When the NBA champion Golden State Warriors visited the White House recently, President Obama trolled the team with an amusingly misleading shout-out to his own hometown Chicago Bulls. Obama said it was rare to address a player from the greatest team in NBA history, and then revealed that he was talking about Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who of course played for the famously dominant 1995-96 Bulls – commonly viewed as the best NBA team of all time.
It was a funny joke that any NBA fan could appreciate, but it also made those of us who want to see that Bulls team’s 72-win record stand wonder whether the comment might be outdated in a number of months. Indeed, heading out of the All-Star break it’s looking more and more like this year’s Warriors are going to have a chance to pass the 72-win threshold – possibly even by a few games. It almost sounds blasphemous to say it, but the Warriors’ dominance this season has been difficult to deny.
Looking purely at the record, Golden State is 48-4 coming out of the break. That’s good for an absurd .923 winning percentage, and if that pace continues over the remaining 30 games the Warriors are only going to lose two or three more times. That would result in a record of either 75-7 or 76-6, either of which would have sounded just about impossible before the season started.
The actual dominance at the core of this record is difficult to describe, but is immediately apparent when one watches them on the court. The best comparison to the ’96 Bulls in a single number might be the point differential Golden State has managed to achieve. For perspective on both teams’ greatness, the top team in differential three seasons ago was Oklahoma City with +9.2; two seasons ago it was the Spurs with +7.7; and last season it was the Warriors with +10.1. By contrast, the ’96 Bulls managed a differential of +12.3, which seems almost crazy by modern standards (and standards in the ’90s for that matter). So far this season, the Warriors are at +12.5 (though interestingly enough the Spurs are even better at +13.3).
But perhaps more than any statistic or specific indication, it’s the shifting tone of those in and around the league that most clearly indicates that the Warriors are making a real run at this. Watching sports show hosts or listening to NBA podcasts over the past few months, one will have heard an almost universal shift in attitude toward the question of the 72-win record. When the Warriors were 10-0 most talking heads treated discussion of the record as inappropriate. When they were 20-0 it felt as if NBA types were ready to allow such conversation, but not to predict a real run at the record. But by now it’s hard to find a noteworthy NBA analyst who doesn’t think the Warriors are at least the best team since the ’96 Bulls and that they could indeed break the record. Maybe even more significantly, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich recently said the Warriors’ brand of basketball is so good that he’s envious (and would buy a ticket to watch them play). Pop isn’t exactly one for lavish praise.
Yet it’s Pop, in part, that makes caution appropriate despite the Warriors’ blistering pace. Looking at the Warriors’ upcoming schedule, there are still some pretty significant hurdles that remain, including three more games against the Popovich’s Spurs. As mentioned, the Spurs actually have a better point differential on the season, and despite the fact that the Warriors blew them out in their only match-up thus far, three games out of 30 remaining against the most statistically dominant team is a tall order. Coach Pop appears to be somewhat in awe of Golden State, but you can rest assured he’s cooking up ways to beat them. The only concern may be that he might not reveal these ways until the postseason.
The Warriors’ schedule presents additional challenges as well. For one thing, they also have to play Oklahoma City two more times after the Thunder gave them a very close challenge just before the All-Star break. They’re also about to embark on a six-game road trip that includes two back-to-backs, not unlike the early season road trip that led to their first loss.
All things considered, it’s starting to seem inevitable that the record will receive a legitimate challenge. But while the Warriors are on an ominous pace, they’re not at 73 yet, and they’ve got their work cut out for them if they want to get there. And for Bulls fans, as troublesome as it is to watch a team getting close, there’s one fun thing about all this: if these Warriors don’t break the record, it may be that no one can.