Does it seem as if the Golden State Warriors are invincible and the Los Angeles Clippers are already hopelessly behind in the standings? The Clippers have won two straight Pacific Division titles and were presumed to be the favorites again this season, but with a little over a quarter of the season gone, the Warriors are the best team not only in the Division but in the entire NBA and hold a five game lead in the loss column over the Clippers.
Still, if you find the thought of looking up at our neighbors to the north not only on the map but also in the standings a little nauseating, I have some encouraging words for you: the 2013-2014 Indiana Pacers and the 2013-2014 Portland Trail Blazers.
We don't have to plumb the deep recesses of NBA history to find examples of teams that began the season on unsustainable hot streaks. It happens almost every year, and just last season we saw two of them. The Pacers were 18-2 after 20 games and they were 33-7 after 40 games -- but they were just 23-19 over their final 42 games. The Blazers had a similar trajectory: 17 wins after 20 games, 31 wins after 40 games, and 23-19 in the last 42 games.
Why did Indiana and Portland tail off later in the season? Because that's what happens. Good teams can get better from one season to the next, but unless they've made major changes, the improvement is incremental, not fundamental. The Warriors were a 51 win team last season, and they're on a 75 win pace right now. Fifty win teams rarely become 60 win teams in a season with the same roster: they NEVER become 70 win teams, or at any rate they never have.
Teams regress to the mean. A really successful run at the start of the season stands out as it's the only time when that gaudy .900 winning percentage is going to show up in the standings. The Clippers themselves won 17 in a row two seasons ago -- had they done that in November instead of December, it would have gotten even more attention, but it wouldn't have mattered more in the context of an 82 game season.
The Warriors will regress to the mean as both the Pacers and Blazers did last season. Having said that, I do feel compelled to point this out -- in the case of this season's Warriors, there are fewer red flags than there were for the hot starters last year. The Blazers managed to win an inordinate number of close games last November and December giving them a great record when in fact they were simply a good team (those close wins were the equivalent of randomly winning a long series of coin tosses). The law of averages caught up with Portland, as it tends to. Indiana on the other hand opened the season against extraordinarily weak competition, not to mention that several key players over-achieved early. Paul George is good -- but he was never as good as he seemed to be in November and December of 2013.
The Warriors don't have as many red flags. They've had some close calls -- notably a game against the Magic that Stephen Curry won at the buzzer and an overtime win against a Pelicans team playing without Anthony Davis -- but not a lot of them. Mostly they're crushing teams, giving Golden State far and away the best margin of victory in the league, a key indicator of strength. Nor have they played a particularly weak slate of opponents. It hasn't been the best opposition but it doesn't stand out as truly terrible. (It's worth noting that by winning percentage, the Warriors have played an almost completely average schedule [.501]. However by average opponent margin of victory they've played the fourth easiest schedule in the league. Of course the losses the Warriors themselves have hung on those opponents figures into that data, so it's somewhat unfair to criticize them for that.)
The Warriors are good, make no mistake, but they'll certainly come back to earth at some point. New coach Steve Kerr has them playing with a ton of energy, as teams are sometimes want to do for new coaches. But by the same token, teams also begin to tune out that new voice at some point. Eventually a coach is just another coach, more or less.
And the Warriors certainly have their share of overachievers. Curry is an amazing talent and I don't consider his performance thus far to be a significant overreach -- this is more or less the trajectory he's been on. But both Draymond Green and, yes, Klay Thompson, would seem to be producing at unsustainable levels. Both are young and might have taken the proverbial "next step" -- but going from a PER below 15 last season to 20 this season (Thompson) or from 50% true shooting to 58% (Green) is pretty unusual. Check back at the end of the season and those numbers are almost certain to be a lot closer to the established norms. As for Marreese Speights, don't get me started.
The Warriors have a lot of things going for them. They play elite defense which is not likely to abandon them (though even defense ebbs and flows as the Pacers showed last season). They are deep, and for all the criticism that is heaped on David Lee, they'll definitely be better when he returns to the lineup (or better still for them, if they can manage to trade him for a better fitting player). Unlike last season's Blazers, who had a statistically improbable run of good health, the Warriors have managed this ridiculous start with Lee missing almost all of it and Andrew Bogut out for the last three games. It's also likely that Mark Jackson cost them more than a few wins last season, and Kerr is clearly an upgrade on the bench (especially with former Clippers' assistant Alvin Gentry on his right hand).
Having said all that, they will come back to earth -- perhaps beginning as early as tonight. Three of their next five games are at Memphis, against the red-hot and full strength Thunder and at the Clippers. If they come out of that stretch 24-3, it will be very impressive. But even then, I would be shocked if they have the NBA's best record in the second half of the season -- it just doesn't work that way.