How Much Better Are Golden State Warriors Than Last Season's Championship Squad?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 11, 2015

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 27:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors celebrates with Draymond Green #23 after a three point basket against the New Orleans Pelicans during the NBA season opener at ORACLE Arena on October 27, 2015 in Oakland, California. 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 the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

There is something demonstrably disarming about the reigning champion Golden State Warriors.

It is not the bravado with which they carry themselves. Nor is it the way in which they play—fast and furious, with a shameless devotion to the perimeter on an incomparable plane of controlled chaos.

That's all very workaday now. Golden State has been playing that way since last season, and its continued commitment to a battle-tested championship style isn't surprising.

No, the Warriors are, to the outside world, universally uncomfortable because they've changed without actually changing. They are mostly the same team that they were last season, and yet, at the same time, they're different.

"We're better than we were last year," said Stephen Curry, last season's MVP, following a 112-108 Nov. 4 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, per Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy.

Championship teams usually regress, even if only marginally. Winning a title is supposed to represent the pinnacle of a franchise's development. Last season's Warriors were for the ages, rattling off 67 victories while posting one of the eight best point differentials in league history.

How could they possibly get better? Even as they talked about collecting more wins and staving off championship fatigue, how could they, unequivocally, improve?

What was once a fair, ostensibly innocent form of skepticism is, as Golden State enters its Wednesday night matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, already irrelevant.

The Warriors are better than they were last season. The only question worth asking now is how much.

Strength in Numbers

November 4, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) and forward Draymond Green (23) celebrate during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Clippers 112-108. Mandatory
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There are hot starts, blistering beginnings, legendary openings and then whatever the heck Golden State is doing at the moment.

Through eight games, all wins, the Warriors have outscored opponents by a total of 142 points. That's the fourth-highest opening-season point differential ever, and it more than doubles the plus-57 they registered during the first eight games of 2014-15.

Of the three teams in front of them—1964-65 Boston Celtics, 1971-72 Milwaukee Bucks and 1996-97 Chicago Bulls—not one finished its respective season with fewer than 62 wins. That, while not exactly scientific, bodes well for their chances of at least rivaling last year's success.

Conventional wisdom suggests that they'll slow down, that they won't pump in a league-leading 113.4 points per 100 possessions while allowing just 95.9 for the entire campaign. The Warriors are, on average, beating teams by almost 18 points per game, a margin of victory buoyed by a 50-point shellacking of the Grizzlies on Nov. 2.

The Warriors vs. Themselves
WarriorsOff. Rtg.Def. Rtg.Net. Rtg.
Basketball Reference

But there exists a scarier scenario: The Warriors are just warming up.

For starters, even after removing the beatdown of Memphis from consideration, Golden State is still winning contests by an average of 13.1 points. That's noticeably higher than last season's 10.1-point gap.

Eight games is only eight games. November isn't April. Curry won't force Wilt Chamberlain purists to reconsider their existence forever. We get it. But an eight-game sample size is large enough to offer a glimpse into what these Warriors are capable of—just as it was last season:

A Tale of Eight Games
2014-15 WarriorsOff. Rtg.Def. Rtg.Net. Rtg.
First Eight Games105.298.07.2
Next 74 Games112.9102.310.6
Basketball Reference

The Warriors improved overall as 2014-15 progressed. Their performance now is actually more similar to the final 74 games of last season than the first eight. 

Significant decline shouldn't be expected on the offensive end. They're only a hair better on the per-100-possessions scale, and their shooting percentages are nearly identical.

Defensive regression feels inevitable. It's been more than 10 years since a team allowed fewer than 96 points per 100 possessions. The Warriors, who led the league with a defensive rating of 101.4 last season, play in faster-paced times that make maintaining their mark of 95.9 virtually impossible.

But even if the status quo proves unsustainable, how much are they supposed to regress? 

Over the last five years, the average team has posted an opening net rating that is within 3.6 points of its season-ending mark. The Warriors have built themselves quite the cushion as they continue to outpace opponents by 17.5 points per 100 possessions. Their net rating could trail off by four points, and they would still be on course to surpass the plus-13.4 that the 72-win Bulls posted in 1995-96.

Steph Being Steph...Only More So

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 06:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors looks on against the Denver Nuggets during thier NBA basketball game at ORACLE Arena on November 6, 2015 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agree
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Curry is going to cool off at some point, which is less an indictment of him and more a testament to how ridiculous he is playing.

