For months, the Golden State Warriors heard the taunts of lucky and fluky and worse. Now, the defending NBA champions have begun to answer their critics as if to say, ‘OK, if we win ’em all, then would that be good enough for you?”
The Warriors aren’t quite 82-0 yet — they’re only 10-0 — but their start has been so drop-dead dominant, so utterly impressive that it makes you wonder if theirs can be one of those seasons for the ages. Six of the victories came against playoff teams a season ago. All but two have been by double figures.
Even more remarkable, they have done it under interim coach Luke Walton, who threatens to Wally Pipp his longtime friend Steve Kerr while the real boss recovers from back surgeries.
Want a crazy stat? In the second half, the Warriors have trailed for 10 minutes, 25 seconds of a possible 240 minutes.
And yet as superstar Stephen Curry claimed after another methodical win at Minnesota on Thursday night, “We can still play better. It’s nice to learn those lessons in victories.”
Only three defending champions have gotten off to better starts, most notably the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls. Coming off a record 72 wins, Michael Jordan and co. won their first 12 games en route to 69 wins and another title.
But the group that won 72 games went just 5-0 before its first loss and was 10-2 after a dozen games. The Warriors already have two losses in hand on the greatest team in NBA history.
“I asked him, ‘What do ya think?’” GM Bob Myers said of Kerr, who came off the bench for those Bulls. “And he said, ‘It’s hard, man. First of all, we had Michael Freakin’ Jordan. His level of competitiveness …’ I don’t think there has been anybody like that guy. If he could have gone 82-0 – he probably was furious that they lost 10 games. That’s how he’s made up, which is great, which made him the best player ever.
“And (Kerr) said the travel for a coastal team is much harder, especially West Coast. That’s an interesting point. He said Midwest travel is easier. I never thought of it like that. He said our travel is so much harder.”
There’s also the quality of competition. In a loaded Western Conference, the Warriors regularly butt heads with as many as four other teams that have a legitimate chances to win 60 games.
“To me, that’s impossible,” Myers said of reaching 70 wins. “I’ll go on record — that’s impossible.”
As the only person other than Kerr who was around those Bulls and these Warriors on a regular basis, I’m not so sure about that.
Let’s start with Stephen Freakin’ Curry.
Last season, Curry came into his own as marquee player, winning Most Valuable Player. But after an offseason in which he spent long hours on his game, Curry is even better now. He will never be in Jordan’s class as a lock-down defender and iron-willed competitor – maybe no one ever will – but Curry’s game has taken on some definite Jordanesque traits this season.
As absurd as it may sound to some, Curry has become even more unstoppable than Jordan if only because of where he takes most of his shots. Many agree that his skill set as a ballhandler and distance shooter is unmatched in league history, and because of that, no player is better suited for the modern 3-point game.
Curry can get off a shot at any time, from anywhere, against anybody — and usually drain it. And if you double-team him, he will dish off to the open man in perhaps most active and efficient offense in the league.
As his league-leading 33.3 points per game indicates, Curry has become a cold-blooded scorer in the Jordan mold. Hey, why not? Compared to last season, he is shooting the ball about three more times each game and scoring about nine more points. If he isn’t the league’s top scorer at season’s end, it will be an upset.
Yet these are hardly the Stephenaires. Klay Thompson was an All-Star last season and teammate Draymond Green is elevating his game to that level. This isn’t to suggest that the Warriors are in the class of the UnbeataBulls just yet, but these champs are the younger, deeper and more versatile of the two teams. Those Bulls were long in the tooth, with only Toni Kukoc and Luc Longley in their athletic primes. And like the Bulls of old, the Warriors display a great passion for defense, easily the most overlooked part of their success.
Now take a look at Golden State’s upcoming schedule. The next 18 games range from slam dunks to free throws. The only toughie figures to come Nov. 19, when they visit the Clippers. Last week, the Warriors scored a 112-108 home victory over their despised rivals, and they basically brought their B game that night. They also did it without starting center Andrew Bogut, who has returned.
So who dat say they gonna beat them Warriors this calendar year? Maybe the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday? Perhaps the Bulls, a week from today? Uh, anyone like the Brooklyn Nets? It’s not silly to think that the champs could take a 25-3 or even 26-2 record into their showdown against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Oracle Arena on Christmas Day.
For comparison, the 1995-96 Bulls were 23-2 on Christmas en route to 72 wins. The 1996-97 Bulls – who actually got off to a much better start – were 25-3 after winning on Christmas.
The moment of truth for the Warriors may come in February, which has the potential to be a killer. The Dubs have only two home dates that month against Oklahoma City and Houston, a pair of those 60-win hopeful teams They also have road games vs. Washington, the LA Clippers, Atlanta, Miami and Oklahoma City.
If the Warriors head into March with no more than eight losses, I’m sayin’ they have a chance. In the final two months, 17 of their 24 games are at home, where they lose about as often as Curry misses a free throw.
“If you asked Draymond, he’d say, ‘We’re goin’ for 70,’ which is what you want,” Myers said. “If I was a player, I’d damn sure say I want to get that record. I mean, that’s the guy you want on your team. But in the position that I’m and the position that Steve’s in, you don’t set that as a goal.
“But hey, you love your players going for that. You don’t want them to say, ‘No, I don’t want to do that,’ But, yeah, you don’t play through an injury to get it. If you see a guy suffering (with an injury), you don’t say, ‘Hey, we need to get some kind of record.’ We’re a long away from 70 wins. It’s early. We’ll see. We’ll see if we can keep going. Hopefully, we can.”
Unlikely? As Jordan would say, most definitely. But unthinkable? Not by a Curry long shot.
Paul Ladewski is a veteran Chicago sports journalist who recently relocated to the Bay Area as the Warriors beat writer for the San Francisco Examiner. He is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com.