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How Warriors turned it around

Golden State may be overachieving, but improvement on D is for real

Updated: January 5, 2013, 8:45 PM ET
By Bradford Doolittle | Basketball Prospectus

The league's hottest team takes the court Saturday for a rare in-season home-and-home set against the same opponent -- and I'm not talking about the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Golden State Warriors will face the Clippers at the Staples Center coming off four straight wins, a streak tied with Detroit for the league's longest. The last win was an impressive 21-point shellacking of L.A. on Wednesday, the Clippers' worst loss of the season.

Golden State has won five of six and 15 of 19 to climb within three games of the top spot in the Western Conference. It hasn't lost consecutive games in almost two months. This is rarified air for a franchise that has made the playoffs just once in the past 18 seasons. At 22-10, Golden State is 12 games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2007-08 season.

I love to cite old basketball analyst proverbs, and one of the most basic is that a team's point differential is a better predictor of future success than its actual record. When I first decided to write about the Warriors a couple of weeks ago, Mark Jackson's crew was playing well and stood 17-8, but with a scoring margin of about +1.8 points per game, it seemed obvious that Golden State's record far exaggerated its actual strength. On top of that, the Warriors didn't fare well in the preseason projections we did at Basketball Prospectus, and they started the season with an expected baseline of 28-54.

When expectation mixes with what appears to be an exaggerated reality, the story angle seems simple: The Warriors would sink.

With that in mind, I caught up with Jackson and the Warriors in Salt Lake City last week, where I proceeded to watch Golden State dominate the Jazz with timely shooting and stifling defense. Against one of the league's biggest teams, the Warriors were generally more physical, a trait seldom associated with Golden State squads over the past two decades. I came away impressed, and the win added to a striking list of road victories that includes Minnesota, Dallas, Brooklyn, Miami, Atlanta and the Clippers, which the Warriors will try to beat for a third time Saturday.

Instead of Golden State's record regressing toward its point differential, the opposite has occurred. The Warriors keep winning and doing so by increasingly impressive scores. Since I originally began to plan a story on them, they have increased their scoring margin to +3.2 points per game. On a per-possession basis, only five teams have a better differential than Golden State for the season. Over their last 10 games, the Warriors have outscored their opponents by eight points per contest.

According to my power rankings, which gradually phase out preseason projections, the Warriors rate as a 45-win team. If that seems low, consider that even after their recent burst, the Warriors' point differential translates to 50 wins over a full season, while their winning percentage projects to 56 wins. There is still some overachievement in Golden State's won-loss record, though it becomes less stark with each convincing win.

If the Warriors go on to be the 45-win outfit I have them rated as, which would be 17 wins more than projected, Golden State would easily rank as the league's most surprising team. Every win it gets above that is another point in favor of Jackson taking home this season's Coach of the Year award.

So how are the Warriors doing it?

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