Are the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors the greatest team ever on paper?
If we take Kevin Durant at his word, we already have our answer.
"I wouldn't say we're the best on-paper team in NBA history," Durant told Sina (via CSN Bay Area). "This is not the first time good players have been on the same team. But with the hype around the NBA right now, and the way social media is, everybody is saying that. But so many teams had great players. Not just us."
That's some plain talk, but consider the source: Durant has nothing to gain from asserting the Warriors are the best assembly of talent ever, so he'd never say they were—even if he believed it. More importantly, he probably doesn't think the distinction means anything.
He knows nobody has ever won anything on paper. He knows his concerns are of the on-court variety. He genuinely may not—and should not—care.
We care, though. So let's figure it out.
That Big, Silly Number
Start here: 73 wins.
By that measure—victories—the Warriors were the best team last year. Hold off on the advanced metrics and that whole 3-1 blown Finals lead for a moment, and just digest that number. Then consider the offseason additions—principally Durant, David West, Zaza Pachulia and a couple of rookies who'll help—that make this season's Warriors even more formidable.
The winningest team in history improved. That's persuasive by itself.
Worried about depth (wrong) or shot-blocking (OK, maybe)? Adding Durant and filling the vacancies left by players jettisoned to make room for him makes Golden State an objectively more talented team.
Even something as nebulous as "chemistry" is pointless to forecast just yet. So are ball-sharing and subjugating egos and the crushing pressure that'll oppress these guys all season. Those are real-world, on-court, practical issues. We can break that down once the real games start.
We're still left talking about roster theory; that means we can't even fall back on the "let's just wait and see if they win a ring before passing judgment." For now, anyway.
This is about a team, as it sits today, trafficking exclusively in the unprecedented.
The Long List of Nevers
Stephen Curry is the only unanimous MVP in league history, which makes the following an easily provable statement: No in-his-prime MVP has ever joined a team already featuring a unanimous MVP. That's never happened. Never.
There has also never been a situation in which a team already had the two best shooters in the NBA and then added the guy who was, at least based on his most recent season, the third-best. Four players took at least 1,000 shots in 2015-16 while posting effective field-goal percentages higher than 56 percent. As Durant joins Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors now have three of them.
It's difficult to explain how devastating and unprecedented (there's that word again) this collection of shooters will be.
ESPN.com's Zach Lowe tried:
Defenders have to be inside the jerseys of Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson at all times. Do you know how powerful that basic reality is? Even if the Warriors changed literally nothing about their offense -- if Durant just played the role of Harrison Barnes -- they could be the greatest scoring team in history. The lane will be wide open for cutters. They can generate open 3s at will, just by running everyone off picks until some defender falls behind.
The offense Lowe just described is best categorized as "unfair."
Let's keep building on those nevers, though.
Never has a team with a unanimous MVP, a former MVP still at his peak and three of the best four shooters in the league also had a Finals MVP coming off the bench. The Warriors have that last thing in Andre Iguodala.
One step further: Never has a team with a unanimous MVP, a former MVP still at his peak, three of the best four shooters and a Finals MVP coming off the bench also had the most versatile defender in the league starting at power forward. The Warriors have that in Draymond Green.
The vaunted Death Lineup outscored opponents by 47 points per 100 possessions in 2015-16, per NBA.com. That net rating was nearly twice as high as any other team's best heavy-minute five-man group. Durant replaces Harrison Barnes in that unit now.
There has never been anything like this.
Crunch the numbers attached to all those nevers. Neil Paine did it for FiveThirtyEight:
If we use Basketball-Reference.com's Simple Projection System to predict each player's Box Plus/Minus for the following season and sum up those projections for each team, next year's Warriors would be the most-talented team since 1979-80 if they merely surrounded their existing players—Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Zaza Pachulia and David West...with replacement-level talent. ... In other words, even if they don't add another meaningful player, Durant's Warriors will probably surpass [LeBron] James's 2010-11 Heat as the best collection of talent in the league's past four decades or so.
Settling the Debate
To take the Warriors down a peg, you have to do some weird temporal gymnastics. If you think the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls were better, you're effectively comparing a team that already did something to a team that hasn't done anything yet.
That's a tricky side-by-side.
Nonetheless, you could certainly argue that those 72-10 Bulls had a few things this Warriors team won't—even if, again, you're comparing the recorded past to the unwritten future. Chicago had three All-NBA First Team defenders in Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen. It had the Sixth Man of the Year in Toni Kukoc. It also won a ring.
There it is, though: Those Bulls aren't an on-paper team. They did that stuff—in the real world, on the court. The on-paper discussion is just a study of potential.
But those 72-10 Bulls got bested by the 73-9 Warriors last year during the regular season. That Warriors team got better this year. They had to because, unlike those Bulls, they didn't win the championship. Are these Warriors better than the equivalent of one NBA Finals Game (the margin by which they lost the series)?
Is there even an argument that the upgrade from Barnes to Durant is worth anything less than that one critical game?
Is this an inherently indecipherable argument, a question without an answ...sorry, hang on.
Steve Nash said the Warriors "potentially could be better than any team in NBA history," according to Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle?
He said, "If they can get through that process of change and find that cohesion, they'll have no ceiling"?
Cool. Nash has spoken. We're done here.