Golden State Warriors Make History, on Pace to Challenge NBA's All-Time Greats

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 25, 2015

Craig Mitchelldyer/USA Today

The Golden State Warriors are struggling to see their NBA contemporaries in their rearview mirror.

The only race the Dubs are running at this point is one with history, chasing—and in some cases, surpassing—the standards established by some of the greatest teams the league has ever seen. In turn, they're becoming one of the greats.

Tuesday night's 122-108 victory over the injury-riddled Portland Trail Blazers only helped solidify that line of thought, as these Warriors withstood every run thrown at them by Damian Lillard and Co. 

And now, after yet another standout performance from Stephen Curry (33 points and 10 assists), the Warriors have accomplished something they haven't achieved in nearly four decades:

Under first-year coach Steve Kerr, Golden State has done more than just win its division; it's reached a level of dominance seldom seen at the sport's highest level. The numbers say it's nearly impossible to lavish hyperbolic praise on the franchise.

Take the team's current .817 winning percentage, for instance. If that rate holds, it will leave the Dubs tied for the sixth-best in NBA history. The Dallas Mavericks were the last team to reach that mark in 2006-07. Before them, the league hadn't seen it since the 1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers.

If the Warriors can maintain their current clip, they'll have either 66 or 67 wins (depending on whether you want to round up or down). Only 13 clubs have ever won 66 games in a single season. Just nine have finished with 67-plus victories.

The quantification of Golden State's success has been astounding. The quality of it has been even better.

The Warriors' plus-10.7 point differential is nearly twice as good as the next-closest team (Los Angeles Clippers, plus-5.6). As Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News noted, only seven teams have ever finished a full season with a double-digit point differential. Six of them went on to be crowned world champs. The seventh was unlucky enough to meet one of the other teams on the list in the playoffs.

The NBA's All-Time Greats By Point Differential
Los Angeles Lakers1971-7269-13Plus-12.3Champion
Milwaukee Bucks1970-7166-16Plus-12.3Champion
Chicago Bulls1995-9672-10Plus-12.2Champion
Milwaukee Bucks1971-7263-19Plus-11.2Lost West Finals
Chicago Bulls1996-9769-13Plus-10.8Champion
Golden State Warriors2014-1557-13Plus-10.7???
Chicago Bulls1991-9267-15Plus-10.4Champion
Boston Celtics2007-0866-16Plus-10.3Champion

That's the type of uber-exclusive company the Warriors are keeping. Digging deeper only further enhances their brilliance.

Golden State ranks first in both field-goal percentage and field-goal percentage against. The last team to accomplish that feat was the 1980-81 Philadelphia 76ers, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein.

"This team was top-five in defense last year; obviously we have a lot of skill on offense, so the focus is to get a little better on offense and maintain on defense," Kerr told USA Today's Sam Amick. "That's what has happened."

PORTLAND, OR - NOVEMBER 2:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors talks with his team during the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on November 2, 2014 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Thanks to an offensive explosion that has netted them an average of 113.4 points over their last seven outings, the Warriors have grabbed the top spot in offensive efficiency. When coupled with Golden State's season-long stranglehold on defensive efficiency, it once again moves this team into rarefied air.

If the campaign closed today, Golden State would have the league's best efficiency marks on both sides of the ball. As NBA.com's John Schuhmann noted, only the 1995-96 Bulls—who set the NBA record with 72 wins—have ever accomplished that feat.

There's almost always a give-and-take when it comes to two-way execution. Great offensive teams can be a little generous defensively. Stonewall stoppers can have trouble scoring consistently.

Since 2004-05, the league's top offensive club has held an average ranking of 14.6 in defensive efficiency. The best defensive teams during that stretch have been slotted at 11.6 on the opposite end.

The graph below shows the offensive and defensive marks of each category leader over that stretch. Each team's offensive and defensive rankings are shown in that order inside parentheses, separated by a decimal point. The goal is to be as low and far to the right as possible.

Further separating the Warriors from peers past and present is their ability to combine breakneck pace and defensive discipline.

Teams that play fast often do so at the expense of their defense. That hasn't happened for Golden State, which has averaged a league-high 100.6 possessions per 48 minutes.

Since 1996-97, 12 teams have averaged triple-digit possessions per 48 minutes. Only three of them finished with a top-10 defense: the 2007-08 Denver Nuggets, 2006-07 Nuggets and 1999-00 Orlando Magic (who each ranked ninth overall).

Forced to choose the roles of either unstoppable force or immovable object, the Dubs simply decided they wanted to be both.

"The Warriors are on track to be the first and only team in the modern NBAsince 1979 when the three-point arc was introducedto rank No. 1 in both pace and defensive rating," wrote ESPN Insider Tom Haberstroh.

Their opportunistic defense (tied for third in steals) and quick-strike offense (first in fast-break points, per TeamRankings.com) allows them to play aggressively without losing control. The neon-green shooting lights for Splash Brothers Curry and Klay Thompson make this team even tougher to defend in the open court.

But simply slowing down the Warriors isn't nearly the same as stopping them. Kerr has kick-started this half-court offense by placing a premium on player and ball movement.

Golden State went from throwing the fewest passes in the league last season to now tossing out the eighth-most (nearly 70 more than last year). As a result, the Warriors are tallying an NBA-best 27.4 assists per game. The last teams to clear that mark were the 1994-95 Utah Jazz and Orlando Magic.

"If everybody touches the ball on a possession," Andrew Bogut said, per the San Jose Mercury News' Mark Purdy, "then it makes everybody a weapon."

Passing, slashing and cutting keeps everyone a scoring threat at all times. That's why teams can't simply sell out on taking away Golden State's long ball.

The Warriors, led by Curry and Thompson, are torching defenses from the perimeter like few others ever have. Golden State is on pace to become only the second team to ever average at least 10 threes per game and shoot better than 39 percent beyond the arc. The first was the 2005-06 Phoenix Suns, who shot a slightly higher percentage (39.9 to 39.4) but didn't average as many made triples (10.2 to 10.6).

A good passing attack requires willing distributors and capable finishers. The Warriors are bursting at the seams with both.

Golden State has the chance to make history this season. In some ways, it already has.

"The 72-10 Chicago Bulls finished with a home point differential of plus-8.6 points per game. The Warriors at home this season are plus-15.3," CBS Sports' Matt Moore noted .

Ultimately, all of these regular-season accomplishments will be reduced to footnote status. They could be signs of a championship foundation being built, or they might be used to tell the story of a missed opportunity if the team's title pursuit comes up short.

None of this will matter when every team's slates are wiped clean for postseason play. It does, however, help further cement Golden State as a favorite in this race.

When history books are required to process what's taking place, it's obvious we're witnessing something special. The Warriors are leaving a legacy fit for basketball's annals, but only if this season produces the same championship ending as the ones enjoyed by the best of their historical peers.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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