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The Warriors’ Quest for GOAT Status Starts Now (Again)

Golden State has won two championships in three seasons, and the team looks more dangerous than ever. What’s left for the Dubs at the summit? How about earning the popular designation of greatest team of all time?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We treat Golden State’s greatness as a foregone conclusion, and that inevitability is entering its fourth season. “Everybody wants to anoint us as the greatest team ever, or whatever. The Warriors are gonna win the next five championships,” Golden State big man Draymond Green told GQ last week. He’s right; those are the expectations the team is up against. Why shouldn’t it be? After the 73-win Warriors of 2015–16 added Kevin Durant that summer, they marched forward unimpeded and outscored teams by 12.1 points per 100 possession in the regular season (third only to the 1995–96 and 1996–97 Bulls), went 16–1 in the playoffs (the best playoff record ever), and won their second NBA Finals in three years. Las Vegas set their over-under at 67.5, a win total that has been surpassed only six times (with only the 2015–16 Warriors and 1972–73 Celtics then falling short in the playoffs). Name any metric, cite any historical parallel — they all point to the Warriors being as good as the league had hoped and feared. Yet it’s possible that we still haven’t seen them at their best.

NBA Preview 2017

While other teams strive to secure a playoff spot, or win a series, or even have a shot in the Finals, the Warriors are on a different type of mission.

They’ve flirted with the greatest team of all time designation for the past three seasons, but have been an inconvenience away every time, whether it’s dropping Game 4 to Cleveland last year or blowing a 3–1 lead in 2016. This is the year it could all come together. They have never been more complete. Their core remains intact, but their team is deeper than ever thanks to the additions of Jordan Bell, Nick Young, and Omri Casspi. The JaVale McGee experience proved to be a success last season, and they hope lightning strikes twice with McGee’s kindred spirit in Swaggy P. Zaza Pachulia, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and David West are back. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant are still Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant. Except instead of their sometimes awkward displays of overpassing at the start of last season to prove to the world that they could coexist, they’ll come out on opening night Tuesday with a year’s worth of built-in chemistry.

The Dubs are as loaded as loaded gets. You don’t need fancy analysis and gaudy analytics to know that. But becoming the popular choice for greatest team of all time is another thing entirely. There’s no metric to quantify that. What we have at our disposal will always paint an incomplete picture: Regular-season wins or net rating tell us about only the regular season. Playoff record is incomplete, too; if the Warriors go 16–0 this postseason but coast through the regular season and win “only” 62 games, are they the GOAT? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps the search for the greatest can only ever be defined anecdotally. When fans see the Warriors as the all-time standard of the sport, they’re seeing the ease with which they play the game.

“To be honest with you, we don’t really need you that much in the regular season. But you know when those NBA Finals come around we’re really going to need you to play big for us,” Green said after Game 3 of last season’s Finals, recalling what he’d told Durant during the season. That’s one case for these Warriors as the greatest: being that assured that the team would’ve dominated the regular season even without one of the greatest players of the century. In a way, they proved that last year. All season long, we imagined situations in which Durant would play the 5, but he logged only eight minutes at center in the 2016–17 regular season, per NBA Wowy; it wasn’t until the Finals that Warriors head coach Steve Kerr unleashed his lanky forward at center in Game 3.

If Green is Golden State’s “starting small-ball center,” Durant is the backup, which is funny, because he’s a vastly better player. In Game 3, Durant was transcendent: He defended the rim, drained 3s, and went coast-to-coast. He looked like the future. Later, in Game 5, Durant channeled Kawhi Leonard on defense, locking down every position on the floor. You won’t see a whole lot of that from the Warriors during the regular season this year, simply because they don’t have to unleash that Durant. You might see Kerr roll out Jordan Bell, not Durant, at the 5 in small-ball lineups if Draymond is in foul trouble. The Warriors seemingly have an endless array of switches they can flip on and off, whenever they please.

Even when it comes to the play-calling, the Warriors resist temptation in the regular season. They barely ever had Curry screen for Durant, or vice versa, all season until deep into the playoffs. There is arguably no better way to get a mismatch advantage for one of the best players on the planet, yet it wasn’t something they needed to deploy. It’s not until the playoffs that they begin trading cuts and off-screen shooting for an uptick in pick-and-rolls, isolations, and post-ups.

Most teams use the start of the regular season to figure out what they are and what they need. The Warriors will go through their own diagnostics test, except where some teams are soul searching, Golden State is resistance training. They can thrust bench players into unfamiliar territory and intentionally veer away from bread-and-butter plays that they leaned on just a few months ago in the playoffs. It likely won’t be until April, May, and June when they begin to reveal themselves as the team we know they’re capable of being.

“I played against some great teams, but I don’t think no team has had this type of firepower,” LeBron James said after Game 3 of the Finals last June. “So even when you’re playing well, you got to play like A-plus-plus, because they’re going to make runs and they’re going to make shots and they got guys that’s going to make plays.” LeBron just about says it all here: You have to be perfect to beat the Warriors.

Team executives I’ve chatted with since the Finals have expressed a similar sentiment. Even an ankle turn for Durant or Curry might not be enough for another team to close the gap; that’s how much better rival teams believe the Warriors are compared to the field. The endless NBA summer of 2017 was amazing, and it strangely kind of made the Warriors an afterthought, but they were the spark that galvanized every other organization into action.

