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The Warriors Are Chasing History Again—for All the Wrong Reasons

Four years after breaking the record for regular-season wins, Golden State is on track for one of the biggest single-season drop-offs in NBA history

Scott Laven/Getty Images

The Warriors will reach an ignominious milestone Monday, assuming their game against the Thunder goes as every other Golden State game has of late. One more loss will be the Warriors’ 15th of the season—already as many as they collected in their title-winning 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons, and six more than in their record-setting 2015-16 campaign.

With Kevin Durant gone; Klay Thompson and Steph Curry on the long-term injury report; and Draymond Green, D’Angelo Russell, and Kevon Looney missing games with various injuries, the new Warriors resemble dim shadows of their former selves. Through their careers, Curry and Thompson have each made more 3-pointers than every noninjured Warrior combined. The current Warriors don’t have a single healthy above-average player, per FiveThirtyEight’s player ratings.

The Warriors are 3-14. They finished 57-25 last season, but now they have the league’s worst record, net rating, and defense. Golden State is being outscored in entire quarters by a single opposing player, and it seems doomed to suffer one of the largest single-season declines in NBA history—from Finals participant to lottery favorite, from an overstuffed cast of future Hall of Famers to an outfit starting undrafted rookie Ky Bowman and second-round pick Eric Paschall.

We can measure the gap between a team’s success in one season to the next in a couple of different ways. First, and most basically, is overall record. Only seven teams have ever declined by 30 wins (or the winning-percentage equivalent of 30 wins in a shortened season) from one season to the next. Only two have ever reached a 40-win decline, as the Warriors are threatening.

Biggest Single-Season Dropoffs by Wins

Team Previous Record New Record Decline (per 82 games) Reason
Team Previous Record New Record Decline (per 82 games) Reason
2010-11 Cavaliers 61-21 19-63 -42.0 Lost LeBron James
1998-99 Bulls 62-20 13-37 -40.7 Lost Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
1996-97 Spurs 59-23 20-62 -39 Lost David Robinson to injury, tanked for Tim Duncan
1982-83 Rockets 46-36 14-68 -32.0 Traded Moses Malone
1964-65 Warriors 48-32 17-63 -31.8 Traded Wilt Chamberlain
1976-77 Nets 55-29 22-60 -31.7 Moved from ABA to NBA, lost Julius Erving
2018-19 Cavaliers 50-32 19-63 -31 Lost LeBron James (again)

Unsurprisingly, every previous team to suffer a 30-win drop lost one of the best players ever, either to free agency, sale, trade, or extended injury. These Warriors combine a couple of those causes, as they’ve lost players to free agency (Durant) and extended injury (everyone else, plus Durant too, in a sense). Even high-level role players from the Golden State dynasty have departed—Andre Iguodala was traded and Shaun Livingston retired.

Only 17 percent of the 2019-20 Warriors’ minutes have gone to players who were on the team last season, which is by far the lowest rate in the league. (The 29th-place Knicks, at 36 percent, still have more than twice as much continuity as Golden State.) Only seven other teams have ever had 25 percent continuity or less, per Basketball-Reference, and none of those teams were very good to begin with.

Determining where the Warriors might end up on that chart is somewhat tricky with so much of the season remaining. Their winning percentage through 17 games equates to a 14-win season over 82 games, which would represent a drop of 43 wins from last season, the most ever. Net rating is a better predictor of future success than record, and that stat projects a similar result. The Warriors’ negative-11.9 net rating, per Cleaning the Glass—which removes garbage time, something the Warriors have played a whole lot of—would translate to a 15-win season. That would be a drop-off of 42 wins from last season, which is exactly the amount needed to tie the post-LeBron Cavaliers’ record.

A win-loss record is not the only measure of a team’s quality, however, especially at the extremes; there’s not much difference between, say, a 14-win and 15-win team. One useful historical tool here is simple rating system, or SRS, a statistic from the Sports Reference sites that uses margin of victory/defeat plus strength of schedule to measure a team’s performance in terms of points above or below average. In 2016-17, for instance, their first season with Durant, the Warriors posted an SRS of 11.35, meaning they would have been favored against an average team on a neutral court by 11.35 points.

