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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What Makes a Winning Combination? Talent, Luck, and (Sometimes) Chemistry

We were fortunate in a lot of ways this year. Maybe number one was health. And to win a title there's obviously a lot of work, but a lot of luck as well, and we had a lot of luck on our side this year. And our guys took advantage of it, and they were fantastic. But, man, what a night.
-- Steve Kerr

This was a team that was too smart, too talented and too together to lose.
-- Ricky O'Donnell, SB Nation1

The Warriors are really, really good. You have a shot at beating them if their shooting goes ice-cold. Otherwise, it’s next to impossible.
-- Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight2

Some have been eager to point out that the Golden State Warriors were extremely lucky in their run to the NBA title. And they were. They suffered few injuries during the regular season, and an injury to one player (David Lee) helped boost the career of another (Harrison Barnes). And when Klay Thompson's suffered a concussion in the last game of the Western Conference finals, he had eight days to recover before the NBA finals began. And then there are the teams the Warriors didn't have to play that some think would've given them the most trouble: The San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers eliminated the Spurs in the first round, and then the Clippers were eliminated by the Houston Rockets in the second. Finally, the Warriors opponent in the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers, lost two of its key players during the playoffs: Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.  Love's collarbone was broken in the first game of the Cavaliers first round playoff series with the Boston Celtics, and Irving battled tendinitis in his knee late in the season and throughout the playoffs until he fractured his knee cap in the first game of the NBA finals.

So, yes, the Warriors were lucky, but most championship teams are (although most are loathe to admit it). Seldom does an injury-riddled team win the World Series, Stanley Cup, Super Bowl, or World Cup. Sometimes teams both benefit from and then are punished by luck. Take last year's Seattle Seahawks, for example. They benefitted tremendously when Arizona Cardinal's quarterback Carson Palmer went down with a season-ending knee injury. If he had stayed healthy, it is likely that the Cardinals, and not the Seahawks, would've won their division, and the Seahawks would have played all their playoff games on the road. And while they're nearly unbeatable at home, the Seahawks are "merely" very good on the road. But the Seahawks luck changed in the Super Bowl. Early in the game they lost Jeremy Lane to an injury, and one could argue that proved to be a key difference in a game that the Seahawks barely lost.

(It's worth mentioning that the Warriors haven't always been so lucky. Two years ago they played without the services of David Lee in the playoffs against the Spurs, a series they almost won. And in last year's playoffs, they didn't have a center when they played the Clippers. Funny, though, I don't remember anyone claiming that either the Spurs or the Clippers were lucky because they played against and beat a depleted Warriors team.)

Not all of the Warriors luck can be passed off as dumb luck, however. The Warriors were well aware of the toll that an NBA season can take on players, so they rested their players whenever possible. For instance, the rested Steph Curry for 20 fourth quarters when he could've played and increased his stats. And it worked. The Warriors lost only 1,252 minutes to injury this season, which was the lowest total in the NBA. Moreover, as Tom Haberstroh from ESPN notes ("Biggest winner of the Finals? Rest!"), this was the team's plan from the beginning, which is why they adopted cutting edge approaches to lower injuries:
It's no coincidence that the Warriors were the healthiest team... Golden State holds a competitive advantage. Its secret? The Warriors are based in the Bay Area, the same place that Silicon Valley calls home... Technology and data analysis are pillars of the Warriors' front office, which makes it a point to combine the numbers and hoops... The Warriors are as nerdy as it gets. As clients of wearable technology provider Catapult Sports, they monitor their players' workloads in practice with GPS monitors and analyze the data with acute attention to maximizing performance while minimizing injury risk. 
The latest project: Led by the training staff, Gelfand and the team's data programmers, the Warriors have engineered a readiness rating for each player built on a 0-to-100 scale (100 is prime shape and 0 is burnt out). The idea is to give Kerr a handy all-in-one metric that aggregates various health indicators
Of course, the reason why the Warriors were able to rest their starters during the regular season was because they have so much talent. That is why back in October, FiveThirtyEight ("2014 NBA Preview: The Rise Of The Warriors") picked the Warriors as its preseason favorite to win it all. In other words, it wasn't an accident they won 67 games during the regular season (which is tied for the 6th-most in NBA history). More impressively, the Warriors
schedule-adjusted points-per-game margin (as measured by’s Simple Rating System, also known as SRS) ranked seventh all-time. The team became just the fourth in NBA history to outperform the league average by 6 points of efficiency on one side of the ball — in the Warriors’ case, offense — and by 4 points on the other. Moreover, the team’s Elo rating at the end of the regular season was second only to that of the record-setting 1996 Bulls.3
With such a successful regular season, it should not have surprised anyone that they ended up winning it all (although traditionalists don't like how much they shot so many 3-pointers). In fact, "since 1984, nine other top seeds have finished within two games of the Warriors’ regular-season win total (somewhere between 65 and 69 wins). Those teams went 7 for 9 in winning titles."4

But talent and luck were not the only things going for the Warriors. There was also their team chemistry, their camaraderie. Not all championship teams have it. The "Fighting A's," who won three consecutive World Series in the early 70's, were known more for their locker room brawls than for singing Kumbaya around the campfire. But when teams have it, it can help, and that was certainly the case with the Warriors this season ("Rewind: Warriors capitalize on 'lot of luck' en route to title"):
The defining characteristic of these Warriors, though, is a selfless camaraderie that runs the entire spectrum of the roster. They don’t all laugh at the same things, but they laughed together. They don’t all think alike, but they all saw the same big picture, one in which a championship was possible as long as team goals trumped everything else.
In short, the Warriors are no different from most professional teams that have won championships. They won because they had a lot of talent, team chemistry, and a little bit of luck on their way to the championship.
1. Ricky O'Donnell, "Steve Kerr's Real Genius Was Letting the Warriors Have Fun"
2. Nate Silver, "Why The Warriors Are So Tough to Beat"
3. Neil Pane, "The Year of the Warriors"
4. Nate Silver, "Is Vegas Underrating The Warriors?"

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