Don’t believe what you’ve been told. The Golden State Warriors are not perfect. Not in the most complete, most all-encompassing sense.
Yes, their record is unblemished, 18-0 after a convincing victory over the Sacramento Kings on Saturday night. Steph Curry scored 17 points in the first quarter, took just one shot the rest of the game, and rested for the entire 4th quarter. Draymond Green posted a triple-double for the second game in a row, the first Warrior to accomplish the feat since Wilt Chamberlain. And six different Warriors scored in double figures, a typically balanced effort for one of the deepest teams in the league.
So sure, just another day in the life for the biggest phenomenon in sports today.
But somewhere along the line, it is inevitable that this team will stumble. In fact, had Brook Lopez been able to convert a makeable short tip-in from the low block, the Nets, of all squads, would already be responsible for the defending champ’s first loss. Any given team, on any given night, as the old adage goes. And as Golden State now embarks on a seven game road trip, it is tempting to comb their schedule, game by game, and attempt to pin down that first loss. But then one realizes that this is almost surely folly, because in all likelihood, the Warriors first loss will have little to do with their opponent, and more to do with a moment where the team slips, even briefly, from the ethereal plane they currently call home.
But here’s a thought that should send shivers down the spine of rival executives, coaches, and players across the league. What if the Warriors still have room to grow?
It’s not as preposterous a thought as one might imagine. Curry, who many assumed had reached his peak in last year’s MVP season, has instead found another gear, upping his Usage Rate to 33.3%, while taking an absurd 11 three point shots per game and still connecting at his usual 44%. Green, the team’s do-everything Swiss-army-knife of a player, is only 25, an age when many are still hitting their stride. Klay Thompson, who appears forever doomed to be known as the club’s other all-world marksman, has actually “slumped” to start the season, his True Shooting Percentage down at .559 after posting a mark of .591 last season. Oh, and then there’s the fact that Head Coach Steve Kerr, the man credited with unlocking the Warriors true potential last season, has yet to spend a single moment on the sidelines, as he recovers from offseason back surgery.
So yes, there are plenty of reasons to believe that this incredible team, they of the “Death Ball” lineup, the 16 points per game margin of victory, the greatest start ever to an NBA season, may be capable of even more. (And oh by the way, while we’re at it, just figured I’d leave this here.) No, the Warriors are not perfect. But they are closer than anyone else, and the scary part is, they may still be perfecting their formula.
Throughout “The Book of Basketball”, Bill Simmons’ 2009 New York Times Bestseller, one of the central threads woven through the work is a quest to discover “The Secret” of the sport. Whether or not the reader is inclined to agree on Russell vs. Wilt, Magic vs. Larry, or a particular player’s place in Simmons’ trademark “Hall of Fame Pyramid”, there is no denying that the author has thought about it. At great length. Maybe too much. Almost certainly at the expense of leisure time and his own sanity.
And so, when a conversation with Isiah Thomas, who has seen his own share of hoops highs and lows, concludes with the Hall of Fame point guard revealing that, “the secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball,” it is understandable why reactions might range from profound enlightenment to outright contempt. Depending on your point of view, (and, perhaps, whether you root for the Pistons teams that Thomas commanded to glory, or the Knicks franchise that he drove into a ditch), Thomas’ words may appear as sage wisdom, or nonsensical psychobabble.
Whether or not you find the final explanation satisfying, the concept of “The Secret” is something that most hoops fans can appreciate, and embrace. What is basketball, after all, if not a puzzle to be solved? A code to be cracked? An endless quest to find the right pieces, deploy them in proper fashion, and achieve a strategic ideal, even as the competition continues to evolve? The notion of “The Secret”, in basketball, or any grand endeavor, is as tantalizing as it is elusive. What if, at long last, someone had it all figured out?
That is the glory of these Warriors, who seem to have achieved a cruising altitude higher than any team has soared before. If that doesn’t pass for “The Secret”, well, then we might as well give up searching. And yet, there is nothing hidden, or stealthy, or covert, about their greatness. In fact, just the opposite is true, as Golden State has seen fit to deliver transcendent performances on an everyday basis. There was a time, in fact, not all that long ago, when basketball fans had to wonder when they might see a team hit 15 three pointers in a game, let alone a single half. When a fan-base might be fortunate to watch their superstar go for 40 once or twice a season, as opposed to once every week or so. And yes, there was, in fact, that 72 win season, put together by Jordan, and Pippen, and Phil, all at the height of their powers. It was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, and yet, here we are, still alive and kicking, contemplating whether, perhaps, the feat can be duplicated, or even surpassed.
Golden State’s 18th victory was, in many ways, just like all the others, but there was one notable difference. Starting small forward Harrison Barnes, who has thus far averaged career highs in minutes, field goal percentage, and points per game, was absent, after spraining his ankle in Friday night’s win over the Phoenix Suns. Into the starting lineup stepped Brandon Rush, who scored 14 of his 16 points in the third quarter, helping to put the Kings away for good. It mattered little that Rush has been seldom used in this, his second stint with the team, as he continues to recover from a devastating knee injury suffered three years ago. With Barnes out indefinitely, the team simply needed another player, and so naturally, when Rush stepped into that void, his game ascended to that same stratosphere that the entire roster occupies so effortlessly. “If he’s going to shoot like that,” said Interim Head Coach Luke Walton after the game, “he’ll help fill the gap while Harrison is out.”
And so sure, when a forgotten man at the end of the roster suddenly steps in with a key contribution, it’s easy to understand why “The Secret” to this Warriors run might be thought to have nothing to do with basketball itself. This must be kismet, or karma, or any number of otherworldly forces conspiring to make every move the right one, every play seem perfect, every game imbued with the same spirit of heart, and hustle, and competitiveness. Golden State, clearly, has tapped into something beyond the boundaries of the sport.
Except, well, that’s not really true, because there are no rules being broken, no parameters reset, no sleight of hand or deception that makes this happen.
The Warriors didn’t reinvent basketball. They’re just better at it than we ever thought possible. In Steph Curry, they’ve found a nimble, gifted ball-handler with a rapid-fire release, who also just so happens to be the best shooter the game has ever seen. They’ve surrounded him with a supporting cast of characters who can all hit from anywhere, and defend as a cohesive unit, effectively guarding lineups that trump them in stature. And they’ve implemented a system that uses breakneck pace, and relentless pick-and-roll ball movement, to generate high quality opportunities for everyone on the floor.
Sorry Isiah, but for this Golden State team, “The Secret” of basketball is that of course it’s about basketball. It’s about overwhelming your opponents with energy, rolling to the rim with ease, and, to borrow a phrase from Markieff Morriss, turning three pointers into layups. It’s about breaking your opponent’s spirit in the very first quarter, but still having the ability to come from behind, if needed. It’s about demonstrating a fundamental mastery of a very complicated game: where to shoot, when to pass, how to defend. It’s about athleticism, repetition, X’s and O’s, and all the other clichés that we’ve grown quite tired of, mostly because they really do tell the story. These Warriors aren’t charmed, or chosen, or blessed by the spirit of James Naismith, watching from up above.
No, it’s far simpler than that.
They just figured out all the answers.