This is the point in the season where everyone is supposed to be ramping up for the playoffs. The top seeds are usually locked in, and the teams in the middle of the conference are vying for homecourt advantage in the first round while one or two teams on the outside of the bubble are trying to burst through. That’s the usual story during this time of year in the NBA.
The narrative for this year’s stretch run is about something else entirely.
Preparing for the post-season is all about psychology, and avoiding stress and distraction is a massive part of that. Coaches need their players to launch at full throttle in order to get to the highest stratosphere possible. Physical preparation is part of that, and avoiding injuries is a must, but even regular people like you and me understand the value of entering a serious challenge with a rested, clear mindset. It can be the difference between success and failure. It’s why you don’t go out boozing the night before an exam in college (or why you’re not supposed to anyways).
The two best teams in each conference hold almost miraculous records. Golden State has been involved in The Chase for 73 since October, while Cleveland feels like a Lamborghini being held together by duct tape and crazy glue. Both have endured mountains of mental strain and distraction, and all of those outside factors detract from the ultimate goal of any NBA team’s season.
At -135 to repeat as champions, Golden State is the clear front runner in the futures market .Cleveland has a +400 mark to not only emerge out of the east, but to bring home its first title ever. Is it worth it to bet on either?
From a probability standpoint it sure is. But there are shadows looming over both teams. The contributing factors are different, but the mental tension and the anxiety on both sides is obvious. Draining so much energy by dealing with those stressors could very well be the difference between a season of anguish, and a championship.
HOW TOUGH HAS THE SEASON BEEN ON THE WARRIORS?
Draymond Green said it best in the stunning upset loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves. “We’re kind of ready for the regular season to end,” Green said in the post game. “Talking 82 games, we get bored with that after a while. And that’s no excuse, just, I’m always give it to y’all real, and that’s about as real as I can be. It’s kind of at a point now where you’re ready for the regular season to be over.”
Almost all of the talk around the Warriors lately has been about the toll that the pursuit of greatness has had on their team. Everyone from Kerr to Curry has been skillfully dodging questions and working around them to prove that they’re focused on the right things.
It’s easy to say that the wheels are starting to puncture with the Warriors drifting out of a three-game split where they lost to Minnesota and Boston. People will pile on that they also got crushed by San Antonio just over two weeks ago. The Apocalypse is upon them!
But we’ve been here before. Golden State lost to Detroit and Denver (beating the Lakers in-between) back in January, just two weeks after also losing to the Dallas Mavericks in a blowout. After that, they won 11 straight games.
Of course, that was three months ago, and the mileage has ramped up. You can argue that the Warriors have bled too much energy in to The Chase for 73 wins, especially when they’re giving up 17-point leads to the fourth worst team in the NBA. Mental exhaustion shows itself in all forms, and losing to the Timberwolves when you’re one of the best teams in history is evidence enough.
The question has to be asked: were things this hard for the Chicago Bulls?
By the end of the 1995-96 season, the average number of wins for teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs was 51.5. That’s topped up by the Bulls’ 72-10 record, with the Miami Heat scraping the playoff barrel after winning 42 games. By contrast, the Western Conference averaged 50.4 wins that year with Seattle claiming 64 wins as the clear number one, while Sacramento stumbled through with a losing record of 39-43. You can boil that down in to these numbers:
|2015-16 Golden State Warriors||1995-96 Chicago Bulls|
|Winning Percentage||69-9 (88.5%)||72-10 (87.8%)|
|Other Playoff Teams||739-502 (59.6%)||743-487 (60.0%)|
With just a handful of games left in the NBA season, it’s safe to say that the average winning percentages for the ’96 Bulls and the ’16 Warriors are going to be relatively even. This isn’t to remotely suggest that things are even overall.
Scottie Pippen can say that his Bulls would wipe the floor with the Warriors, but even a casual NBA fan who’s been around as long as I have can safely say that the NBA is much deeper from a talent perspective, and more sophisticated overall from a strategy standpoint, than it was 30 years ago. The league as a whole is just a stronger beast. That’s basic evolution.
You can tell that Golden State is starting to strafe mentally. They want to get to the end of this season, which includes two games each against San Antonio and Memphis. They’re tired. They’re running out of gas, and they just need a new challenge.
One of the benefits of the Warriors is their overall youth. Younger athletes can simply recharge faster and more efficiently than older ones. From a physical standpoint, they’re completely capable of playing the games at a high level.
But that mental capacity has to be there. For The Chase to go from a pursuit of greatness to a distracting hassle can’t be understated. It has sapped this team from a psychological angle, and the pressure will only mount if they’re able to sweep their last four games.
Why? Simply because a record-setting regular season means absolutely nothing if they don’t hoist another trophy at the end of the regular season (read: 2007 New England Patriots). It won’t be anything more than a footnote. Of the 10 teams to boast the NBA’ best winning percentage, eight have won the championship. The 1973 Boston Celtics lost in the Eastern Conference Finals and the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks were upset in the first round of the playoffs. Does anyone even make the case for the last two teams as some of the best ever? Not even close.
