67-15. How'd The Warriors Do It Without...
(originally written 4/21/15)
The 2014-15 Golden State Warriors—can enough praise be heaped upon them?
They entered the history books, tying for the second-best home record of all-time (39-2, and one of those was given away) en route to a 67-15 record that ranks among the best ever.
Let that sink in—in an NBA that's existed for 70 years, chock full of juggernauts like the 60's Celtics, 80's Celtics, 00's Spurs, 80's Lakers, 90's Bulls, 80's Pistons and (cringe) 10's Heat, your Golden State Warriors regular season ranks right up there with the very best of the best.
The Warriors fell five wins short of the historical 72 set by Steve Kerr and friends 19 years ago. Think about it—had Golden State not blown the Bulls game at home, not rested key players at Denver in March, had anything close to a healthy center at OKC in January, not goofed around at Utah later that month, and not been minus Curry at Indiana...
Tying the 1996 Bulls was indeed within their capabilities. Dennis Rodman and Draymond Green could have been fighting for inside position atop the NBA victories mountain!
Nobody's complaining about 67-15 though, least of all us Warrior fans who enjoyed two decent seasons from 1995 to 2012.
You don't win 67 games on talent alone, though. It takes good coaching (in hindsight, Kerr is a salient upgrade over Mark Jackson—though a solid coach, Jackson could never have pulled this off) good fan support, good management and—perhaps most importantly—good luck.
Just ask OKC. Entering training camp, practically everybody with a worthwhile opinion had Scott Brooks' (now-former) team as potential conference champions—not in the lottery. But Lady Luck did not shine upon the Seattle transplants; their three top stars missed 15, 18 and 55 games, leaving Oklahoma outside of the playoffs entirely. (BTW, WHO the hell was going around masquerading as Nick Collison this year?)
The Warriors' dealt with few injury issues this season. David Lee's early hamstring injury actually helped the club by accelerating Green into the starting lineup. Andrew Bogut lost a few weeks to a knee issue, but otherwise no Warrior sat more than a handful of games to injury during the season.
Still, Golden State did have a significant hurdle to overcome on the way to making NBA history. Arguably the most remarkable aspect of the Warriors' amazing performance—they pulled it off without Nemanja Nedovic.
Nedovic, the sophomore third-string point guard, was cut a few weeks into the season at his request. His absence left a void at the end of the Warriors' bench that was never quite filled.
At times, Golden State's blowout leads ballooned so high that some of the older fans would drift off without Nemanja's loud bricks startling them awake every couple minutes or so—preventing them from napping through good plays by the other Warriors.
Every team has the token end-of-the-bencher who brings the house down whenever he achieves the remarkable feat of...scoring a basket in garbage-time. (Steve Scheffler of the Sonics was the best of my youth; he got more love than Gary Payton or Shawn Kemp. But I'm not here to talk about the past.)
For the Warriors, Nedovic was that player—but on the rare occasions one of his shots found its way to the bottom of the net, there would be no ovation. Just a mix of disbelief, shock and confusion. "Nedovic scored?" fans would wonder. "On purpose?" Having an underdog—or, in this case, a way-under dog—to pull for boosted team chemistry, even as said team wondered how such an inferior player could be allowed within 50 feet of their locker room.
When Nedovic departed, the underdog mantle fell to Brandon Rush. Rush tried valiantly to sink his game to Nedovic's level, at one time going two months without scoring a single point. But it just wasn't the same, since Rush had been a solid NBA role player for years before tearing his ACL; he dissolved into a stiff, whereas Nedovic entered the league as one. (He was supposedly good in Europe, but forgot to pack his talent for the trip to North America.)
After the move, Golden State was left with two true point guards on the roster; backup Shaun Livingston was often asked to play entire quarters of garbage time. Nedovic, if still around, allows the veteran Livingston a few extra minutes of rest—plus, the Warriors could've saved a few dollars by shutting off the AC during his minutes. The breezes generated by Nedovic's man repeatedly blowing past him, as well as those produced by his 70-mph airballs, would have easily sufficed.
When Nemanja didn't play, he cheered on his teammates like few others. Rising to his feet, he cheered their dunks, their threes, their transition layups, even their made free throws (until Andre Iguodala told him to stop.) It was often the closest he came to breaking a sweat on any given night.
History may credit the 1996 Bulls' three Hall-of-Fame players and Hall-of-Fame coach for its 72-win season, as will every member of that team, every opponent of that team, and everyone else alive in the year 1996. Not enough credit is given to Dickey Simpkins for his contributions, however—could MJ have dominated to the level he did without Simpkins' spirited "Good shot, Mike!"s coming from the bench? Questionable, at best.
As amazing as 67-15 and what's sure to be a deep Warrior playoff run is, it will be difficult spotting Nemanja Nedovic's photo on milk cartons without wondering what could have been.