Golden State Warriors Face Promise and Peril in Bid to Repeat as NBA Champions

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 12, 2015

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts during Game Six of the 2015 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

All the bubbly has been popped. The thick fog of confetti has settled to the ground. The parade is a thing of the past. And now, the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors are about to exit their offseason wonderland with a target on their backs and all eyes on their prize. They won't be back here again unless they can fight off the hordes.

And history.

Title defenses are genuinely difficult. If winning a championship is the mountaintop, repeating that feat is the moon.

Only 10 different teams have won titles during the three-point era (1979-80 onward). Five teams—Boston Celtics (four), Chicago Bulls (six), Los Angeles Lakers (10), Miami Heat (three), San Antonio Spurs (five)—account for 28 of the 36 Larry O'Brien Trophies handed out during that time. 

Despite that consistency, just five squads—Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Bulls, Lakers and Heat—managed to repeat as title-holders.

Winning even a single championship is an exclusive accomplishment, one Golden State already achieved. And while that experience should aid in the quest to join an even more exclusive club, history is out to get the Warriors.

Nowhere to Go but Down?

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CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Stephen Curry #30 and Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors with the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy at the post game press conference after Game Six of the 2015 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers on June 16, 2
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Doubting the Warriors' championship candidacy is a fool's game. Their core remains intact, and they're coming off a season in which they became just the 15th team to win 80 percent or more of its games.

But because last season was so special, there's a good, if not great, chance that 2015-16 pales in comparison. 

Just one team has ever won 80 percent of its games in consecutive seasons (Bulls 1995-96, 1996-97). Of the 35 champions that preceded Golden State, only 10 have at least matched their regular-season record the following season, while a mere eight have improved.

Go ahead and blame Michael Jordan's (second) retirement for the Bulls' plunge through the NBA's sewage system following their 1998 title. They're the conspicuous outlier, but the trend is obvious: On average, championship squads see their winning percentage drop by 6.3 the next season. That's a difference of five or six wins over the course of an 82-game slate.

Five or six wins wouldn't have bounced the Warriors out of the Western Conference's top slot last season, but a similar decline is the equivalent of dropping from second place to seventh in the West. That's scary.

There are other factors at play, not the least of which is a team's strength of schedule. The Warriors could, in theory, play better in 2015-16 and still win fewer games thanks to stiffer competition.

Basketball-Reference's Simple Rating System (SRS), which measures a team's performance against its schedule, does a nice job of accounting for that possibility. And when we look at it, we again find that most title winners incur some sort of a decline the following year:

Ten champions have notched a higher SRS after earning an offseason parade. But the average team has suffered a 1.91-point dip.

Withstanding a similar hit would drag the Warriors' SRS down to 8.1. That still would have led the league last season and, historically, has been good enough for close to 60 victories. But 60 is still considerably less than 67.

More than that, it goes against Klay Thompson's assertion that Golden State could actually improve, per the Bay Area News Group's Diamond Leung:

Diamond Leung @diamond83

Klay Thompson on how many wins he thinks the Warriors can get next season "Hopefully 68." http://t.co/rcs23ORMWH

Eclipsing 67 wins isn't necessarily out of the question. Though the past says otherwise, there's a reason why the NBA doesn't simulate these games. 

Still, of the eight champions to actually increase their win total, not one of them procured more than 62 victories during their banner year, making the Warriors' trek toward exception status that much more difficult.

Fighting an Unfamiliar Enemy

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr gestures to keep Draymond Green from confronting the referee following a call against the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game 5 of the 2015 NBA Finals on June 14, 2015 at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. The Warr

Championship fatigue is real. You cannot necessarily measure it, nor is it a destined deadfall, but it is real.

Despite never facing a Game 7, the Warriors still tacked on an extra 21 games to their schedule, bringing their year's total to a steep 103. That takes a toll.

It helps that Golden State seldom was overreliant on any one player. Stephen Curry, Golden State's minutes leader, ranked 144th in fourth-quarter burn. The Warriors were also one of two Western Conference playoff teams (Spurs) not to have at least one player rank inside the top 15 of total minutes played.

Three of the team's projected starters will be 25 or younger next season, and just one will be 30 or older (Andrew Bogut). If the 2015-16 calendar demands more, the Warriors have the youth and, as of now, the durability to deliver.

