The Warriors entered the 2014/2015 season with some of the greatest expectations we have seen in a long time. Its no longer "Will we make the playoffs?", but rather "Can we win it all?"
Last year's team carried similar expectations, but showed that even a playoff run doesn't make you immune to change. Clearing out the coaching drama made a clear message: You have the talent, now go and get it - no excuses. The debate continues - Do we have the talent? Can we compete against one of the best Western Conferences in recent memory? Is this team elite?
Elite teams are those that get the headlines and book their tickets deep into the playoffs before the campaign even begins. Players want to come play for these teams because of their dedication to winning. It's why when you break down the numbers, so few teams have actually won a championship over the last 20 years - it's much harder than you can imagine. You can't ride a hot pitcher over a 7 game series in basketball, or get a game-changing performance in an NFL playoff game to eliminate a hot team. Basketball is a grind, more chess than checkers. It takes the full roster, the front office and coaching staff, and the team's moxie to be continually dominant, and reach that elite status.
Are the Warriors reaching that elite status? Has our growth in recent years moved us into the conversation with the leagues best? Do we deserve to be considered with the other title contenders? As a hometown fan, of course I want to say "yes", but we can argue our case by breaking down the argument. Let's define what it is to be elite.
"Elite" for our purposes of discussion defines "a team that is built and prepared to win a championship". Seems simple right? Lets look at the individual parts - and of course these are up for debate, but lets call them "a good start":
Strong Front Office
Does your team have competent owners, personnel decision makers, and coaching staff to put the best, most prepared team on the court every night?
Which team has it? The San Antonio Spurs are often credited with having the best front office in the league. As an example, they continually put a solid team on the floor every year through smart drafting and smart free agent signings (Patty Mills, Boris Diaw). Add in arguably the best coaches in the league in Greg Popovich, and they set the gold standard.
Do the Warriors have it? Gone are the days of Cohan and being the laughing stock. Joe Lacob and Peter Guber have so far delivered solidly on their promise to change the culture and right the ship. Bob Myers has so far produced smart decision-making roster improvement. Our draft picks have had highs and lows, as former first rounder Nemanja Nedovic exits stage right back to Europe, yet a second rounder like Draymond Green plays a huge role for us. The team took a strong stand separating itself from Mark Jackson in the offseason, stating success means nothing in the face of long-term stability and continuity. Steve Kerr and his strong staff (Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams are complete steals) have high expectations.
Verdict - Inconclusive. How will Kerr react to adversity? How will he adjust as teams start to adjust to the Warriors? What moves (if any) will the Warriors make at the deadline to fill in missing pieces if need be? We have seen with the Klay Thompson deal that we are willing to pay for our talent, but will it put us in salary cap hell that causes us to lose our young talent? It remains to be seen.
Complete Balanced Roster
Games are 48 minutes long, and are rarely simply dictated by the five guys you put on the court to start a game. Elite teams have the flexibility to be versatile, go 9-10 players deep some nights, and continually put the pressure on opponents with their first and second lineups.
Which team has it? Teams like the Dallas Mavericks and Chicago Bulls are examples of well-balanced teams. No roster is perfect, however both have good-to-great veteran talent on their bench to balance young developing players. The Cavs brought in solid veterans like Shawn Marion and Mike Miller for shooting and defense, which will prove valuable as other teams wear out as the season goes. The Cavs may have holes (lack of a big man for scoring), but they are poised to make a move at the deadline to address that. The Bulls can miss nights from Derrek Rose and still compete every night. Depth means staying competitive without needing to count on a go-to superstar.
Do the Warriors have it? There is still a decline when Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson leave the floor. Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala and Leandro Barbosa are being asked to carry the load for a second unit. Sure Marreese Speights has shown flashes, but the question will be sustained production from the back ups. They will have more weapons once David Lee returns to the starting lineup, but for now continue to be a point of stress. The Warriors have a collection of moving parts that are versatile, but can they continue to help support the starting five with great back up play?
Verdict - Not ready for prime time. If the Warriors bench simply keeps leads (rather than creating them) I believe we will view them as a success. The bench has been solid defensively, but lacks a consistent scoring presence. As long as they continue to pressure the ball, keep the team in ballgames while the stars rest, they will keep getting a "passing" grade. If we start losing leads in the 2nd and late 3rd quarters, then it will be clear what needs to be addressed.
Your "Go-to" Guy
Every team has a superstar or two every night (well, maybe not the Sixers). The NBA is filled with good players capable of putting up stats, but elite teams have that guy who brings it every single night. These players are all-stars, all-NBA talents that take big shots, get their face put up on the posters, and make a statement for your team. They are the teams with a guy (or guys) who can take the ball in their hand at the end of games and deliver.
Which team has it? The Cavs have LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. They are considered elite (despite their slow start). The Thunder (when healthy) have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They are considered elite. These are guys that win scoring titles and are respected by their peers.
Doe the Warriors have it? Stephen Curry has reached superstar status, adding All-Star and All-NBA nods to his resume. Klay Thompson is a superstar to Warriors fans, but is still reaching to live up to his recently signed contract with consistency and a more all-around game. His FIBA World Championship appearance and performance was a coming out party; lets hope he continues to prove he belongs.
Verdict - Tentatively accepted. The Splash Brothers will be the face of the franchise for years to come. We are hoping one of our fringe stars (David Lee still has to be considered a fringe star even with an All-Star nod) help us create our own "big three". Klay Thompson needs a few more games, months and even seasons at this level to cement him at the elite level. So let's optimistically say the Warriors have the big names to keep us in the conversation.
Delivering when it Counts
Can your team perform when the pressure is on? Can they go on the road in the middle of 3 games in 4 nights and coax out victories? Can they execute in the late minutes by running solid set plays, playing defense and not making mental errors?
Which Team has it? The Spurs play like a disciplined machine. They always seem to be making the right moves at the right time, at home or on the road. The Thunder in years past has hit more last minutes shots, game winners and clinching daggers than I can remember.
Do the Warriors have it? Lets take the Warriors early season 95-90 win in Portland as an example. On the road, and watching the Trailblazers creep back into the game with one big shot after another. Needing a stop and steal when it counted most, the Warriors were able to create a steal on an inbounds play to get themselves the ball back without fouling. Their success showed poise, maturity and composure. Next they ran a fantastic set play to get Klay Thompson a high percentage runner in the lane by Klay Thompson. Portland wouldn't get up another shot until the final buzzer, with bad passes on the next two possessions. This was a huge win, and showed huge levels of composure.
Verdict - Starting to look like it. The Warriors are not that far away from a game 7 loss in Los Angeles, or bad home losses to Charlotte and the Knicks last year. But this team looks different... they look like they have learned from their mistakes. They have hit big game winners and have won playoff series. If I was playing against them, I wouldn't feel comfortable until the final buzzer sounded.
Elite status is subjective and rightfully so. All teams can claim they have what it takes to be considered elite because it's a feeling and a status, and not a fact. There is only one champion - the Spurs - who can call themselves the best at this current moment. A team's record of wins and losses only tell so much of the story as the Eastern Conference has continued to be far less superior to the West.
The one thing we know, when making the argument for the Warriors, is that we are sure looking like we are moving in the right direction. Have we reached the top? Only time will tell... the regular season is only an audition for the playoffs when it truly counts. The difference between now and years past is that our holes and weaknesses are smaller than they have ever been. It's not a "We Believe" type surprise when we succeed against the odds. 50 wins isn't a goal anymore, it's an expectation. And that's what makes a team elite. They have the expectations to succeed and the ability to continually do so. Here's to hoping the Warriors keep moving forward.