That mark of 11.35 is the fourth highest on record for any team. In fact, three recent Warriors teams rank in the top 10 in league history, highlighting the team’s sheer dominance for an extended stretch of play. (The 2019-20 Bucks rank among this group right now, though, like most teams, they will likely regress as the season continues.)

Best NBA Teams by Point Differential and Strength of Schedule

Team SRS Record Season Result
Team SRS Record Season Result
1970-71 Bucks 11.92 66-16 Won Finals
1995-96 Bulls 11.80 72-10 Won Finals
1971-72 Lakers 11.65 69-13 Won Finals
2016-17 Warriors 11.35 67-15 Won Finals
1971-72 Bucks 10.70 63-19 Lost conference finals
1996-97 Bulls 10.70 69-13 Won Finals
2015-16 Warriors 10.38 73-9 Lost Finals
2015-16 Spurs 10.28 67-15 Lost conference semifinals
1991-92 Bulls 10.07 67-15 Won Finals
2014-15 Warriors 10.01 67-15 Won Finals

The 2017-18 and 2018-19 versions of the team lagged behind their historically great predecessors, as the Warriors’ win totals fell to “only” 58 and 57 in those seasons, respectively, with SRS scores of 5.79 and 6.42. They didn’t even lead the league in wins or SRS. Injuries and perhaps some regular-season complacency reduced their numbers from legendarily great to merely quite good.

Still, those Warriors profiled well by SRS. The last five Warriors seasons represent five of the top six seasons in franchise history—with only the 1975-76 group, in fifth place, breaking the modern hold at the top.

With that background in mind, however, take a gander at this graph.

Yikes. Thus far, the 2019-20 Warriors are the worst team in franchise history, at 9.33 points below average. That number is in line with some of the other disastrous teams of recent vintage: The 2015-16 76ers, who went 10-72, were 9.92 points below average by SRS; the 2018-19 Cavaliers, who finished with the worst defensive rating for any team on record, were 9.39 points below average overall.

Only six teams before Golden State have experienced an SRS decline of at least 10 points from one season to the next.

Biggest Single-Season Dropoffs by SRS

Team Previous SRS New SRS Decline Reason
Team Previous SRS New SRS Decline Reason
1998-99 Bulls 7.24 -8.58 15.82 Lost Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
2010-11 Cavaliers 6.17 -8.88 15.05 Lost LeBron James
1996-97 Spurs 5.98 -7.93 13.91 Lost David Robinson to injury, tanked for Tim Duncan
1990-91 Nuggets 1.56 -10.31 11.87 Lost Alex English and traded Fat Lever, played a disastrous style
2014-15 Timberwolves 3.1 -8 11.10 Traded Kevin Love
1982-83 Rockets -0.39 -11.12 10.73 Traded Moses Malone

The top three teams are the same top three in decline in win-loss record (the first chart). The 2014-15 Timberwolves are a new addition, for the season after they traded Kevin Love, and the 1990-91 Nuggets are new, too, and are appearing for a more historically entertaining reason. With a depleted roster and coach Paul Westhead’s up-tempo system, the Nuggets scored a league-high 119.9 points per game—and still went 20-62. That’s because they allowed an inconceivable 130.8 points per game, including the only 100-point half in league history, when they fell behind 107-67 after two quarters against the Suns. In the preseason, they allowed point totals of 194 and 186 in regulation.

For these Warriors, again, this record looks like a real possibility through the first month of the season. Golden State’s SRS decline from last season is 15.75 points, almost perfectly in line with the post-Jordan Bulls at the top of the list.

