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The Battle to Be More Exceptional: The Warriors vs. James Harden

Golden State vs. Houston will be a test of who can be more of an outlier

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Malcolm Gladwell defines “outlier” as “things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience.” Outlier is the downpour during a hot California summer. Outlier is the reality TV show host who becomes president. Outlier is the crying-Jordan-face seven-win Bobcats, the ’07 KG-chest-banging Celtics defense, the high-powered offenses of the ’03 Mavs and the ’05 Suns. Through nearly one quarter of this NBA season, the 2016–17 Warriors have the makings of being the greatest outlier of all.

You’re already well aware that the Warriors have a flammable offense. They were preordained the Western Conference champs the day Kevin Durant announced his decision, so their 12-game winning streak — scoring at least 120 points in half of their games, leading the NBA scoring 114.6 points per 100 possessions — isn’t much of a surprise. But seeing their dominance in chart form with historical perspective highlights just how damn nuclear they are.

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

They’re outscoring the average team by 10.8 points per 100 possessions, which is the most since 1996 (the first year of available data from NBA.com). Compared to the average team, they’re playing defense about as well as LeBron’s 2012–13 Heat, but with offensive production that tops the Seven Seconds or Less Suns.

The Greatest Show on Hardwood is what we all expected, isn’t it? We’re getting it. Since ’96, no team has ever had a better offensive rating than this season’s Warriors (the only teams to even come close are last year’s 73-win Dubs and the classic mid-to-late-aughts Suns). No squad has ever had a better net rating (plus-13). Last season’s Warriors have the best effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage ever, but so far these Warriors are topping them. Only the 2002–03 Jazz had a better assist percentage (by one); and only the 2005–06 Pistons had a higher assist-turnover ratio (by two-tenths). The Warriors could lead in those categories too with a few more games like this:

Golden State might not reach its franchise-record 47 assists again this season, but the Warriors are a threat to have a performance like it anytime they take the floor, especially Thursday night against the Rockets, another outlier team — for better or for worse. First, the good: The Rockets have the fourth-best offensive rating in the NBA this season, led by double-double machine James Harden. The list of players to tally over 10 assists and attempt over 18 shots per game is short: Oscar Robertson, Guy Rodgers, Tiny Archibald, Michael Adams, Russell Westbrook, and Harden, per Basketball-Reference. The Beard is a more efficient scorer than any of them, with a 53.2 effective field goal percentage. The recipient of Harden’s passes typically is Clint Capela, who’s posting a 62.5 field goal percentage, the eighth-highest rate of all time.

Harden has assisted on 64 percent of Capela’s makes, with 3.1 connections per game (data derived from SportVU). Most of them have come out of the pick-and-roll. Harden walks down the paint receiving the same attention as a runway model, and Capela skies over the defense for a Lob City South slam:

But the Rockets also have the fourth-worst defensive rating in the NBA this season, which places them in a similar category as the aforementioned Suns and Mavericks teams of the early ’00s (as well as the ’02–03 Bucks and ’04–05 Sonics) — all teams with outlier offenses, but their paltry defenses left them without enough possessions to outscore the opponent.

Thursday’s game against the Warriors will be Houston’s stiffest test of all this season. In eight games against teams with a top-10 offensive rating, the Rockets are scoring 113.6 points per 100 possessions and allowing 115.3. Against teams with a bottom-10 defense, the Warriors are scoring 116 points per 100 possessions. We’ve seen them drop 149 points on the Lakers, 127 on Portland and Toronto, and 125 on Denver. When the Warriors get rolling, they’re Negan in basketball form.

In a new Adidas advertisement featuring Harden, he asks, “What if I was all defense, no offense?” After a pause, he says, “BOORRRINNNGG!” Thursday’s game will be anything but that, with two outlier offenses capable of going nuclear.