On the NBA’s Opening Night, the Golden State Warriors rolled out their Death Star, a starting lineup packed as tightly as any in imaginable memory.
- Steph Curry: last year’s MVP, greatest shooter of all time
- Klay Thompson: top-five shooter of all time
- Draymond Green a leatherman of a player whose proficiency for the game is matched only by his proficiency for kicking other men in the gentlemen’s region
- Zaza Pachulia: because they needed a fourth guy
- Kevin Durant: a top-three player in the league that the team signed in the offseason.
That team then proceeded, because turnabout is always fair play, to get kicked very hard in its gentlemen region by the San Antonio Spurs. For a few hours, everybody got to wonder if maybe the team’s Death Star was fully operational. Then the team won 16 of its next 17 games, pushing its record to an awesome 16-2, although that number still seems underwhelming after last year’s 24-0 start. All was right with the world.
But then the Warriors lost again last night. The team sits at 16-3. Everything is still right with the world – the Warriors are the best team in the league! – but…
If somebody went looking for dings in the armor, it might be worth starting with the quality of that record. The Warriors’ 16 wins have come against teams with a 133-168 (.441) record. The Warriors’ 3 losses have come against teams with a 37-21 (.637) record. Golden State has played, at best, a middlingly difficult schedule. Their best win might be one over the Toronto Raptors in a game that saw the Canadian franchise win three of four quarters.
The bigger looming issue is one of health. The Warriors have been remarkably resilient these last two-and-a-half years, with Curry, Thompson, and Green rarely missing time. But we know what happens when any of them do, having witnessed what their absences can cause. Curry went down in the third game of the playoffs last year, returned quickly, but played injured, and the 73-9 regular-season Warriors promptly lost 5 of 12 games (before rallying against the Thunder). Green got himself suspended for the Finals’ fifth game and his absence was enough to breath life into the teetering Cavaliers.
The stanch against injury has always been the Warriors’ bench, itself a fierce unit capable of exceedingly competent basketball. Andre Igoudala, Shaun Livingston, Mareese Speights, Brandon Rush, Leandro Barbosa, and Festus Ezeli averaged 38 points-per-game last season. Between them, they were often able to fill the gaps.
But the offseason saw the Warriors sink everything into Kevin Durant. Although he too has battled significant injuries, including terrifying ones that affected his feet, Durant is Durant, a monstrous apparition known by some as the Slim Reaper. Getting him was a no-brainer, the obvious thought being that adding the fourth (Durant) to the Warriors’ big three (Curry, Thompson, and Green) would make them virtually unstoppable.
Every strategy has its cost, and what the Warriors gave up to get Durant was its more competent bench. Scoring by the team’s top-six bench players is off 10 points per game, with Igoudala, Livingston, Ian Clark, the 10,000-year-old reanimated corpse of David West, JaVale McGee (?!?), and Kevon Looney averaging less than 28 points per game, thus setting the team up to pay a potentially higher price were one of its big four to get injured.
That then is the extent of the nail that the league’s other 29 teams have to hang their hat on: the Warriors having faced a weak schedule and having performed (relatively) badly against its more competitive teams, and a bench that is less impressive than it used to be.
Although that isn’t much, it is something, and it might be slightly more than the league expected to have going for it at the start of the season.