In Golden State’s case, the on-pace numbers may be worse than what’s to come. Curry played only four games before breaking his hand, and his return in midseason (initial estimates would keep him out through January) would certainly yield better play. Green and Russell have already missed seven games apiece but figure to appear in the starting lineup more regularly. Looney has played once, for all of 10 minutes, though he might return this week after practicing Sunday. Even Thompson could theoretically return sometime in the spring after tearing his ACL in last season’s Finals. FiveThirtyEight rates the Warriors’ current roster as no. 29 in the league, ahead of only the Knicks, but its model thinks a fully healthy group would catapult the Warriors up to a tie for no. 10.

At the same time, however, forecasting such a lineup to take shape by springtime seems optimistic. The Warriors seem to know this is a lost season and will likely handle player health accordingly. Green, for instance, has been cautious with his injuries, and when he does play, he’s averaging fewer minutes per game than in any season since Steve Kerr took over as coach. It’s unlikely that Thompson will play at all this season if the team has no chance of winning in the playoffs. There’s no reason to rush Curry back, either.

In the last five seasons, which all ended in Finals trips, Green and Thompson each played 104 postseason games while Curry played 93; that trio also ranks one-two-three in playoff minutes during that span. That’s more than a whole extra season just in the playoffs, when possessions are more intense and minutes totals rise for star players; that trio averaged 37.2 minutes per playoff game versus just 33.1 minutes per regular season contest. They could use some time off, much like LeBron down the stretch last season once his Lakers stumbled out of contention.

So while it’s still early in the season, it’s not too early to begin thinking about how the Warriors might stack up against previous best-to-worst teams. Looking at both wins and SRS together, Golden State has three real competitors for the largest drop-off ever. Each fittingly represents a different potential future for Golden State: worst, merely bad, and perfectly fine.

The worst-case scenario is what befell the post-Jordan Bulls, who were due some ill fortune after winning six titles in eight years. During the six seasons after Jordan’s second retirement, Chicago was by far the worst team in basketball and had five last-place finishes and 30 more losses than any other team collected over that span. It wasn’t until 2010-11, a full 13 years later, that the Bulls won 50 games again.

Cleveland’s post-LeBron scenario was a bit better, but bleak for nearly half a decade. In the first season, the Cavs started 7-9, then lost 10 games in a row, won an overtime game, and immediately suffered a 26-game losing streak to complete a 1-36 stretch. Thanks in large part to a trade that netted the Cavaliers the no. 1 overall pick (used to select Kyrie Irving), Cleveland improved each season from there: 19 wins, then 21, 24, and 33. Still, it wasn’t until LeBron returned that Cleveland regained its Finals form.

But unlike with Jordan and the Bulls, Curry and Thompson will return for Golden State; unlike LeBron and the Cavaliers, they should do so by next season. Thus the more likely route for the Warriors—at least in predictive terms—would appear to be San Antonio, which immediately rebounded from a down season by winning the draft lottery and selecting Tim Duncan no. 1. The Spurs haven’t won fewer than 47 games in a full season or missed the playoffs since.

Of course, it borders on foolish to presume the Warriors might be able to draft anyone nearly as impactful as Duncan. The former Wake Forest player finished fifth in MVP voting and was named to the All-NBA first team as a rookie. (To this day, he remains the only player since Larry Bird in 1979-80 to achieve the latter feat, and the only rookie since David Robinson in 1989-90 to make any All-NBA roster.) No no. 1 pick next season will reach Duncan’s highs as a player, and it’s unlikely Golden State will even get the no. 1 pick at all, given the newly flattened lottery odds for the league’s worst teams.

Yet it’s also not too difficult to imagine a rejuvenated Warriors core adding a talented youngster and immediately returning to the top of the conference next season, much like the Spurs two decades ago. Duncan won a title in his second season, and even this season, Curry, Green, and the possibility of Thompson were threatening enough to receive the sixth-best preseason championship odds. The Warriors will likely not return to their heights of the last half-decade, if only because no other team might ever match that level of success again. But they should return to an inner circle of contenders soon enough. It will just be ugly—extremely, historically ugly—in the meantime.