Nylon Calculus: Taking stock of the Golden State Warriors

Dec 11, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) smiles from the bench as Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (not pictured) makes a shot against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second half at Target Center. The Warriors won 116-108. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 11, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) smiles from the bench as Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (not pictured) makes a shot against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second half at Target Center. The Warriors won 116-108. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports /

An ugly loss to the Memphis Grizzlies notwithstanding, the Golden State Warriors appear to be cooking. At 21-4, the Warriors have the best record in the NBA, along with the best point differential in the NBA — +11.9 points per 100 possessions, more than two points better than the second place Los Angeles Clippers. Adjust their point differential for the fact that they’ve played the third-easiest schedule in the league thus far, and they’re still head and shoulders above any other team.

There is still plenty of basketball left to be played but all the statistical indicators for the Warriors are pushing towards the zone of transcendence.

However, on December 12 last season, the Warriors were 24-1. They had just dropped their first game of the season, to the Milwaukee Bucks, but were still sporting a point differential roughly three points per 100 possessions higher than this year’s mark. Dominance can take a lot of different forms and show up in a lot of different statistical indicators. With a significant portion of the season behind us, I thought it might be interesting to compare this season’s Warriors to last season’s iteration.

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The most striking feature of this year’s Warriors team has been their offensive efficiency. Through the weekend, Basketball-Reference has them scoring at an average of 117.0 points per 100 possessions. Relative to the league average (which accounts for the style of play in different eras), that would make the Warriors the most efficient offense in league history.

The graph below shows every team in NBA history, charted by their offensive and defensive efficiency relative to the league average. A better defensive performance is represented by a negative number (allowing fewer points than league average) so the top right quadrant is where you find the best teams.

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Here you can see the progression of the Warriors’ offensive efficiency over the last seasons, including the leap this year from of the best ever to the best ever. Interestingly, their defense has also declined each season. Defense, particularly on the interior, continues to look like the Warriors’ Achilles heel — they gave up 44 points in the paint and 17 second chance points in their loss to the Grizzlies on Saturday.

The question is whether the Warriors’ offensive improvement is enough to offset their defensive decline. The number seem to imply that the increasing imbalance has made the Warriors better. By SRS, a measure that adjusts a team’s point differential for their strength of schedule, the 2016-17 Warriors would currently rank as the fourth best team of all-time, ahead of their own marks for each of the last two seasons.

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Interestingly, the 2016-17 Los Angeles Clippers and Toronto Raptors both appear on this list as well. In fact, the Raptors currently have the second best offensive efficiency mark of all-time, relative to the league average. The Clippers are more balanced, very good at both ends of the floor.

Considering that the Warriors have a point differential (adjusted for strength of schedule, or for the relative league average) ahead of last season’s mark, it’s worth digging into why their record is slightly behind last year’s pace.

There are really two reasons and they both make it hard to compare this year’s version of the Warriors to last year’s team. The first is that we’re comparing marks for just a piece of this season, to a full 82-game sample for last year’s team. The 2015-16 Warriors started incredibly hot with their 24-game winning streak. That team’s point differential peaked well above any mark this year’s team has hit, but they slowly tailed off as the season went along.

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It seems reasonable to assume that this year’s team may seem the same sort of slight downward trend to their unadjusted point differential. The Warriors have been blunt about not being interested in chasing 74 wins which could mean resting players for the playoffs and down the stretch of the season if playoff seeding is already settled.

The other issue is their strength of schedule. As I mentioned above, Basketball-Reference estimates the Warriors’ schedule to have been the third-easiest to this point in the season, judged just by the quality of their opponents. The Warriors have played just four of their 15 scheduled games against the five teams right behind them in SRS — the Raptors, Clippers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, and San Antonio Spurs.

The Warriors schedule is going to get harder and their incentives to go all out chasing regular season wins are going to shrink. As that happens it makes sense that some of their statistics may fall off this historic pace.

The other issue with their record is how they are performing relative to what we would expect given their point differential. Last year’s Warriors won 73 games but with the point differential of a team that would only be expected to win 65 games across and 82 game season. Winning eight games over their Pythagorean Expectation was one of the largest over-performances over the last few NBA seasons. You can see from the graph below that the expected win percentage of this year’s team (which is higher than last year’s because of the higher point differential) is exactly the same as their actual win percentage.

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One common explanation for teams over or underperforming their expected win percentage is clutch performance. The 2016-17 Warriors are 6-1 in games were either team had a lead of five points or less anytime during the final five minutes. Their point differential in those minutes is +22.1 points per 100 possessions, the fourth best mark in the league. That mark sounds healthy, but the Warriors were 30-4 in the same scenarios last season, with a +38.6 per 100 possession differential.

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To the question of which version of the Golden State Warriors is better, we really don’t know. Playoff success will be the ultimate measure there. As of right now, this season’s team appears stronger statistically but doesn’t seem to have that same ephemeral magic as last season. Whether that magic will be developed, or its absence will be emphasized, we’ll just have to wait and see.