Mental fatigue could end up being the bigger obstacle. The Warriors, presumably, won't only face closer games and more wear and tear, but they'll be battling an innate sense of satisfaction—even if they won't admit it. 

"Knowing the group of guys that I play with every night," Curry told SI.com's Matt Dollinger, "I don’t think it’s going to be an issue. ... We might have to battle some things early in the season to get our rhythm quickly, but I feel like once we start the season you get amped up with the task at hand and not really looking back at what happened in June."

Appreciating the imminent challenge won't inoculate the Warriors against complacency. And that's true of any team.

Gregg Popovich knows all too well the challenges that await Steve Kerr's Warriors.
Gregg Popovich knows all too well the challenges that await Steve Kerr's Warriors.D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

Months after the Spurs won their 2013-14 title, head coach Gregg Popovich identified the gratification bugaboo as one of the biggest potential pitfalls in San Antonio's bid for a repeat.

“I'm worried for one reason,” he said, per Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News. “They are human beings. They are going to feel satisfied.”

Back in the fall of 2009, with the Lakers on the heels of another title, then-head honcho Phil Jackson, now an 11-time coaching champion, offered similar sentiments, per the Guardian:

It's very difficult to play on ring night. The distractions are great and people are living in the past and on the laurels of the past. You're only a success in the moment when you complete a successful act – that's one of the things that we keep telling these players. Last year's success, that was over in June.

It will be on Warriors coach Steve Kerr, now a sideline sophomore, to successfully instill that mindset—not just at the start of the season, or when Golden State receives its rings or when the team is enduring a particularly bad slump, but for the entire year.

Kerr's experience with attempting to (Spurs, Bulls) and actually winning (Bulls) consecutive championships as a player should give the Warriors a one-up on this complicated process. But he's essentially it. And that's assuming he's healthy enough to be around; Kerr is recovering from a spinal fluid leak, per ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss, and isn't currently with the team.

None of Golden State's players reached the NBA Finals before last season. There is no one else on the roster to provide a steadying been-there-repeated-that calm if and when the team needs it most.

And as the Warriors try to keep themselves in the right frame of mind, they'll be incentive alone for every opponent to get up for the occasion. They are mostly appreciated, if not beloved, but last season's crew was among the best ever. The field will be gunning, not just aiming, for them.

The Promise of Being Different

Ben Margot/Associated Press

For all the Warriors might have going against them, they have one saving grace that can neither be tainted nor underestimated: They are not most NBA champions. They earned their hardware by being one of the greatest squads of all time.

Using TeamRtng+, which allows us to compare teams throughout history by measuring their offensive and defensive performance against league averages, we find that they rank as the eighth-best team the league has ever had:

Judging the Warriors solely against the field of previous champions and usual repeat hangups is unfair because of how unique last year's group actually was. And that's an especially important caveat knowing they'll basically be deploying the exact same team, as Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal pointed out:  

The key pieces are all returning to defend Oracle Arena, granting the team plenty of continuity in a league that's often so reliant on that underrated aspect of roster-building. Out of everyone who stepped onto the court during the NBA Finals, only David Lee and Justin Holiday have departed, going to the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks, respectively. The two combined for only 41 minutes of action over the course of the six-game series, so they hardly qualify as substantial on-court subtractions.

Roster continuity is an important, albeit oft-overlooked, aspect of dominance. Chemistry and familiarity matter, and successful repeat bids are founded upon that stability:

As the above chart shows, teams that won at least two consecutive titles averaged a roster continuity percentage of 87 during repeat years. Golden State is in prime position to exceed that benchmark with more than 92 percent of last season's minutes returning to the 2015-16 roster, including each of its top nine minute-earners.

That includes reigning MVP Stephen Curry. And NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. And Defensive Player of the Year candidate Draymond Green. And All-Star Klay Thompson.

Some of the NBA's landscape has changed, but the Warriors, for the most part, have not. They're still the same unit that outpaced a ridiculously ruthless Western Conference and ended a 40-year championship drought, all while rivaling or surpassing some of the best teams ever.

The dangers and drawbacks that await them this season in their quest for another title are the same as they would be for any defending champion, and they are real.

So too, however, are the Warriors' chances of overcoming them.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise cited. 

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.

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