Now that the Warriors have caught and passed Michael Jordan and his 1995-96 Chicago Bulls as the first team to win 73 games in the regular season — and don’t say Sheridan Hoops didn’t warn ya a long time ago, not once, but twice — let the debate about their place in history begin.
Because, you know, that’s what fans and media do when a team pulls off the darn near impossible, the utterly unthinkable in this age of metrics and quantitative analysis and bestowing premature sainthood.
What makes these Warriors so unique is that they pose as many problems for the judge and jury as their opponents. If you haven’t noticed, this isn’t your father’s NBA anymore. Heck, it not’s not even your older brother’s for that matter.
The game is sooooo much different from even 10 years ago, which renders any comparisons to the distant past practically meaningless. The growing obsession with the 3-point shot has changed everything, and the numbers tell us that the Warriors shoot it about as well (42 percent) and more often (32 per game) than any team ev-er.
Here’s all that one needs to know about Stephen Curry and the Warriors in their epic season: They outscored opponents by 10.6 points per game from beyond the arc alone. Only Dell Curry and the 1996-97 Charlotte Hornets connected at a sightly higher rate, but they hoisted nearly 15 fewer shots per game.
Oh, and the Warriors play defense, too.
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing from supposedly knowledgable people about a team that has been this good,” Hall of Fame straight-shooter Warriors legend Rick Barry told me the other day. “It boggles the mind. (Ex-Chicago Bull) Scottie Pippen says he would hold Steph Curry to what — less than 20 points a game? Gimme a freakin’ break! Is he desperate for publicity or something? It’s a joke.
“Both teams are very good at both ends. The Warriors would have trouble against Michael, obviously, and the Bulls would have trouble against Steph. The Warriors would spread the floor, and the Bulls would have to work so much harder that they wouldn’t be as effective defensively. It would be a competitive series. But I’m not saying this because I played for the Warriors. I’m saying it from a basketball perspective.”
As one who survived Michael Mania back in the day, I can tell you there is one area that those Bulls are no match for these Warriors. None at all.
It’s called fun.
That’s right — the pure, once-in-a-lifetime joy that only a select group of athletes can experience in their careers.
See, those Bulls were cold-blooded killers. Jordan would have it no other way. They would look you in the eyes, plug you in the forehead, move on to the next city then whack someone else again.
Tony Soprano and Paulie Walnuts couldn’t have done it better.
The Jordanaires were a cliquish group — His Airness, Pippen and Ron Harper in one corner, the so-called supporting cast in the other and Dennis Rodman on Mars, naturally.
On the court, they were ruthless in the grind-it-out, half-court game at both ends. That even went for the practices, where Jordan blackened one of Steve Kerr’s eyes so badly that Kerr publicly blamed it on a home accident lest he incur even greater wrath in the future.
These Warriors are California cool.
They like to dominate opponents, all right, but they don’t bludgeon them. They kill them softly from a distance, more like death by a thousand paper airplanes. Some guys are closer than others, and, yeah, Draymond Green has been known to fray some nerves at times, but this is a group that truly enjoys being around each other.
The all-in vibe starts with Curry, the most likable, well-grounded superstar the league has seen in years. Whereas Jordan had become unapproachable later in his career, Curry is content to be the humble servant.
The more success Curry has in the future, the more likely that is to change, but for now, he’s one of the few world-class athletes to whom the common man can relate.
“I enjoy what I do,” Curry explained to reporters after a victory in Chicago not long ago. “I’m blessed to be able to play this game, be healthy (and) play with some great teammates. We have fun the way that we play. When we put together a performance like that and everybody is feeling good and everybody is involved, it’s a fun brand of basketball.”
So not only have Curry and the Warriors won more regular-season games than any team in league history, but they’ve done it with a brand of ball and infectious enthusiasm that the basketball world hadn’t seen before.
But before we attach a legacy to the golden Warriors, there’s another deed to be done. Because if the Champs fail to repeat, they’re destined to be known as colossal underachievers, the greatest team ever to gag on the Big One.
A regular-season record without the league championship is Hollandaise sauce without the filet mignon. And the Warriors darn well know it.
“(The record) is history, but there is added pressure on us there to win the championship,” Andrew Bogut conceded. “With great things comes more responsibility, and this is one of those things.”
Or as Curry put it, more to the point, “It would suck to not finish the job off.”
Yeah, it would kinda suck if the Warriors laid an egg in the postseason, all right.
They enter the postseason as the most prohibitive favorites in years. In the last two seasons, they own an 88-12 record with Curry, Green, Bogut, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes as the starters, and the first team is locked and loaded for round one.
“It’s a relief, especially getting through it in full health,” Kerr said. “We’ve got all our players available for Saturday’s playoff opener and everybody’s in a good spot, and that was my main concern coming down the stretch once we secured the 1 seed.”
Yet as we know, the regular season and postseason are not one and the same.
Even the mighty Bulls struggled to close the deal in the 1996 playoffs. After victories in 10 of their first 11 games, the Jordanaires squandered a 3-0 lead in the NBA Finals. It took them six games to put a 64-win Seattle SuperSonics team to bed.
If the Warriors follow suit, we can anoint them as the Greatest Team of the New Era, at the very least. But then and only then.
Paul Ladewski is a veteran Chicago sports journalist who in 2015 relocated to the Bay Area as the Warriors beat writer for the San Francisco Examiner. He is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com.