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No Team Has Ever Started A Season Hotter Than This Year’s Warriors

Last season’s Golden State Warriors were a great story. Adding a new coach to what was already an exciting young core, they made The Leap and finally melded their talented roster into a champion — as well as one of the best teams in NBA history.

But even after all that, the Warriors still had naysayers. Over the offseason, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers pointed out Golden State’s good fortune in having to face neither his team nor the San Antonio Spurs during its playoff run. (The Clippers, if you recall, had a chance to stand in the Warriors’ way — and whiffed on it.) Others simply wondered if things had gone too smoothly for the Warriors and questioned whether they’d be able to overcome greater adversity when it inevitably presented itself.

Few defending champs have had to explain themselves as much as Golden State did this summer. But when the league rolled out the balls and started playing games again, the Warriors picked up right where they left off.

Actually, strike that — over the past three weeks, they’ve somehow played even better than the lofty standard they set for themselves last season. According to our Elo ratings — which have always loved this Warriors squad — no team in NBA history has looked so good 10 games into a season:1

RANK YEAR TEAM ELO AFTER 10 GAMES EXPECTED WINS PER 82 GAMES
1 2016 Warriors 1793.8 66.8
2 1997 Bulls 1785.5 67.1
3 1987 Celtics 1736.7 62.9
4 1992 Bulls 1729.6 63.4
5 2002 Lakers 1725.7 62.2
6 1993 Bulls 1725.5 62.8
7 1986 Lakers 1725.0 62.1
8 1999 Jazz 1710.7 61.4
9 2014 Spurs 1708.1 60.6
10 1972 Bucks 1703.4 63.9
11 2009 Lakers 1700.6 60.2
12 2003 Mavericks 1696.4 59.8
13 2014 Heat 1694.5 59.5
14 2000 Spurs 1694.4 59.9
15 1968 Sixers 1693.8 63.3
16 1981 Lakers 1693.3 60.2
17 2015 Spurs 1692.7 59.3
18 1982 Celtics 1687.5 59.5
19 1965 Celtics 1687.1 59.5
20 1989 Pistons 1685.1 60.1
21 2010 Cavaliers 1684.3 58.8
22 2013 Spurs 1681.8 58.4
23 2008 Spurs 1680.4 58.5
24 1973 Bucks 1680.3 61.3
25 2006 Pistons 1679.5 58.7
26 1998 Bulls 1678.4 59.0
27 2005 Spurs 1677.4 58.7
28 1985 Celtics 1677.2 58.2
29 2010 Lakers 1676.0 58.0
30 1991 Pistons 1675.7 59.6

It might not hold up over an entire season, but the Warriors have improved at both ends of the floor in the early going. The offense is moving the ball more, simultaneously drawing more fouls and shooting more 3-pointers (which means fewer of those dreaded midrange jumpers2), and on defense, they’re doing just about everything a teensy bit better. Plus, five of their top six minute-earners have a higher Box Plus/Minus (BPM) than they did a season ago,3 headlined by Stephen Curry’s outrageously high +15.4 mark.

It’s not hard to tell how Curry, in particular, has gotten off to such a ridiculous statistical start this season. He’s notched 30 or more points in six of Golden State’s 10 games, including a 53-point outing against the New Orleans Pelicans and a couple more 40-point performances:

If Curry’s BPM stays this high all season, it would make for the best individual season in modern NBA history. Of course, that’s something our preseason CARMELO projections assigned a roughly 0.9 percent probability to, so it’s likely he’ll come back down to earth a bit between now and next April.

But Curry himself also typifies what might be a slightly new tendency in Golden State’s offense. Like his team, Curry is shooting fewer twos than ever but getting to the line more, eschewing the midrange game in favor of more shots in the restricted area, as well as more of every type of 3-pointer. These marginal changes in shot selection can add up: If Curry maintains his average rate of points per shot within each zone,4 he’ll essentially get four “free” points for every 100 shots he takes from the floor, a number that balloons to 54 points — or almost two extra wins — when you take 1,371 shots per season.

It remains to be seen if Curry and the Warriors can keep this up. Certainly, they’re not going to keep beating the rest of the league by 17 points per game. But it’s notable that Golden State has come out of the blocks so quickly this season. After a summer spent fending off doubts about the long-term viability of its style of play, this team seems determined to extend the Year of the Warriors into 2016 and beyond.

Footnotes

  1. “Expected wins per 82 games” represents Elo’s estimate of a team’s true talent relative to its league — essentially, it answers the question, “How many games would this team win in a season against an average schedule?”

  2. According to the shooting zones defined by NBA.com.

  3. The only holdout? Klay Thompson, who’s almost certainly going to start shooting better and rein in those turnovers.

  4. And we can argue how much that’s a valid assumption — especially since Curry seems to be assisting himself more in the midrange than last year, which is bad. But these shifts are so subtle that I think it’s a fair baseline to start from.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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