You’ll read it on the internet after every time the Golden State Warriors win and sometimes after they lose: “74-8 is still in play.” It’s a joke, of course: no one seriously expects the Warriors to surpass last year’s all-time NBA regular-season record of 73-9, but it’s a joke that looks like it will have a much longer shelf life than it did after the San Antonio Spurs blew out the Warriors .
Last season’s Warriors, you might recall, didn’t lose until after their first , eventually bettering the 72-10 record set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. It was an impressive feat that was rendered nearly meaningless after the Warriors blew a 3-1 series lead to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA finals. It was that collapse that spurred the Warriors into replacing team scapegoat Harrison Barnes with 2014 MVP Kevin Durant in the offseason. On paper, at least, the best regular-season team in league history just got even better.
That the new-look Warriors suffered some early season losses wasn’t totally surprising, even if it was amusing that their repeat bid to win 24 straight games ended at zero. First of all, it’s difficult to imagine any team playing better in the regular season than the 2015-16 Warriors. If Durant was going to make a major difference it was going to be in improving upon the previous postseason, where Golden State’s greatness was dulled when Steph Curry got hurt and Draymond Green earned himself an ill-timed suspension. It was even likely that burnout from pursuing the regular season record was a major factor in their finals collapse.
It also wasn’t unexpected that it would take Golden State some time to integrate Durant into a lineup that lost both Barnes and key defensive player Andrew Bogut. A large part of what made the Warriors unprecedentedly dominant was that Curry, Klay Thompson, Green, Bogut, Barnes and overqualified sixth man Andre Iguodala had spent so much time playing together that the sum was greater than the already outstanding parts. In fact, it’s less surprising that the Warriors have had their early stumbles than it is that they have integrated Durant into the lineup as quickly as they have so far.
Much of the credit has to go to Durant, who might be playing the of his already Hall-of-Fame-worthy career. His ability to help in all facets of the game, he had 20 points, eight assists and three blocks against the Phoenix Suns, has freed up his teammates to shine even brighter than they have before. His presence has been a big reason that Curry was able to hit a record against the New Orleans Pelicans and that Thompson scored a career-high 60 points on the Indiana Pacers .
And they play well in tandem. In that 142-106 win over the Pacers, the Warriors pulled off of the NBA season so far, a full-court lob from Green to Curry, who somehow deflected it to Durant for a reality-warping dunk. It didn’t even resemble a basketball play as much as it did a particularly unconventional yet successful NFL Hail Mary pass. It’s one of the first moments of the NBA season where the dreamed of possibilities of Durant-on-the-Warriors actually came to life and the results were startling. For those of us who thought that Curry and company had pushed basketball to its utmost limits last year, it suggested that the Durant era version of this team could take us even further.
And so, after stumbling somewhat to start the season, the Warriors have regained as the most talked-about subject in the NBA, although not always for the most positive reasons. While they won’t ever be the villains that the Big Three era Miami Heat were, the Warriors are no longer immune from controversy – whether it’s head coach Steve Kerr sparking a NBA-wide debate by to deal with his back pain or, somewhat more distressingly, Green’s inability to stop during routine basketball moves. That’s the price of being on top.
If they can remain on top, that is. Yes, the Warriors could end up being an even better team this season than they were last, but they might have to be. While adding Durant may have looked like a luxury at the time, the rich getting even richer, it could end up being a move the Warriors had to make to keep up with the increased level of competition. The Spurs’ blowout victory wasn’t a fluke: they’re 18-4, undefeated on the road and seemingly unharmed by Tim Duncan’s retirement. The Los Angeles Clippers were the over the first few months of the season. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, fueled by a mixture of pride and revenge after Durant’s defection, has been on . Even James Harden’s Houston Rockets, a dysfunctional mess last season, are starting to look competitive – they beat Golden State in overtime last Thursday.
The main reason that nobody really believes that 74-8 is actually in play isn’t just that the Warriors have already dropped a number of games, although there is that, or that Kerr will rest his regulars way more often this time around, although we should expect that as well. The main reason is that the Warriors transcended the rest of the league for nearly all of last season, that probably won’t be the case this time around.
And this, of course, would be a good thing for the . Before the season began, there was a fear that the Warriors would coast through the regular season while heading for an inevitable finals rematch with Cleveland. While we’ll still have games like Monday’s, where the Warriors are so much better than the competition that it looks like they have solved the sport, there should now be enough doubt to keep things much more interesting than that.
At least in the Western Conference, that is.