The Warriors: Making History and Staying in the Moment
The Warriors are having one of the best starts in NBA history, but are we losing something in constantly pitting this team against the past and projecting them into the future?
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The Golden State Warriors are having one of the best starts in NBA history. Not only has no team ever gone 16-0 to start a season, but the Warriors also have one of the highest margins of victory of all time, beating teams by an average of 16.7 points per game. So it's only natural that they've attracted comparisons to the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and their NBA record 72 regular season wins. National networks put up a chart comparing the progress of the two teams before each game, commentators debate which team is better, players on each team have been asked how the two would fare in a head to head matchup. Some of this is fun—getting Steve Kerr, who played on those Bulls and coaches these Warriors, to talk about how the game would go is probably the peak of the genre. It's also true that context helps us to appreciate what we're seeing.
But I keep thinking back to a seemingly insignificant play from several games ago, and wonder whether we're losing something in constantly pitting this team against the past and projecting them into the future.
It was the beginning of the third quarter of the Warriors' second matchup this season against the Los Angeles Clippers, and Draymond Green set a pick. Green, the team's linchpin and emotional core, had not had a good game. Early foul trouble had confined him to the bench, where he'd looked on helplessly as the Clippers jumped out to an enormous lead. When Green returned to the game, he'd been unable to right the ship—the Clippers actually increased their lead. Now the lead stood at 16, and the Warriors were in real danger of their undefeated streak ending at the hands of their arch-rivals.
Green stepped into Paul Pierce's path and set a shaky sort of screen, a bit late, one arm akimbo and stance a little too wide. It was the sort of borderline play that officials usually let pass, but this time they did not. They blew the whistle and gave Green his fourth personal foul, the kind of call that can set players into a rage. Green, who is tied for second most technical fouls in the NBA this season, didn't throw his arms up in frustration, or shout, or even shoot a hard stare at the official. He didn't react at all. He turned and started heading toward the other end of the court, not with the forced restraint that belies barely concealed anger, nor with defeated resignation, but with real calm. It was as if he'd put the setback behind him in an instant. The rest of his team was equally composed, Steph Curry clapping his hands as if urging his teammates to focus. The reaction was so muted that the Clippers' crowd didn't seem to realize that their team had gotten the ball back until it was announced over the PA.
I realized two things in this moment: one was that the Warriors, who had looked decidedly powerless in the face of the Clippers' perfect storm of a first half, were going to win this game. The second was that when Warriors players answer questions about their season with variations on the phrase "We're just trying to stay in the moment," they aren't just mouthing empty sports clichés. They mean it, and that's part of why they've been so great.
On the next Warriors possession, Green hit a three. Then, a couple possessions later, another one. He scored 13 points in the third quarter, held Blake Griffin to a single point and zero field goals in the fourth, and did not commit another foul. Curry and Harrison Barnes combined for 21 points in the fourth quarter, and the Warriors completed their comeback.
They still haven't lost.
There are many reasons for this unprecedented streak, most of them obvious. They have the league's most terrifying lineup, in Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Barnes, and Green—affectionately called "the death squad" in some quarters—who are outscoring teams by 68 points per 100 possessions. The league's second-best lineup falls 30 points behind that mark. That's the same gap that separates the second-best lineup and the nineteenth-best lineup in the league. (By the way, the second-best and nineteenth-best lineups are also Golden State lineups.) The Warriors boast one of the deepest teams in the league, and they have tremendous continuity, returning nearly all the players from last year's championship run.
But another reason the Warriors have won is because they've approached the season in the same way they handled that foul call, by not getting tangled in the future or the past, by attending to what's right in front of them: winning the next road trip, the next game, the next possession. Mindfulness, interim coach Luke Walton said before breaking the record, is one of the team's four core principles. And it is mindfulness that allows them to play with their joyful, focused intensity. It allows the Warriors to float above our expectations and projections.
"You got to stay in the moment," Curry said, again, after being asked about 72 wins. "When you stay in the moment, good things happen, because everybody's just wrapped up in the process."
I am not a Puritan and I am not trying to delineate between a right way and a wrong way to watch and enjoy sports this Thanksgiving weekend. But we'll have years and years to attempt to put these Warriors in context, to debate hypothetical matchups and measure their stature against teams past. History is forever. But we can only enjoy them in all their glorious indeterminacy right now. This is the first and last time we can lose ourselves in the joy of watching the '15 Warriors without knowing what they'll become. After all, "the process"—the slipped picks, the whirring rotations, the transition jumpers, the ebb and flow of each game—isn't that why we started watching? We shouldn't let the living, breathing present be swallowed up by the ghosts of the future or the zombies of the past. Maybe we should take a cue from the Warriors and stay in the moment, get lost in the process.