Chasing Greatness: The Thin Line

BY DAN

As sports fans we spend a lot of time in front of television at all hours of the night, or in half-empty grounds with a lonely beer in our hand, or with our eyes glued to our phone when we should be working, sweating on the outcome of sometimes important, but often meaningless contests. We do this because we love the games we follow. We do this because we love the teams involved. And we do this for the pay-off that we might take all the good sports karma of these moments of commitment, pile them all together like Coach Pacino’s inches, and find ourselves rewarded.

The pay-off? Getting to see greatness.

The Golden State Warriors could be that greatness.

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During the 2007 National Football League season a disgruntled New England Patriots tore through the competition. Tom Brady broke all the records that year, throwing outrageous passes to a still-in-his-prime Randy Moss and a newly found diamond-in-the-rough Wes Welker. The Patriots were the first team to complete the regular season undefeated since the 1972 Miami Dolphins, getting to 18-0 before they lost in the Super Bowl in freakishly unlucky circumstances.

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The Pats were almost perfect in 07

To this day people some people consider them the greatest offence ever created, and probably the greatest American football side in history. But a helmet catch, a cornerback slipping on a corner route and they are relegated to the also-rans by most through that most annoyingly simplistic rejoinder:

Yeah. But did they win it all?

The line between greatness and not can be that thin.

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The Golden State Warriors are, as I write this, twenty-two and zero. They have unleashed holy hell on a league that hilariously baited last year’s champions all offseason, calling them lucky to have won the championship because other teams, most notably the Cleveland Cavaliers, their opposition in the finals, lost key players to injury. Last year they beat teams on average by over 10 points per game, a historically high number. This year that is 14.9 points per game.

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Curry is embracing his greatness this season

Steph Curry has taken every six year old’s unvarnished dreams and turned them into reality. Like the personification of Obama’s “Yes We Can” Speech, watching him unleashes an unbridled joy and optimism, a belief that anything and everything is possible.

The numbers are plain silly. His averages of 32.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists are stunning but almost mask how good he has been. He is the only player outside of Wilt Chamberlain to average over 30 points per 36 minutes. Curry has scored more three pointers this season that three entire sides.  His Performance Efficiency Rating (PER) is currently over 35. No one has ever had a season of above 32. Michael Jordan didn’t get 32.

Curry’s unique skill set is perfectly cradled in the biosphere created by the Golden State Warriors. To one side of him on most sets stands Klay Thompson, someone who may well be considered the best shooter in the league if not for the presence of Curry. Klay’s presence is one reason that teams often choose to play Curry straight-up. Draymond Green defends everyone from one to five, can handle the ball, shoot the three and pass excellently. The Warriors run a set where Curry screens for him in the knowledge that teams then have to choose whether to shade, switch or go under him. That Green can shoot a three, go to the basket or pass to Curry makes the decision an unenviable one for most defences. There are few centres in the league that could work for. Harrison Barnes and Andre Igoudala provide defence, length and the above average shooting that means that when teams load up on Steph and Klay, there is someone there to make them pay.

According to 538.com, the Warriors are projected to win 72 games this season.

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Losing is something that happens in the NBA. The sheer volume of games, combined with the brutal schedule, leads to games where good teams lose to bad just because. Last season’s finalists, the Cleveland Cavaliers, lost a regular season game to the Philadelphia 76ers, not just the worst team in basketball, but almost as historically awful as the Warriors are good. It happens.

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Jordan’s will was critical for the Bulls

The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls are the only NBA team to win 72 games. And it’s lucky for the Warriors that Coach Kerr just happened to be a member of that team.

If you’ve ever listened to Kerr talk about his experience, he points to the sheer force of personality that was Michael Jordan as making that happen:

What I remember that year is there were about 10 games where Michael just decided, ‘We’re going to win,'” he said. “And every other team on Earth would have lost those 10 games. And Michael Jordan was … there’ll never be another one. Nobody has ever come close, and I don’t think anybody ever will. He wanted to break that Lakers record of 69 wins, so he decided we would do it, so we did it. There’s only one Michael.

Jordan had come back to basketball at the end of the previous season. He had shown glimpses of his previous greatness, but after 18 months playing baseball, he didn’t have the strength in his legs to get him through a playoff series. Chastened by the experience, Jordan returned for the 1995-96 season determined to set the world on fire. The team coalesced around Jordan’s legendary singular focus. Over nine months of basketball they were ferocious in their pursuit of not just a title, but the single season win record. Jordan played over 37 minutes a game, for all 82 games. Scottie Pippen played 77 games at over 37 minutes a game.

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As the built up a previously unseen winning streak, the 2007 NFL season began to wear on the New England Patriots. Having to deal with Spygate in the same season as going 18-0 saw an inordinate amount of noise build up around the Patriots, a swell of pressure that engulfed the side. As Matt Chaprales put it at the time:

In Week 2 a line was drawn in the sand. On one side were the Patriots, led by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, followed by their supporters. On the other side was everyone else…. As time passed and wins mounted, the divide only grew wider; the respective feelings only became harsher.

The Patriots side that had been tearing sides apart up until week 12 of the season seemed to slow down. They lost running back Sammy Morris, a critical part of keeping opposing defences from loading up against the pass. The offensive line was barely holding it together before they even got to the final day of the season, in which they would face the Giants fearsome pass rush. In the Super Bowl, a usually animated Tom Brady entered the field with the joy of a man entering a job interview.

Chasing history is a hefty burden.

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Health will be important to the Warriors this season. Last season they were unusually healthy. Even perennially injured centre Andrew Bogut played 67 games last season. The team were so far ahead in many games that Steph Curry sat entire fourth quarters and averaged only 32 minutes a game.

Curry says he’s stronger than any point in the past, that’s he’s not thinking about his ankles anymore.

But this season, Harrison Barnes has already missed 5 games with injury, Curry’s minutes are over 34[1] a game, and the injury bug has ensnared Coach Kerr, who is yet to stand on the sideline for any of the aforementioned twenty-two victories.

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If you ask Patriots fans about the 18-1 season it’s remembered almost embarrassingly. An almost season. Instead of being remembered as the greatest football side ever, they are remembered with a mixture of revulsion (by those who consider Spygate as critical to their success) and disappointment by those who were hoping for so much more.

The Warriors, at 22-0 have already demonstrated that they are a team to be remembered. As the advertising slogan goes, we are all witnesses.

But the rest of this season will test them more than the previous 22 games have. The weight that came down on the Patriots must be matched with the resolve shown by Jordan. As we’ve seen, the Warriors have the talent to be transcendent. Health, resilience and luck will be the difference between being remembered as great, or being just another good side remembered by some.

 

 

[1] Although it’s worth pointing out he averaged more minutes in the 2013-14 and 2012-13 seasons and played 78 of the 82 games in both seasons.

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