The Warriors now sit at 20-2 to start this season. While most thought that the Golden State would be a very good team and a potential title contender, this start is well beyond even the most optimistic expectations. What is different this year? Well, to start the Warriors are probably playing a bit over their head. They obviously won’t end up winning at this current pace (which would lead them to a 74-8 record). In term of point differential, GS is also playing a bit better than they should. Based upon point differential, the Warriors have an expected record of 18-4, which is still way better than thought and quite formidable. The fact is the Warriors are the class of the NBA right now, with an SRS way above the current second seeded Grizzlies.
So, what is the catalyst for this improvement? Is it sustainable (in the sense that the Warriors will remain the favorite for the NBA title)? Let’s start with the first question. The team stats show that the Warriors have improved overall both offensively and defensively. Whereas the 2013-14 Warriors were a very good defensive team with a slightly above average offense, this year’s team has somehow improved in both ends. GS now has the number one defense in the NBA and is seventh in offense. Check the differences by number:
2013-14: Off. Rating 107.5 (12th), Def. Rating 102.6 (4th)
2014-15: Off. Rating 108.9 (7th), Def. Rating 97.7 (1st)
Usually when a team makes a big jump up in offense, it would just be happy to maintain its prior defensive status but this type of dual jump is something usually only done by teams that were previously bad in all areas. Steve Kerr has changed the paradigm first by picking up the pace (from 6th last season to 1st in the NBA so far). In terms of individual performances here’s how the key players compare with their efforts from last season in PER:
Stephen Curry: 24.1 Stephen Curry: 27.0
David Lee: 19.1 Klay Thompson: 20.1
Andrew Bogut: 17.0 Andrew Bogut: 17.3
Klay Thompson: 14.3 Draymond Green: 15.8
Andre Iguodala: 13.7 Harrison Barnes: 15.2
Draymond Green: 12.7 Andre Iguodala: 9.2
So, Curry is obviously the engine that makes this team go. He has somehow found another gear, when the Warriors would’ve been perfectly happy if he just played like he did last season. Curry actually improved his PER (so far) in every season in the NBA. The improvement does not appear to be the result of any fluke hot shooting either. Curry’s two-point shooting is a career-high (.560%) but that is offset somewhat by the fact that his three-point shooting is a career-low (.394%, which is still quite impressive). Looking even deeper, Curry, is getting to the rim at the highest level of his career (19.5% of his shots are from within three feet of the rim) and he is finishing them at a really high rate (.716%, whereas his previous best from that range was .625%). Curry has also done a good job of avoiding the long twos that used to be 30% of his shot arsenal but are now down to 16.3%. Curry has done this while still shooting tons of threes. Is Curry getting to the rim more because he has learned a new skill or is this a natural result of easy layups from the fast pace? It isn’t clear but it doesn’t matter if he continues to play this way.
Klay Thompson has improved as much or more than even Curry. Thompson is younger, so a big jump is more expected. Thompson has improved a bit in many facets (slight uptick in rebounding, steals, blocks, and free throws, and threes). Like Curry, Thompson is also getting to the rim much more and reducing the long twos. Thompson is taking 32.9% of his shots from within 10 feet (when his career average from that range was 23.1%).
As for the rest of the team, Green and Barnes had improved offensively (though Iguodala has looked very weak so far). (David Lee has been injured as well but Mareese Speights has been great). Finally, defensively, the Warriors are holding opponents to the lowest effective-field goal percentage in the NBA (opponents are shooting .409% from two and .300% from three) and lead the NBA in blocks. This defensive level may not be sustainable. Since 2000-01, only one team (2003-04 Spurs) has held a team to .409% shooting from two for a season and the lowest a team has held opponents to from three is the 2003-04 Pistons at .302%. In fact, three other teams have defended the three-point line better in the NBA this year, which suggests that over the next few months, all four teams’ opponents will regress/progress to a higher shooting level. So, it is reasonable to conclude that the defense can’t quite stay this good but Warriors will still be very good and are, for the moment, the favorite to win the NBA title. The West is still great, though, and the favorite status is not overwhelming.