It’s been 40 years since the Golden State Warriors won an NBA championship, and they’ve never been in a better position to end that drought. The No.1 seed in the Western Conference enters the 2015 playoffs as one of the favorites to win the NBA Finals, following a regular season unlike any other in the history of the franchise.
Not only did Golden State finish with the best record in the West, but their 67 wins put them seven games ahead of the Atlanta Hawks, who are the No.1 seed in the East. The Warriors have been the NBA’s most dominant team in eight seasons, matching the Dallas Mavericks who also won 67 games in the 2006-2007 season. The 1996-1997 Chicago Bulls were the last NBA team to win more games than Golden State.
It’s difficult to overstate how impressive the Warriors have been in 2014-2015. While Western Conference playoff teams like the Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs have been contenders for the last 15 years, Golden State’s success is nothing like anything they’ve experienced in the last four decades.
Just three years ago, Golden State missed the playoffs for the 17th time in 18 years. It was the team’s first season under Mark Jackson, marking their ninth head coach during that span. From 1978 to 2012, the Warriors made the postseason just six times, winning four playoff series and never advancing beyond the conference semifinals.
Jackson helped lead the Warriors out from the bottom of the West, but Steve Kerr has turned them into a legitimate title contender. In his first year as a head coach, Kerr took over a 51-win team and increased the win total by 16 games. No rookie head coach had ever led his team to more than 62 victories, and no Golden State team had ever won 60 games in a season.
Perhaps most impressive about the Warriors’ transformation into the West’s top team has been the level of their competition. Golden State set a franchise-record for wins in a season in which six teams in the conference won at least 55 games. San Antonio is the No.6 seed, and they are considered to be the second favorite in the West.
Golden State’s season has been much like the one Atlanta had this year. Both teams unexpectedly ran away with the No.1 seed in their respective conferences, led by inexperienced head coaches. But while the Hawks aren’t favored in the East to reach the NBA Finals, the Warriors have clearly separated themselves as the West’s top team.
Golden State has just two losses in the last month, led by the likely MVP winner. Stephen Curry has put up numbers that the league has rarely seen. Averaging 23.8 points and 7.7 assists per game, the point guard is shooting 44.3 percent from three-point range, 48.7 percent from the field and 91.4 percent from the free-throw line. He’s building a case to become the greatest pure shooter in NBA history, and a report even noted that he made 77 consecutive three-pointers at a recent practice.
Besides Curry, the Warriors have one of the best rosters in the league. Klay Thompson has emerged as a top shooting guard, scoring 21.7 points per game. The 25-year-old made his first All-Star appearance this season, by improving on a three-point shooting percentage that was already stellar. In 2013-2014, Thompson shot 41.7 percent, but this year it's 43.9 percent. Only Curry and Atlanta Hawks swingman Kyle Korver have shot better among players with more than 400 attempts.
But the Warriors are not composed of just a star backcourt. General Manager Bob Myers has built a deep squad, and allowed for certain frontcourt players to mature.
"Golden State turned it around by putting the right players around Curry and Klay Thompson," famed NBA columnist Mark Heisler wrote earlier this month.
Hard-nosed forward Draymond Green might be the best defensive player in the league with his ability to guard all five positions. Even big man Marreese Speights, who bounced around three teams in five season, has played a key role on the team, averaging 10.4 points and 4.3 rebounds in 15.9 minutes per game. Speights may have a case to be in the conversation for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award.
Meanwhile, small forward Harrison Barnes has seen his shooting percentage climb from 39.9 percent in 2013-2014, to 48.2 percent this season. The 22-year-old has also seen an uptick in rebounding, and has cut down on his turnovers.
The Warriors’ 67 wins don’t fully explain how dominant they’ve been. Golden State has defeated their opponents by an average of 10.1 points per game, while San Antonio ranks second with just a 6.2-point average margin of victory. The Warriors are so often comfortably in front that Curry hasn’t even played in over 20 percent of the team’s fourth quarters.
Playing in a difficult Western Conference, it won’t be easy for Golden State to reach the NBA Finals. Their 11/5 championships odds are tied for first with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have a much easier path through their conference. Even though they’ll likely have to go through multiple 55-plus win teams, the Warriors’ road to the Finals is clearly easier than the rest of what the West will have to face.
Led by Anthony Davis in his first ever playoff appearance, the New Orleans Pelicans don’t stand much of a chance in their first-round matchup with the Warriors. The Spurs appear to be the Warriors' biggest threat, but they are no guarantee to reach the conference semifinals, having to face the Los Angeles Clippers without home-court advantage.
If the No.2-seeded Houston Rockets or No.7-seeded Mavericks advance, they’ll have to face the Spurs or Clippers in the second round. The Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers won 106 total games, but neither team is as good as they were three months ago, and they’ll be significant underdogs against Golden State.
As good as the Warriors have been on the road, they’ve been almost perfect at home. Suffering just two losses at Oracle Arena, Golden State will have home-court advantage in every series. Oakland fans are energized about the Warriors, and Oracle Arena will likely make things very difficult for opposing teams.
Having toiled near the bottom of the West for the better part of 40 years, the 2014-2015 Warriors are perhaps the best comeback story the NBA has seen in years. In two months, they will have a good chance to cap off their historic season with a championship.
Prediction: This is unchartered waters for Golden State. Not only is this the club's first season as a frontrunner to reach the NBA Finals, they have shown little sign of faltering under the pressure of the regular season. How deep the Warriors go in the postseason will likely hinge on how well Curry shoots and well the frontcourt defends. The talent is there, and it's difficult to doubt this team's resolve, which means they have an excellent shot at lifting the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
In short, this looks like the Warriors' year.