With one game remaining in the regular season, the Golden State Warriors are on the cusp of history. Consider these numbers:
• 10.1 -- Golden State is outscoring opponents by an average of 10.1 points per game, the best scoring margin since the 2007-08 Boston Celtics. Six of the last seven teams that outscored opponents by 10 or more points went on to win the NBA championship.
• 9.8 -- The Warriors have a plus-9.8 scoring margin in the first three quarters, on pace to be the highest margin of all time. The three teams closest to the Warriors in scoring margin entering the fourth quarter all won the title.
• 67 -- The Warriors have 66 wins, and if they beat the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, they will become the 10th NBA team to finish the regular season with 67 or more wins. Seven of the previous nine teams that reached that total won the championship.
Based on the Warriors’ historic regular season, all signs point to them running away with the NBA championship.
ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projects that it's not a foregone conclusion that the they will win. The Warriors are favored to win the title, according to BPI, but there is a 66 percent chance that another team takes home the trophy. Why? The strength of the Western Conference and the Warriors’ inexperience in the playoffs.
Strength of the Western Conference
It is no secret that the West is stacked; eight of the top 10 teams in NBA BPI hail from the Western Conference, including five that could finish with at least 55 wins.
Based on BPI’s playoff projections, the Warriors’ projected path to the Finals would include three teams with a combined .630 winning percentage. In comparison, the No. 1 seed in the East is projected to face three opponents with a combined .568 winning percentage.
But just how much easier is it to be the No. 1 seed in East rather than the West? Following the lead of Production Analytics Director Ben Alamar’s recent article, we simulated the playoffs with the Warriors and the Atlanta Hawks – the No. 1 seeds in each conference – switching spots.
If Golden State were the No. 1 seed in the East, BPI projects the Warriors would have a 68 percent chance to make the NBA Finals (up from 42 percent in the West) and a 43 percent chance to win the title (up from 34 percent). If nothing else, this simulation demonstrates the imbalance between the conferences and Golden State’s difficult path through the Western Conference playoffs.
Lack of experience
As outlined Monday, BPI’s playoff projections account for experience, a factor that has been found to be predictive of postseason success. Every team is given an experience rating, which is a weighted average of a team’s playoff minutes (weighted by minutes played in the current season), and those ratings are factored into the series and playoff projections.
In the last 10 seasons, every team that made the NBA Finals has ranked in the top 10 of the experience ratings and every NBA champion has ranked in the top six. Golden State ranks 15th and is the sixth-least experienced team projected to make the playoffs.
The Warriors’ lack of experience would come into play most against the Spurs, the most experienced team in the NBA. Although the Warriors have a significant lead over the Spurs for the top spot in BPI (plus-9.2 compared with plus-6.8), their likelihood of beating the defending champions in a hypothetical matchup, according to the projections, is 51 percent - because of the experience factor. The Spurs have 20,414 minutes of playoff minutes among its projected starters; the Warriors, 3,112.
The Warriors have had a historic regular season – one that by most traditional measures would be expected to result in an NBA championship. Using BPI, however, we find that their quest for the title is far from a sure thing.
Will Cohen and Zach Bradshaw of the Stats & Information Group contributed.