There are only two contenders … in the West?

Golden State was the only team to cross the much ballyhooed 57-win threshold in the West, but San Antonio still might be able to stop them.
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

By Sagar Panchal

Fifty-seven wins.

In the last 30 years, only four non-lockout NBA champions won fewer than 57 games en route to the promised land. Fifty-seven wins is a winning percentage of nearly .700, a sure sign of a team that can endure all of the regular season difficulties: the back-to-backs, the scheduling flaws, the minor injuries, closing out wins against mediocre squads, even when mentally exhausted.

Of the champs that won fewer than 57 games, three symbolized the league at its weaker points. The 1994–95 Rockets (47–35) won in between MJ’s two three-peats. The 2003–04 Pistons (54–28) winning helped lead the NBA to enforce hand-checking, blocking fouls, and defensive three-second violations more seriously. The 2005–06 Heat (52-30) were murky enough to inspire Mark Cuban to call for an FBI investigation into the NBA’s officiating. The fourth, the 2000–01 Lakers, missed the regular season mark by one game. The 57-win bar also works pretty well, in retrospect, to figure out which conference finalist will eventually get a ticket to the finals itself. In the last 10 years, only the ’06 Pistons, ’11 Bulls, and last year’s OKC squad cracked 57 wins, made the conference finals, and failed to reach the finals. And of those three, two of them—the Bulls and Thunder—lost to teams that had also won at least 57 games.

The 57-Win Theory seems pretty reliable, I’d say. This year only two teams, Golden State and Atlanta, have crossed the elusive win number. The Warriors hold an average point differential of +10.1, a mark that’s higher than any of Bird and Magic’s best teams. The only teams with a higher point differential, period, either had Michael Jordan suiting up or played before the ABA merger. The madness of how tough today’s league is—the Milwaukee Bucks finished at .500 with the fourth-best defense in the league, for instance—only adds to the accomplishment.

This Warriors team has something among their group, led by Steph Curry, that almost no other team possesses in terms of their bravado: it would be arrogant if any other group carried themselves, on-court, like these guys. Instead, the conclusion is awe, resolution clear as ice: they’ll go down as one of the best regular season squads ever.

No team, possibly in NBA history, has been able to turn on the switch to overdrive as fast as Golden State. Consider: Tom Haberstroh mused that Steph Curry’s MVP case had a hole. He noted that Curry hadn’t played a reasonable number of fourth-quarter minutes because the Dubs were blowing teams out so frequently. He was too dominant. So, in the next two games (against the Grizzlies and Blazers, no less), Steve Kerr let his starters stay in until the final buzzer rung, both times. The rest of the tale reads like a dossier from another era: Curry, most likely hearing word of the criticism, played out the last few minutes in both games—blowout or not—hard. The most emblematic play was a balletic alley-oop to Andre Iguodala in front of Portland’s mystified bench as the final minute wound down.

In Memphis, three nights later, Curry drilled three after three after three, shoving it to the Grizzlies’ bench as early as the first half. Kerr must have played his starters—who had already put those teams away with relative ease by the midway point of the quarter—with a poetic smirk on his face. Why not play for pride? Let’s use the next six minutes to have Steph run up the highlights for next week, we’re already up 15. Tom Haberstroh? Eat it.

On an empirical, pen-and-paper level, Golden State has answers for almost any obstacle to a point that’s scary: again, too dominant. Portland has to hide Damian Lillard on defense; the Mavericks would have to hide Rajon Rondo on offense. Houston doesn’t have enough talent surrounding its iso-ball MVP candidate. The Grizzlies looked terrifying until last week, when they lost three straight against the Dubs, LeBron, and San Antonio, respectively, by a combined 69 points. If they go 0–3 in three absolutely crucial games … well, how would they fare without home-court in late May?

On an empirical level, San Antonio—the sixth-seeded defending champs, the coasters, the written-off sandlot who have players older than my boss—might be the only team that could match up seamlessly with Golden State. At the very least, the Warriors had zero answers for Kawhi Leonard, who harassed Curry and Klay Thompson for six steals en route to a 107–92 Spurs win that was over earlier than the score let on. The Spurs ended the Warriors’ streak in typically Spursian fashion—it was a landslide. A surprise. The same type of surprise that could neuter Golden State in the later rounds of the postseason.

San Antonio finished short of the 57-win mark, but so did every other team in the Western Conference besides Golden State. At this point, I’m convinced the 57-Win Theory may need an exception to the rule because of the Spurs’ recent dominance of well, everyone. Before their season-finale loss to New Orleans (only their fourth loss since Feb. 27), the Spurs had won 11 straight and held a double-digit lead in their last 22 games. Given their recent merits, the Spurs masquerade on into the playoffs as exactly who they were last year, only better. Tim Duncan and Leonard could easily be headed for second-team All-NBA appearances off of defensive work alone; Patty Mills, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili all seem to be rounding into form as well. Brilliance still flashes in the years-old Motion Weak run down in the Alamo. Of note? Danny Green’s generating more points from three-point range than he has in his entire career, making 2.4 threes per game. Moreover, Leonard might be floating more under than radar than the Warriors’ Draymond Green, who was the subject of this Jonathan Abrams piece for Grantland.

To emphasize the eminent stardom: of wings and power forwards playing more than 30 minutes per game, only six have a defensive rebounding percentage over 20 percent. Both Kawhi and Draymond make the cut, but out of the bunch—which includes Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Zach Randolph—Leonard leads the group in win shares per 48 minutes (.207), net rating (+17), and BPM (6.2). He only trails Aldridge, an early season MVP candidate, in PER by less than one point. At 23 years of age, Leonard’s the youngest potential superstar in the league; the scary portion of any Kawhi-centric analysis isn’t asking if he’ll end up beating a playoff squad by himself, it’s when.

All the signs point to Leonard making that type of qualitative talent leap these playoffs. It’d match every other leap we’ve seen in recent years—Damian Lillard, Steph Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant—in the sense that virtually no one in the NBA world could even see it coming.

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