While the Blazers were plowing through their schedule and racking up all those wins back in the first half of the 2014/15 season to lead the NBA in the standings, the Warriors were quietly building a juggernaut in Oakland. They had the star, the defensive personnel, a few good bench players, a coach that had them believing in themselves, and the chemistry that enabled them to play greater than the sum of their parts. Despite the lack of x's and o's from their coaching staff, I thought their starting 5 was among the best in the NBA and that a tight rotation had as good a chance as any to could carry them to the Finals. Sadly, the injury to Bogut two games prior to the start of the playoffs delayed their coming out party.
A season later, this team has gotten more dangerous through internal development, emergence of other stars, an improved bench, health, and most of all, an elite coaching staff to maximize return on investment.
Few saw how great this team was last season. Few believed they had a shot at contending. But even with what they've accomplished thus far this season, few believe they deserve to be recognized as one of the all-time great teams. As Mark Jackson would say to about the doubters, "Those guys are just coming to the hospital. The baby has been born already."
Years from now, we're going to look back on this team and marvel at how great the players were and amazed at how well they fit together. A young core of Curry, Thompson, Green, and Barnes coupled with All-NBA defenders in Bogut and Iguodala, supported by role players capable of starting on other teams like Speights, Livingston, and Ezeli. "How could that team not have won 73 games?" Get with the program haters. You're a year late. This team ain't no fluke and they're only going to get better.
The following is one of the first articles I've read touting the Warriors as under-the-radar contenders.
Warriors better than Blazers?
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Staff Writer
We slap that disclaimer on a number of promising teams every season, hinting at a club's potential if injuries somehow weren't part of the conversation. For some teams this season (the Chicago Bulls, for instance), playing the "if healthy" game is a sad, unrealistic ideal. But for others, it has tangible implications down the road. Perhaps no team hears that "if healthy" tag more than the Golden State Warriors.
That's because the Warriors are legitimate title contenders -- if healthy. No, they don't seem like card-carrying members of the NBA elite because of that 20-13 record, which is only good for seventh in the loaded Western Conference.
But that 20-13 record is misleading because of the health issue. With Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry suiting up, the Warriors are absolute juggernauts. Check out the Warriors' record this season with that trio in uniform:
In other words, a better win percentage than any team in the NBA. In their "healthy" games, the Warriors have posted an average scoring margin of plus-11 every 100 possessions, which would also top the league. In all other games, the Warriors are 5-10. That's why you hear the "if healthy" disclaimer repeated ad nauseum.
One team that has escaped the "if healthy" discussion this season is the Portland Trail Blazers. The Blazers have exceeded all expectations, jumping out to a 25-7 record with the league's best offense, scoring 110.1 points per 100 possessions. But unlike the Warriors, the Blazers have been remarkably, off-the-charts healthy this season.
Guess how many games Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez have missed? Zero. The Blazers have had the same starting lineup for all 32 games.
Let's go further: The Blazers' top three reserves -- Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Joel Freeland -- have missed a grand total of two games combined. Of course, we should mention that the Blazers have played without their top pick in the 2013 draft, C.J. McCollum, who has been sent to the D-League in a rehab assignment after breaking his foot in training camp. Aside from McCollum, the Blazers have generally been invincible (knock on wood).
You can see Portland's stability and ridiculously clean bill of health contrasted to the Warriors in the chart on the right. The Blazers have trotted out just 90 lineups this season, by far the lowest number in the league. That's fewer than half the league average (195 lineups) and almost 50 lineups fewer than the Minnesota Timberwolves who rank second. The Warriors, however, have needed to use 198 lineups, which is slightly more than the league average.
Health, and thus lineup stability, is a significant indicator of success (look no further than the poor Brooklyn Nets, who have used three times as many lineups as the Blazers). Notice that most of the NBA's contenders are at the top of the list, while the Warriors, along with the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers, reside much further down the line. This must be a weird feeling for Blazers fans who have suffered over the years in the "if healthy" column thanks to franchise-altering injuries to Greg Oden and Brandon Roy. Some might say this absurdly healthy 2013-14 season for the Blazers is an example of the basketball gods finally smiling upon Portland.
But with the exception of a rookie being sidelined, what we're watching is just about the best-case scenario for the Blazers. And nonetheless, they're just barely better than the Warriors on the season in point differential (plus-5.3 vs. plus-5.1 per 100 possessions). Even with Iguodala out for a long stretch, the two teams are neck-and-neck in the Hollinger Power Rankings despite the gap in the standings. The Blazers' superior record is boosted by some Lillard-spun good fortune in clutch situations. In games where the score margin is within three points in the final minute, the Blazers are 12-3 while the Warriors are just 8-6.
With health -- for now -- on their side, the Warriors went 11-5 in December and enter Thursday's showdown with the Miami Heat carrying a six-game win streak. And four of those five December losses have been by four points or fewer. What's more, the road is about to get smoother thanks to a scheduling quirk that has 24 of the Warriors' next 49 games coming against the sorry Eastern Conference.
Ultimately for the Warriors, Iguodala changes everything. When Iguodala went down with a strained hamstring in November, it derailed the Warriors' season as they played without their best perimeter defender and primary ball handler behind Curry for 12 games. In his absence, the Warriors went 5-7 and surrendered 105 points per 100 possessions to the other team, a rate that would rank 25th in the league over a full season or roughly the same rate as the Blazers' defense (104.8 points per 100 possessions).
But with Iguodala, Curry and Bogut suiting up, the Warriors have been dominant, having held opponents to just 93.7 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. For comparison, the Pacers allow 93.4 points per 100 possessions. On the other end of the floor, the Warriors have scored 104.7 points per 100 possessions with the Warriors trio in uniform, which is just about a top-10 rate.
Contrary to popular belief, the Warriors are a defense-first team thanks to Iguodala and Bogut.
So if you're looking for a team that plays both ends of the floor, it's the Warriors, not the Blazers, who should have your attention in the title contention conversation. When it comes to injuries and late-game situations, what's clear is that the Warriors are the better team, but so far, the Blazers have enjoyed the better luck.