NBA Sunday: Warriors Try To Defy History

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The Golden State Warriors have won 60 games and clinched the first overall seed in the NBA’s ever-competitive Western Conference. Somehow, they managed to do this before April 1, which is even more than amazing – it’s unfathomable.

DraymondGreen_InAll things considered, though, the Warriors winning the NBA championship may be unfathomable as well, though not for lack of talent.

Make no mistake about it: From top to bottom, the Warriors have proven to be arguably the best team in the entire league. It is often truly stated that you are as good as your record says you are, and Golden State’s record just so happens to say that they are the best.

But if there is one thing that history has shown us in the NBA, it is that a team with a lack of playoff experience and heartbreak is one that almost never wins the NBA Finals.

The primary question that should now be asked of the Warriors as they flip the switch into cruise control mode is not how good they are, but whether or not they are great enough to cut against the grain of history and be one of the few exceptions to the long-held rule of playoff experiences being a necessary requisite for championship glory.

* * *

Before Michael Jordan became renowned as the greatest basketball player ever, before Hakeem Olajuwon won back-to-back championships and before Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant became one of the best duos this league has ever seen, all three had something in common: epic playoff heartbreak.

What has seemed true over the course of NBA history—and especially over the past 25 years—is that flaming failure is a necessary hurdle to becoming a champion. Invariably, each season there are a few surprise teams that win a lot of games but end up walking away empty handed at the end of the season. In those moments and those trying times, players and teams collectively hit rock bottom. In those moments, a superstar finds himself and resolves to do all within his power to never experience the pain again.

The best and most poignant example of this in a modern sense would be the performance that LeBron James turned in against the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics improbably led the series 3-2 and the Miami HEAT were fresh off of their gut-wrenching defeat at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals the year prior.

What James showed us at Boston’s TD Garden was one of the greatest playoff performances many of us will ever see. In the end, James finished the game with 45 points on 19-for-26 shooting from the field. He added 15 rebounds and five assists. Most importantly, the HEAT left Boston with a 98-79 victory. They would go on to win the series in seven games before defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals.

By this point, James was no stranger to excellent playoff performances, but anyone who saw James play in this game saw that James seemed different. His demeanor was serious and focused and he seemed, for lack of a better word, possessed.

The hypothesis here is quite simple: it was the agony of the loss suffered at the hands of the Mavericks that was the catalyst for James digging deeper than he had ever dug before.

The question as it relates to the Warriors is whether they have experienced a similar heartbreak or otherwise gone through the rights of passage that history has shown us is usually necessary to win the whole thing?

The evidence says no.

* * *

Dating all the way back to 1989, before Isiah Thomas knew what it felt like to be a champion and before Hakeem Olajuwon led his Houston Rockets to consecutive titles, we have seen a recurring theme among almost every team that has won the championship over the past 25 years.

Analysis shows that of the 26 championships won since then, only two of them have been captured by teams that did not suffer at least a second round loss in the year immediately preceding their winning the championship.

In other words, a team basically never wins the NBA Finals the year after losing in the first round. What’s more is that teams rarely go from zero to hero quickly.

As we compare the Warriors to teams that have gone on to win the championship in the past, it is important to keep in mind that the principal players that comprise Steve Kerr’s team only have one playoff series win under their collective belt. When compared to the likes of the other contenders in the Western Conference, that leaves them with a severe experience deficit.

Dating back to the 1989 NBA Finals, let’s look at the last 26 NBA champions. In 10 of those instances, the champion successfully defended their title from the year prior. The successful title defenses came in 1990 (Detroit Pistons), 1992-93 (Bulls), 1995 (Rockets), 1997-98 (Bulls), 2001-02 (Lakers), 2010 (Lakers) and 2013 (HEAT).

In four instances, the eventual champion had returned after losing in the prior year’s Finals. The 2014 Spurs, 2012 HEAT, 2009 Lakers and 1989 Pistons are all examples.

Three times, the eventual champion emerged after losing in the conference finals the year prior: the 2006 HEAT, 2004 Pistons and 1992 Bulls.