His 37.1 player efficiency rating will fall. The league record is 31.8, owned by Chamberlain, and the only guard to ever eclipse 31 is Michael Jordan.

Chances are Curry won't flirt with averaging more points per game than minutes, either. It's been done only once, also by Chamberlain.

All signs nevertheless point to Curry's season once again being something the NBA has never seen.

He has totaled 259 points and 47 assists through his first eight games. No player has done that over the last three decades. He is on pace to make more three-pointers (420) than three teams. His usage rate has never been higher, and yet, contrary to the relationship between efficiency and volume, his shooting percentages have never been better.

As Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal noted, Curry could conceivably end up being one of the most valuable offensive players ever: 

Adam Fromal @fromal09

Steph Curry currently has a 14.9 OBPM. All-time record is LeBron's 14.8 in 2009.

Aspects of Curry's scintillating start will fade with time. Twenty-point quarters shouldn't be a regular occurrence. He shouldn't finish with more win shares than five or more teams have actual wins.

But that doesn't mean this won't be the best year of Curry's career.

At only 27, with an unfathomably deep bag of offensive tricks, Curry is still in his prime. And if the Warriors get the best-ever version of their absolute best player, well, there is no limit to how much they can improve.

Immeasurable Drive

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 09:  Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors reacts after making a three-point basket against the Detroit Pistons at ORACLE Arena on November 9, 2015 in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Championship fatigue is supposed to be a ubiquitous obstacle in any repeat bid.

Teams are thought to be physically exhausted after laboring through a deep playoff run. But the mental barriers, that sense of accomplishment so often attached to winning titles, is often the bigger problem.

As San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said of his team after its banner push in 2014, per the San Antonio Express-News' Buck Harvey: "I'm worried for one reason. They are human beings. They are going to feel satisfied."

The Warriors somehow seem immune to that complacency. They clearly know they're good. But their drive has not waned—in large part because, despite their championship exploits, they're still shouldering the burden of proof.

If Clippers head coach Doc Rivers isn't talking about how lucky the Warriors were out of context, Kyrie Irving is suggesting that a fully healthy Cleveland Cavaliers unit would have been crowned champions. If Ty Lawson isn't criticizing Curry's defensive effort, James Harden is calling himself the real MVP.

Rivers, among others, have helped ensure the Warriors won't lust for motivation this season.
Rivers, among others, have helped ensure the Warriors won't lust for motivation this season.Rocky Widner/Getty Images

For a team so absurdly and obviously great, the Warriors sure sauntered into 2015-16 short on respect—or at least that's how they were able to frame it.

"People hate change," Curry said ahead of the regular season, per the Bay Area News Group's Diamond Leung. "People don't accept change well. They're used to Golden State just floating around the bottom of the league."

There is no question that the Warriors have, collectively, exaggerated the presence of outside irreverence. The entire league knows they're good. Even those decades-old knocks against jump-shooting teams are dead. Last season's Warriors killed them.

But by interpreting relatively harmless, if envious, preseason comments as serious slights, the Warriors are creating an environment in which they still have something to prove and detractors to quell. And that grudge, while self-manufactured, is their shield against peace of mind—making it more likely that their early-season onslaught isn't a fleeting fad but instead a message they intend to keep sending.

So Much Better 

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 27:  Festus Ezeli #31, Stephen Curry #30, Klay Thompson #11, Andrew Bogut #12 and Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors celebrate after receiving their championship rings prior to their game against the New Orleans Pelican
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Last season's Warriors were great.

This season's Warriors are better.

So much better that, as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote, we're forced to consider something else entirely:

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.

This idea comes at a time when the Warriors could be understandably worse.

Andrew Bogut has yet to eclipse 40 total minutes, forcing Festus Ezeli into a more prominent role. Harrison Barnes is shooting under 27 percent from the three-point line. Head coach Steve Kerr is still watching from a distance as he continues his recovery from multiple back surgeries.

And still the Warriors are steamrolling opponents, not only light years ahead of the league, but head and shoulders above themselves.

It's time to look at the Warriors in a new light.
It's time to look at the Warriors in a new light.Noah Graham/Getty Images

Yeah, last season's Warriors were great.

But these Warriors have a shot at becoming the greatest of all time.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise cited and are accurate through Nov. 10.

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


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