Can the Warriors put together the best decade in NBA history?

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 12: NBA Legend, Bill Russell shakes hands with Kevin Durant
OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 12: NBA Legend, Bill Russell shakes hands with Kevin Durant /

If you want to find an astonishing statistic illustrating just how dominant the Golden State Warriors are, there are plenty of options. Here’s one: in league history, only 32 teams have won over 76 percent of their games, meaning it happens just about once every other year. This year’s edition of the Warriors is on pace to join that club — and it will be by far the worst record the squad has achieved with Steve Kerr. The Warriors have slipped this year, and now they are merely riding out one of the best 40 seasons of all-time, as opposed to their recent habit of ripping off Top 15 all-time seasons.

Since the Warriors are so good that a Top 40 all-time season genuinely feels like a disappointment, I want to get very greedy, now, thinking about what this team can accomplish. They already have the rings, yes — two already in hand, and almost certainly more to come. They have authored the very best regular season of all-time. They are also responsible for the best three-year stretch in league history — their incomprehensible 207-39 record over the previous three full regular seasons is a nose ahead of Michael Jordan’s Bulls from 1995-98, who went 203-43 during their second three-peat.

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It is already a heady chapter of basketball history for a team to be so unconsciously en fuego for years at a time. But I want to zoom out and ask what these Warriors can accomplish over a geologic amount of basketball-time. When these Warriors have their numbers in the rafters and their busts in bronze, will they have put together the best decade in NBA history?

The best decade in NBA history

The best decade in history was, maybe unsurprisingly, the work of Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, and the early Celtics. From the 1957-58 season until the 1966-67 season, the team had a winning percentage of 0.732, or a combined 570-209 record.* The team marched through the decade with metronomic consistency, never dipping below a winning percentage of 0.675 (54-26 in 1965-66). Interestingly, these Celtics never ripped off a truly monster season in this span, either, with their best being a 0.775 effort in 1964-65 (62-18).

This remarkable consistency came from the reign of Russell — defense never slumps, as they say. This decade accounts for years 2-11 of Russell’s 13-year career, ages 23-32. Russell led the Celtics in individual Win Shares in each of the 10 years of this decade, an accomplishment he actually never managed before or after.

It seems unlikely, to me, that the Warriors would be able to pass the Celtics’ mark of 0.732 by more than fractions of a percentage point. Despite the dramatic changes across eras of basketball, all of the other great team decades in league history are clustered in an incredibly tight window at 0.720:

Team          1st Year10th YearRecord         Winning %     
Bulls 1988-891997-98592-22872.1

There appears to be an inherent force governing basketball — like the law of gravity, or the dynastic cycle — stopping even the greatest to ever lace them up from putting a whole decade together winning 75 percent of their games.

What about the Mark Jackson years?

There is a worthwhile question about when the Warriors’ best decade should actually begin. If it begins in 2014-15, with the arrival of Kerr, then the team is off to an unreal 258-55 — or 0.824 — start to their best decade ever.

But then that means the rest of the decade stretches all the way out to to 2023-24 season. Even Stephen Curry’s historically large contact ends in the spring of 2022, and every other player on the squad will be a free agent well before then. The Warriors have built themselves a historically wide championship window, but even that window can’t stretch out six whole years into the future.

The other option is to count one, or maybe two, of the years in Mark Jackson’s drama-filled tenure. In 2013-14, Jackson’s final season, he led the team to a 51-31 record (0.622), and in 2012-13, the team finished 47-35 (0.573). If we include these seasons, now the Warriors’ best decade only has to stretch out to 2022-23, or even 2021-22 — before Curry is a free agent.