Seven times, the eventual champion won after being eliminated in the second round of the playoffs in the year prior, with the most recent example being the 2007 Spurs.

Since 1989, only twice has a team won the NBA Finals after not advancing out of the first round the year prior: the 2008 Celtics and the 2011 Mavericks.

Both teams were special in their own regard.

The 2008 Celtics will forever live on as an outlier. Aside from turning in the biggest single-season turnaround in NBA history, the Celtics experienced a confluence of events that yielded one of the most dramatic and improbable turnarounds the league has seen. Essentially, it had everything to do with Danny Ainge managing to acquire both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and placing them with Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Doc Rivers—three individuals who have since proven to have championship DNA.

As for the 2011 Mavericks, while their 2010 season ended in the first round, there are two important things to consider. First, the Mavericks (the second seed) were upset by the Spurs (the seventh seed). It was the third time in four years that the team lost in the first round and just three years after seeing their 67-15 regular season ended at the hands of Don Nelson’s Warriors in the first round. That first round upset also happened to come one year after the Mavericks were upset by the HEAT in the 2006 NBA Finals.

So although five years passed between 2006 and 2011, both Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry—the team’s two principals—had experienced the highest degrees of playoff heartbreak. By any objective measure, the Mavericks would have passed both the heartbreak and experience standards.

The same simply cannot be said of Kerr’s Warriors.

As a unit, they will be making just their third NBA playoff appearance.

As a unit, they have just one playoff series win under their belt and that happened to come against the 2013 Denver Nuggets—a team that had played over its head during the course of the regular season.

In a roundabout way, it seems that teams rarely emerge out of nowhere and suddenly become champions. The ascension to those heights requires percolation, toiling, heartbreak and experience.

To this point, the Warriors, on paper, seem to be missing a few ingredients.

Obviously, along with the 2008 Celtics and 2011 Mavericks, the Warriors may be good enough to eventually emerge as an exception.

Still, it is interesting to note that if they do the improbable and emerge as champions, they would be a most improbable exception.

* * *

As a team, the Warriors have found profound success depending on the shooting abilities of both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. What has also helped the team tremendously is that each one of Kerr’s top eight players in terms of minutes are all relatively exceptional passers for their position.

Draymond Green is a Lamar Odom-like jack knife who impacts the game in every conceivable way. His ball handling, passing and shoot abilities mesh perfectly with Curry’s ability to play off the ball and often it is either he or Shaun Livingston who enable Curry to become a catch-and-shoot player. This further diversifies Kerr’s offensive attack.

Unfortunately, in the playoffs, talent does not always trump.

A playoff series is a chess match and a coaching joust as much as it is a wrestling match between the players on the court. Over the course of a long series, good coaches find ways eliminate the strengths of their opposition. Teams with pesky perimeter defenders who are interchangeable and fight over screens—the Grizzlies and Spurs both come to mind—are exactly the types of teams that can give the Warriors problems.

They also happen to be responsible for two of the few losses on the Warriors’ record this season.

Entering the 2014-15 season, few expected the Warriors to be this good, this quickly. After eclipsing 60 wins and clinching the Western Conference in surprisingly quick fashion, they have emerged as a serious contender that has an opportunity to pull off one of the more improbable championship runs the league has seen over the past 25 years.

Health, match ups and experience will certainly be obstacles necessary for Kerr’s team to overcome.

But at the end of the day, it is the defying of history that may be their biggest hurdle.

* * *

It is late March and the Warriors, by virtue of a Saturday night road win in Milwaukee, have just accomplished their winningest season in franchise history.

“It feels good,” Stephen Curry said while being interviewed on NBATV.

“We’ve got nine games left, so to be able to lock that up and be able to just focus on how we’re playing night in, night out and get a rhythm going into the playoffs, it’s a big deal. [We’re] doing a lot of things for the first time in franchise history and that’s a good thing.”

With Kerr emerging as a favorite to win the NBA’s Coach of the Year Award and the Warriors securing the team’s first division championship in 39 years, clearly, this bunch is no stranger to making history.

As the playoffs begin and the Warriors attempt to do the improbable, hopefully, for their sake, they continue to be up to that challenge.