishResult
Washington Capitols1948-4921-238-22Lost BAA Finals
Boston Celtics1963-6420-259-21Won Finals
Philadelphia 76ers1966-6726-268-13Won Finals
New York Knicks1969-7026-260-22Won Finals
Portland Trail Blazers1990-9122-263-19West Semis
Seattle Supersonics1993-9420-263-19West First Round
Houston Rockets1993-9422-258-24Won Finals
Chicago Bulls1995-9623-272-10Won Finals
Houston Rockets1996-9720-257-25West Finals
Boston Celtics2007-0820-266-16Won Finals
Boston Celtics2008-0927-262-20East Semis
Golden State Warriors2014-1520-2??
Basketball-Reference.com

To call the expectations high would be an understatement. For these Warriors, anything short of a Finals foray would, at this point, be an opportunity lost. Particularly given the gruesome gauntlet—now and in the near future—that is the Western Conference.

Time will tell whether Golden State can make golden good on its doubtless palpable promise.

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 01:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts with Andrew Bogut #12 after he threw a long down court assist to Klay Thompson #11 who made a three-point basket against the Los Angeles Lakers at ORACLE Arena on November 1
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

But it’s in how the Warriors are dispatching the opposition—utterly, thoroughly, on both sides of the ball—that bodes best for their Larry O’Brien designs.

To wit: Through its first 22 tilts, Golden State was registering top-five numbers in the following categories (per NBA.com, subscription required for media stats): Offensive rating (fifth), defensive rating (first), net rating (first), assist ratio (third), true-shooting percentage (second) and overall plus-minus (first), just to name a few.

Not that such two-way prowess is anything new for these Warriors; they very nearly registered ORtg and DRtg top 10s last season as well. Rather, it’s the degree of dominance that—quite understandably—has the rest of the league teetering on its heels. And the Warriors' dominance was the focal point of many conversations on Twitter:

David Locke @Lockedonsports

Warriors defense is #1 in the NBA at 94.6 next closest is Houston at 97.1 and Spurs at 98.3. All other teams over 99

Marcus Thompson @ThompsonScribe

--> RT @SherwoodStrauss: Warriors hold the league's best O to 40% shooting, without Bogut

Ethan Strauss @SherwoodStrauss

22 games in, and not a single opponent has hit half their shots against the Warriors

All of the above-mentioned members of the 20-2 club could boast something similar, of course. Be it during a particular stretch or as a matter of championship makeup.

What’s a bit more difficult, however, is pinpointing precisely where on that pace-setting spectrum Golden State falls.

FRED JEWELL/Associated Press

Statistically speaking, the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls remain the gold standard: first in offensive efficiency (115.2), first in defensive efficiency (101.8), best regular-season record in league history (72-10) and arguably the greatest tandem to ever play the game (Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen), all in the service of a fourth banner in six years.

Coherent and cohesive as these Warriors have been, it’s hard to see them besting the Bulls’ beatific feat. Not without the luxury of two expansion teams (as were the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies) diluting the talent pool.

Teams like the 1948-49 Washington Capitols and 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers seem far too arcane for fruitful comparison. Meanwhile, the 1990-91 Portland Trail Blazers and 1993-94 Houston Rockets each had the specter of Jordan’s Bulls hanging over their heads. For the Blazers it was in terms of an inevitable Finals run-in and for the Rockets it was as a function of the void left behind during Jordan’s two-year hiatus.

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

That makes the 2008-09 Boston Celtics Golden State’s most obvious comp, chronologically as well as statistically (Doc Rivers’ crew finished the season fifth in ORtg and second in DRtg).

Following the best two-loss start in league history (27-2), the Celtics—who despite dropping seven of their next nine—appeared poised to punish their way to a second consecutive NBA title. Sadly, Garnett would miss the entire postseason with a right-knee injury, as Boston succumbed to eventual East champs the Orlando Magic in the conference semifinals.

December 2, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr (left) talks to guard Stephen Curry (30) during the fourth quarter against the Orlando Magic at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Magic 98-97. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Ter
USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics’ fall remains one of the biggest what-ifs in recent memory. More immediately, it serves as a cautionary check for Golden State’s own charmed start.

While the Dubs don’t exactly tout an obvious Garnett analog, their finely tuned chemistry is such that any injury to a major contributor—be it Curry, Thompson, Bogut or even Green—could easily compromise Golden State’s fairy-tale travels, if not outright derail them.

Good thing, then, that first-year head coach Steve Kerr has made it his mission to oversee a team that doesn’t merely make the most of its top-tier talent, but it is dynamic enough to make up for the occasional wrench in the gears. And Kerr praises his team for its talent (via Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com):

Ramona Shelburne @ramonashelburne

Steve Kerr on his historic 19-2 start, "It means I'm the luckiest coach in NBA history because I inherited a really good team."

From Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley:

He puts his players in positions where they are most comfortable: Bogut at the elbow, Shaun Livingston on the low block, Harrison Barnes flashing to the basket, Marreese Speights near the top of the key.

Guys that are capable and comfortable initiating the offense, a list that includes Curry, Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, are allowed and encouraged to do so.

Still the team’s hot start isn’t without its basic caveats: Prior to Saturday’s Mavericks matinee, the Warriors had played the league’s 17th-most difficult schedule in terms of opponent win percentage (.496).

The good news being that 13 of their first 22 games have been away from the friendly confines of Oakland’s Oracle Arena.

It’s too simplistic to say these two mathematical minutia merely cancel each other out, less so which of the two might prove the better bellwether.

With three of their next five games coming on the road, it’ll be interesting to see whether Golden State can threaten—or perhaps even usurp—Boston’s incendiary start. Ditto if the Warriors’ gangbusters play can be parlayed into playoff magic, despite one of the best top-to-bottom conferences the league has ever seen.

For a fanbase long mired in mediocrity, though, the current streak is well worth savoring. Although not as much, perhaps, as a Finals sip that somehow feels just as hot.

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