While including the Jackson years makes it “easier,” in one sense, for the Warriors to reach the best decade ever, it also eliminates any possible margin for error in the next four or five seasons. Even though the team was a respectable playoff contender under Jackson, he never did hit the 0.650 mark in a single season. And even one 0.650 season is a serious, serious hindrance to putting together the best decade of all-time. Larry Bird’s Celtics and Michael Jordan’s Bulls fell short of the mark because, even though they won more than Russell’s Celtics at their peaks, one or two dud seasons crept into the mix:

Team               Years Under 65%Worst Record Winning % in Worst Year
Celtics (Russell)054-2667.5
Lakers054-28 (twice)65.9 (twice)
Celtics (Bird)142-4051.2
Bulls 247-35 (twice)57.3 (twice)

The question of whether or not to include Jackson will ultimately come down to: will the Warriors of 2022-23 and 2023-24 put together better records than Jackson achieved in 2012-13 and 2013-14? Your guess is as good as Bob Myers’ here.

What it will take

As mentioned above, the Warriors have just put together the best three-year stretch of all-time. Despite having a bigger head start on a best-ever decade than any other team in history, the road from here on out is still incredibly steep. In fact, even these Warriors cannot be considered favorites, or even all that likely, to break the record. It will still require visionary draft picks, shrewd trades, fortuitous good health — including Kerr’s uncooperative back — and also probably a fearlessness in shattering previous luxury tax records.

Let’s assume — and this is by no means a safe assumption, but I’ll do it — this year’s Warriors finish out the year at their present 63-win pace. This means the Warriors would stand at 270-58, or 0.823, under their four years with Kerr. The target to pass the old-school Celtics’ winning percentage is 601 wins over a decade. Here’s what it would take for the Warriors to do it from here on out, depending on when their best decade starts:

Start of Best DecadeWins So FarYears to Go Future Wins Required Per Year
2014-15 / Kerr270655.2
2013-14 / One year of Jackson321556
2012-13 / Two years of Jackson368458.3

No matter which of the three paths you wish to take, it will be necessary for the Warriors to remain absolutely elite through another cycle of contracts. Remember these are the win paces necessary to edge out Russell’s Celtics by a single victory.

Let’s say we start in 2012-13, with the Warriors now needing “only” four seasons at slightly better than 58 wins (0.710) to secure the best decade. Over the last four full regular seasons, the only team other than the Warriors to keep up that pace was the Spurs. The Warriors and Spurs are again the only two teams to average better than 55 wins per year over the last six regular seasons — the pace that Golden State will need if their best decade starts in 2014-15.

I still think they do it. Golden State by now has proven an uncanny ability to pick the exactly right veterans off the bottom of the free agent market — sometimes a half-dozen at a time — and basketball-savvy veteran free agents aren’t going anywhere. In acquiring Jordan Bell for $3.5 million, the Warriors made arguably the best move of the 2017 Draft, a feat maybe one or two prior champions, ever, can claim. Un-sexy as it may be, these are exactly the moves necessary to support the outrageously skilled core of the team. Golden State has struck a truly remarkable balance of fully competing for the championship each year without truly pushing all their chips into the middle.

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Does this fill you with dread, the idea that the Warriors may be only about halfway through with their stranglehold on the league? I don’t think it should.

Last summer, the WNBA All-Star Game was here in Seattle. In addition to Sue Bird on the court, Seattle’s tiny but mighty celebrity class showed out — Megan Rapinoe, Richard Sherman, Isaiah Thomas and Lenny Wilkens. But there was only one person who, when he hobbled over to his courtside seat before the game, the crowd rose in a standing ovation — unprompted by any PA announcer — just to welcome him in. Just to appreciate how just his presence had, wordlessly, seemed to remind us that whatever was about to happen on the court was some small piece in the tapestry of basketball history. Bill Russell was there.

This is what today’s Warriors may one day mean.

*During this era, the NBA actually slightly changed the number of games played each regular season, with the Celtics playing an average of just under 78 games per year across the decade. The first 82-game regular season was just after the Celtics’ big decade, in 1967-68. For this reason, I’m considering winning percentage, and not total wins, as the criteria for the best decade.