I consider myself a proponent of statistics as a means to quantify the game of basketball. After all, analytics are basically what reasonable people use to take their understanding of all kinds of things to the next level.
Just as Google does for online advertising...and IBM does for computing applications...basketball analytics should do (or can do, or is doing) do for the sport of basketball. They should help us see a familiar subject even more clearly.
This isn't make-believe. Points per possession and related stats have already allowed basketball enthusiasts to see the immense value of the corner-three point shot attempt -- now the shot is rampant at all levels of the sport. And on-off numbers helped illustrate the tremendous value of a do-it-all guy like Draymond Green. These advancements in understanding have allowed professionals to basketball better than ever.
So then why am I suddenly doubting these same concepts when it comes to the 2015-2016 Warriors?
For starters, the Golden State Warriors have made a leap since their 67-win Championship campaign. But they're not destroying teams on a nightly basis with an ever-increasing point differential. In fact, perhaps the reverse is true! Since opening the season with an unprecedented plus-100 in just four games (all against playoff teams they faced a year ago), Golden State has won in increasingly less impressive fashion. It scuffled against a bad Sacramento Kings squad, and needed overtime to dispatch a terrible Brooklyn Nets team at home. And against the hated Los Angeles Clippers, they trailed in the fourth quarter on two separate nights.
How can a team that is honestly and truly better than a year ago suffer such a slump at the height of its powers?
I can come up with exactly two explanations.
Explanation One: They don't need to try that hard.
Just how people say, "I'm not sexist, but..." before they say something sexist, I had to drop the above stats foreword before I could come out and say: there are no stats that I'm aware of for what I write next. But I suspect the Golden State Warriors may have just come to realize that they're so much better than the NBA's masses that they can screw around and get away with it.
I know there are many platitudes written and said about Golden State's hard work and respect for the game. And I don't doubt those kind words. And I won't contradict them, either. But the season is a long slog through 82-games and then some. And this Warriors team just proved it could grind out a season with maximum effort...isn't it human nature to ease up a bit?
Dubs games are becoming a bit predictable. The Warriors race out to a substantial first half lead, then let their opponent back into it, and then put them away late. I'm sure it's confirmation bias, but it really looks like they're pushing the limits of their own ability to close a game. As if they're feeling out exactly when and where they need to flip the switch to have their cake and eat it to (that is to win with a minimal amount of effort).
As a kid, I wondered what the ultimate team would look like. Would the original dream team steamroll through an 82-game season with a plus-25 points per game scoring differential? Or would they absolutely smash the first few opponents, realize that they were trying way harder than they needed to, and then toy with their remaining opponents before putting a Nuggets or Timberwolves team away late. Perhaps they would suffer a scare, or even an inexplicable loss. But would any reasonable person doubt their superiority?
These Warriors want to win. They care that people call them lucky, and they made sure we all knew it. They're a bit vain. They're arrogant. And these are all terrific qualities for a team that finds itself on top of the NBA. This isn't a derogatory idea: the Golden State Warriors might just be so good that they defy classic expectations of a Champion (because maybe we haven't seen a Champion this good!).
My theory is: these Warriors may be so good that we can no longer tell. They'll play how they want, when they want. And only when faced with a team somewhere near their level will we see proof of their greatness. In the meantime, we'll have to settle for an occasional uneven performance, or a disappointing schedule loss. Because it's just a game to them, and no one playing on the team cares about any number except the final score.
Explanation Two: They're just really, really lucky.