The Golden State Paradox: Warriors season vexes with stretch run set to begin

The Golden State Warriors are in second place in the NBA’s standings, and — somehow — the debate over whether or not to panic has reached a fever pitch.

This team, widely expected to cruise through the regular season as the best team in basketball, has been something less than the ridiculously high standard that has been set for them (by their own doing).

The aforementioned argument, though, remains far more centered on whether or when to be concerned rather than on actual topics of concern. This is the fate of the truly great — when you, the producer, regularly break our accepted framework for evaluation, we, the consumer, become confused. We’re forced to grade you on a curve that is all your own, but we don’t know where to set it.

In the interest of grounding us, here are some things that are factually true: The Warriors are underperforming expectations; key members of the bench seem to be diminished, whether temporarily or not; many of the offseason additions have had bumpy rides and/or injuries, leading to an inconsistent bench rotation; the run of ugly, losing first quarters has stretched to a point that cannot be ignored.

Also they are in second place, a relatively meaningless distinction outside of the fact that it gives us a touchstone upon which to hang the notion that concern is appropriate. The Warriors did see second place at times last season, but that was the product of the Spurs playing exceptionally rather than a slump from Golden State.

This is already their worst year at home since Mark Jackson was the coach — their seven losses at Oracle match the last two season combined. It’s strange for many Warriors fans to hear “22-7 at home is a problem,” but this is not the franchise those fans grew up with.

The central problem, for those of us who wonder whether a little trepidation is in order: Despite the apparent issues, logic dictates added motivation will lead to greater focus and attention to detail, and in turn lead to this team being nearly unbeatable. It is perhaps even harder to decide what will serve as significant motivation.

It’s easy for us to say that, with a deficit in the standings and just 24 games left to play, D-Day is here. But I can’t honestly tell you that I believe the Warriors would lose in the playoffs if they entered as the second seed. Barring injury, I can’t even really tell you they need home court advantage at all to win a title. They’re the best road team in the league, and their chief competition in Houston is the second best; isn’t it more about who’s playing well and less about where?

The thing is, the point of no return moves further and further into the future — the Warriors don’t need their absolute, peak best version until … ever. I know I would take a 95-percent perfect version of the W’s over Houston and Cleveland and Boston. It gets interesting for me somewhere around 90 percent.

If what we’ve seen is somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 percent, that would likely get them through the first round of playoff action without too much trouble, and 85 could get them to the conference finals. The players know this — that’s what we mean when we talk about lacking a sense of urgency or sufficient motivation to play with the focus and intensity on a nightly basis.

What might be a cause for concern is the apparent presumption from the players and many fans that going from 75 to the possible 95 they’ll need to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy will be straightforward at a certain point.

It seems most reasonable people agree on the apparently paradoxical points that (a) the Warriors have real, identifiable problems and (b) the Warriors are just fine and likely to win the title; and so we bounce back and forth over whether it’s even reasonable to be worried.

It’s a rare predicament, a sort of partnership in malaise between a team that has both proved its mettle and muddled through enough on- and off-court drama over the past few years to reasonably take it easy, and a fanbase that still has complete faith in the ultimate outcome. It’s a particularly notable and especially foreign position to be in for a franchise that endured misery for long swaths of the recent past.

In confusing times, I again fall back on facts, because we do know certain things: With 24 games left, the Warriors sit just behind Houston and would lose a tiebreaker, which means they will have to be 1.5 games better than the Rockets the rest of the way to take the top seed. If Houston goes 19-6, which is their pace so far this year, Golden State has to finish 20-4.

The schedule for the Rockets is tougher — the Warriors actually have the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the West in terms of opponent record, including eight remaining games against teams with under 20 wins so far. But 20-4 is never easy, and the Rockets have been beating good teams all season and seem much more interested in the top seed than the Warriors, so expecting them to falter down the stretch is misguided.

There’s no doubt that winning the regular season is well within reach for this squad, no matter how emphatically Steve Kerr repeats that health is more important than seeding. In fact, I fully expect them to get the 20 wins they probably need for the home court advantage they may or may not crave.

I expect the Warriors to show renewed focus and intensity coming out of the All-Star break. I expect them to reach near-peak levels by April, and I expect them to win convincingly throughout the playoffs. I would even feel pretty comfortable taking those expectations to the bank.

But when a team under-achieves the way the Warriors have over the last month, we’re forced to fly without a net on those expectations. We’ve got rich people problems — it’s a beautiful light fixture, and they’re just waiting for the perfect moment to flip the switch, but if the bulb is actually dead we may not find out until it’s too late to change it.

Welcome to life on top, Warriors fans.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on 95.7 the Game, usually on weekends. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

Jacob C. Palmer

Jacob C. Palmer is the sports editor of the San Francisco Examiner. Reach him at (415) 359-2729 and Follow him on Twitter: @jacobc_palmer.

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Jacob C. Palmer

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