Teams aren’t taking their ball and going home. The past has proved that superteams can be defeated. There have been superteams in virtually every decade of league history. The Celtics dominated from the late 1950s into the 1960s. The Lakers and Celtics owned the 1980s. Michael Jordan’s Bulls controlled the 1990s. We’ve witnessed the Lakers and Spurs in the 2000s. LeBron James turned the Heat and the Cavs into the force of the 2010s. “There’s always a champion, and at the end of the day, your job is to find a way to beat the champion,” Miami Heat senior vice president Andy Elisburg said on NBA TV’s Open Court.

Elisburg is right, except the present is different from the past. We have never experienced this type of superteam before. Durant joining Golden State would’ve been like Patrick Ewing or Charles Barkley joining Michael Jordan’s 1990s Bulls. They are the greatest challenge that has ever been put in front of the league. They are Mount Everest. They are Mike Tyson in Punch-Out! They are pitching to Barry Bonds in 2001. But it’s true: Golden State isn’t invincible.

“Everybody places you on this pedestal just to see you fall, or stomp on you,” Green told GQ. “It’s so hard to win a championship. And if you win three in a row, and everybody said you were going to win the next five, they’re gonna shit on you. Because if everybody places you on the top, you only got one place to go. And that’s down.”

The odds are longer, but the unexpected can happen. Draft picks make unforeseen leaps. Stars elevate their games to even higher levels. An ankle turn or two, or a cold shooting streak at the wrong time, can open the window for an upset. “The goal is to compete,” Elisburg said. “You put together the best team you can with the hopes to compete. You never know what can happen down the road, where someone else can get beat.”

After all, that’s exactly what the Warriors did in the beginning. They drafted and developed, and made savvy, forward-thinking decisions. What resulted was somewhat of an accident, derived from a combination of smart choices and dumb luck. “We didn’t set out to create a superteam. I think that’s crazy. Five years ago, we were looking up at Miami. You don’t quit. What can you do? You try to do it the best you can, compete, and build,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said on NBA TV as he was discussing the incremental moves that eventually led to the “unexpected” arrival of Durant. “The decisions we make years prior lead to where we are today. So somebody’s making decisions right now that are going to be impactful in three, four years.”

Three or four years from now will be here before we know it. Curry and Durant will be 30 before next season. Thompson and Green will be up for costly contract extensions in 2019 and 2020, respectively. It’ll cost Warriors ownership roughly $1.3 billion to keep the team together over the next four years, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks. The Warriors won’t last forever. Teams must be in position to pounce, whether that’s this season or a half decade from now.

The Warriors are lacking in notable weak spots this season. But I’m curious as to whether their poison will be a team featuring a dominant big man, rather than a team that merely attempts to best replicate their versatility. If a contending team someday has Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, or Karl-Anthony Towns on its roster, it could present issues. Green is a stud defensively, but he’s had trouble handling Davis’s sheer size. All three bigs can also hold their own enough on the perimeter to stifle Golden State’s perimeter attack. It’s one thing to stumble upon a unicorn in the draft, but, as we’ve seen over the past five years, it’s another to successfully build around one. If a contender has one of those bigs on its roster, maybe the Warriors and other teams will be forced to invest more into a center who can contain them, thus taking something else away from their roster and taking a shooter off the floor.

Opponents will obviously need to rain 3s themselves just like the Warriors do. “We want to win the title, and obviously that’s probably going through the Warriors at some point,” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said on SiriusXM NBA radio in February. “And we absolutely figured the only way we’re gonna beat ’em is with a barrage of 3-pointers, and it’s probably going to be a 124–120 affair if we’re going to get past them.”

The Rockets have the five highest 3-point attempt rates in NBA history over the past five seasons, and this could be the season when much of the league follows suit. The NBA’s overall 3-point shooting rate is about to go boom if preseason trends hold true.

NBA 3-Point Shooting Rates

Season Preseason Regular Season
Season Preseason Regular Season
2017-18 35% TBD
2016-17 30% 32%
2015-16 30% 29%
2014-15 27% 27%
2013-14 26% 26%
2012-13 24% 24%
2011-12 23% 23%
2010-11 23% 22%

We’re working with the small sample of preseason, but in this decade shooting trends have remained largely consistent heading into the season. Teams that normally don’t jack up 3s are starting to. The Raptors attempted 53 percent of their shots from 3. The Thunder launched 39.4 percent of their shots from 3, the same rate as the Cavs and Celtics last season.

With the NBA’s downtown shooting rates looking more like college basketball numbers every day, bombs-away basketball has officially arrived.

The teams equipped to spit flames from 3 could be the ones in position to upset Golden State. And if that team is fortunate enough to have an elite big man, then it might be the Warriors who are forced to adjust. Nonetheless, teams are going to keep pushing. “If you get in, you’ve got a chance,” said Donnie Nelson, whose Mavericks upset the Lakers and then went on to defeat Miami in the 2011 NBA Finals. “Momentum is a very interesting thing. And once you get into the dance, literally anything can happen.”

The Warriors are on the verge of staking yet another claim at being the greatest team ever. If they want to, they can unleash their playoff bag of tricks for a push at 74 regular-season wins. If they’re healthy, they’ll again make a run at 16–0 in the postseason. Thankfully, teams are loading up in an attempt to stop them. Worthy adversaries have risen, and they aim to push the Warriors to the brink. “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph,” Thomas Paine wrote. But if Golden State continues to plow through the NBA, there will be no denying that we are watching the greatest team ever.