I’ve been saying all year that nothing about The Chase for 73 wins will matter if the Golden State Warriors lose in the playoffs at any point. Again, it’s not a matter of being physically ready to handle up to 28 more playoff games. More than anything, it’s possessing the mental resolve to survive that gauntlet while still performing at the highest level possible.
The accumulated stress of chasing 73 wins is ravaging the Golden State Warriors. You can’t go full bore for this long of a season and expect to continue holding a ridiculous pace. If any team can do it, it’s Golden State, but that dark cloud hangs over them.
You have to pay a price to be great. The Warriors just might have paid too much far too early.
The accumulation of prolonged stress is a strange element to analyze, and that’s what makes Golden State’s season so fascinating. It’s even more intriguing when you parallel them against another team that’s gone through so many emotional problems this season.
HOT (MESS) IN CLEVELAND
I have never seen a team that’s reigned as the conference standard go through as much psycho-analysis as these Cleveland Cavaliers.
From the onset, LeBron James and his teammates have been a regular source of tabloid-level entertainment. The actual list is too long to fit here, but here are some highlights:
• They fired David Blatt unceremoniously, and Tyronne Lue has done everything from call out his players’ off-court interests to their on-court production through the media.
• Kevin Love has seemed like the most depressed man making $21 million of all time, standing at odds with the game plan of the Cavs while making passive aggressive comments at LeBron stemming from last year.
• Kyrie and LeBron sent out some cryptic tweets that took the internet by storm. Too bad their own relationship has been as hard to decipher. At times, they love each other and in other moments LeBron is berating him like he’s playing Mario Chalmers all over again.
• LeBron has done everything a weirdo could, from undermining the coaches, to being a meta-weirdo on social weirdo, to say that he’d rather be playing with a completely different team, to outright sulking in losses, to interfering in contract talks with other players and everything else in between.
LeBron is the underlying cause of everything in Cleveland. He’s the reason they win games, but he’s also the root of all evil. He’s just such a hurricane. You take the good with the bad. Unfortunately, the “bad” might be something all too real to Cleveland fans.
LeBron James left Cleveland because they were a hot mess of scrubs and coattail riders. The only reason he came back is because Kyrie Irving was there, and LeBron knows that he’s good enough to get to the Finals with just one other All-Star. Bringing in Love was insurance beyond anything else.
The hissy fit he threw in a recent loss to Brooklyn was reminiscent of how he reacted to his team losing in the playoffs against the Celtics in 2010. James walked off the court in disgust as his team failed to put together any semblance of a rally, and he ripped off his own Cavs jersey. It would be four years until he put one back on.
It’s a good time to mention that LeBron’s contract runs out at the end of this season, something he designed purposefully to cash in on the ballooning salary cap this summer. There is a five-percent chance he leaves, only because “anything can happen”. LeBron leaving again would be a maelstrom on all fronts, and I don’t believe it’s even remotely happening.
That’s not the point. More so, it’s a reminder that when LeBron is upset, his team falls apart. He is the emotional core of the Cavaliers and sometimes it feels like he can’t handle that responsibility very well. That’s probably why he ran to Miami so quickly. Wade and Bosh and Spoelstra and Pat Riley were all there to help him cope with the stress.
Now that he’s back home, LeBron doesn’t have those failsafe valves. His co-stars aren’t doing anything to help him resolve the problems the team is enduring. And make not mistake about it: anything other than a championship for Cleveland will be a disaster during a season that’s been tumultuous and turbulent to begin with.
WHY YOU SHOULDN’T BET ON EITHER TO WIN THE TITLE
The type of dysfunctional stress Cleveland has in truck loads may take a different form than what’s happening with Golden State, but the end result is the same.
Both teams are exhausted from all of the distractions, whether it’s a lacking team chemistry or taking a shot at a win record that was previously thought to be untouchable.
You can’t enter the playoffs with those kinds of problems and hope that everything sorts itself out. The environment is too cutthroat and unforgiving, especially given the intensified media attention.
Cleveland and Golden State will enter the playoffs mentally depleted. The cathartic release of having the weight of 73 wins lifted off the Warriors’ shoulders could have a distinctly adverse impact on how they roll through a brutal Western Conference playoff picture. Cleveland’s pattern of dysfunction will emerge when times get tough against either Boston, Toronto or even Miami just like it did at the tail end of LeBron’s first tenure with the team.
Having what it takes to win a championship is essentially two-fold. Not only do have to have proven how honed your craft is, you must possess the faculties to apply that craft when it matters. The Warriors have mastered the first part, but may not have enough gusto left in the tank to do the second part. I’m not sure Cleveland ever accomplished team cohesion to begin with.
So with all this being said, how tempting does San Antonio look at +300 to win the NBA title?