Four games into their title defense, the Golden State Warriors are, quite clearly, better than everyone else in the league. And if you're willing to accept that the NBA is at its apex right now, the logical conclusion is this: These Warriors are the best team of all time.
That's going to make a lot of people uncomfortable.
So let's reverse for a moment and lay the foundation for what admittedly feels like a ridiculous (or at least premature) claim.
Last season, the Dubs posted the eighth-highest average margin of victory in league history. Their simple rating, which takes into account strength of schedule, ranked seventh all time, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
They won 67 games during the regular season, good enough to tie for the fourth-highest single-season total ever. They became the first team since the 1980-81 Philadelphia 76ers to lead the league in both field-goal percentage and field-goal percentage defense.
And then they ran through the playoffs without ever facing an elimination game.
Based on those criteria, there's really no getting around the fact that last year's Warriors were at least among the best teams we've ever seen.
And now they're better, and maybe a lot better from the looks of it.
This year's improved version of the Warriors is the only team in history to outscore its first four opponents by a combined total of 100 points. A 50-point win against the Memphis Grizzlies on Nov. 2 helped make that happen, and that margin could have been significantly larger if the Dubs hadn't rested their starters halfway through the third quarter.
Even while coasting to the finish, the Warriors secured that remarkable half-century margin, just the 11th such win this century and 25th of the three-point era.
It bears mentioning, too, that Golden State's first four opponents were all playoff teams last year. It didn't run up these numbers against pushovers, and it has smoked everyone without its head coach on the bench.
Maybe it's tempting to argue that the Warriors' seeming step forward is really just a product of Stephen Curry's being on some kind of separate plane, a hot streak to end all hot streaks. Last year's MVP is playing better than ever; he's averaging more than a point per minute through his first four games and has put up single-quarter performances that don't even seem possible, per Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com:
"As impressive as those numbers are, they pale compared to the experience of watching a man create more highlights in a game than some All-Stars will produce in a season," ESPN.com's Ethan Strauss wrote after Curry's efforts against the Grizzlies. "His coup de grace was wrapping the ball around his waist for seemingly no reason before threading the needle for a James Michael McAdoo dunk. Why did he do this? The answer increasingly is: Because he can."
Curry is playing with the kind of unhinged confidence that turns NBA games into his own personal experiments. He's averaging 16 points per game (on 59.5 percent shooting) on pull-up shots, per NBA.com. He's converting in the restricted area at a better clip than Russell Westbrook and John Wall.
He's unquestionably been the most dominant player in the league to this point. See: 53 points against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Still, what the Warriors are doing is about more than Curry—even if he's clearly the most important part of it all.
They're playing faster than ever yet still defending at a rate that fires up notoriously underwhelmed assistant coach Ron Adams.
"We're being a little more active this year in that regard," Adams told Strauss. "We can play in different ways defensively. I would say this about our defense: I think we have grown, and we're still growing. That's exciting."
Golden State led the league in defensive efficiency last year, and it ranks second after four games in 2015-16 despite missing centerpiece Andrew Bogut for three of those contests. On offense, the Dubs rank first in efficiency by more than six points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.
The Inevitability of Progress
We can talk numbers forever, but maybe it's best to reduce this whole thing to a rhetorical question: If a team that already rated among the seven or eight best in history is clearly, markedly, conspicuously better a year later, isn't it at least worth asking whether it's now become something more than among the best?
Obviously, there are holes to poke here and trusty tools with which to do the poking.
You can cite the small sample size of this young season. You can point to the injuries and shaky starts of the Warriors' opponents.
If you really want to stir up some old and tired objections, you can make the claim that last year's playoff run was loaded with good luck—that the 2014-15 Dubs weren't really as great as they seemed.
And yes, the Warriors are going to lose games this year. It'll happen. They might lose as many as 20.
Sure. Fine. Be that way.
You can keep resisting, but isn't it more fun to at least entertain the idea that the Warriors were as good as advertised last year? That they're better now?
It's not like you have to stretch to get there. The numbers say what they say, and Golden State's play this year shows an obvious step forward. Just give in; you know you want to.
"At this point, how many statements can we make?" Draymond Green asked reporters.
If the idea of the Warriors' being the best team ever still doesn't sit well, maybe it's because you don't think the concept of progress applies to the NBA like it does to almost everything else. Medical science, space exploration, technological innovation—all that stuff is on an upward curve. We get smarter, we get better tools, we learn more, and we get better at those things.
In the NBA, the athletes are getting better, and the training and sport science resources are better. The strategies are more complex, driven by the relentless pursuit of efficiency. Coaching is more involved. The incentivization to be great has never been higher, as the ridiculous influx of money into the league indicates.
On the whole, the NBA as it exists today is the best it's ever been. It has never been harder to be the best team than it is right now, which is why you can logically argue the Dubs are better than the 72-10 elephant in the room.
The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls were an apex predator, but the game preserve they prowled was watered down by four expansions in the preceding decade and lacked the international talent influx that makes today's NBA far deeper. The Bulls of that era were terrific. They belong in the conversation.
But a lot has changed in the last 20 years, and most of those changes have made the league better and more competitive.
This is quickly becoming about more than the Warriors, but it's important to disabuse traditionalists of this idea that the old days—pick your hallowed NBA decade—were somehow better because of unquantifiable nonsense like gumption and toughness and hand-checking and...whatever.
Wouldn't you rather imagine an NBA that is getting better and always forging forward toward its best days? The alternative, that the league is either stagnating or getting worse, is actually kind of sad—not to mention unsupported by logic.
If basketball is at its pinnacle right now, and the Warriors are at the pinnacle of basketball, there's really not a lot else to say.
We're watching history when we watch the Dubs.
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