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The Golden State Warriors in Uncharted Territory

Somehow, improbably, the Warriors have gotten better. What should truly make the rest of the NBA uneasy is that it feels like they have not yet reached their ceiling.

Ezekiel Kweku

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Golden State Warriors are defying expectations, again. It's strange to remember now, but just over a year ago, these Warriors were thought to be a team with plans, potential, and not much more. Coming off a first-round playoff elimination by the Los Angeles Clippers, and with a rookie coach in Steve Kerr, Golden State was supposed to continue a 30-year tradition of being fun but futile at their best.

That didn't happen, of course.

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The 2014-15 Warriors had one of the most dominant regular season runs of all time. Their already stout defense stiffened into the league's best, and their offense blossomed. They carried this success into the playoffs, never losing more than two games in a series, and defeated LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 4-2 to win the NBA Finals. In doing so, they upended pieties and conventions about what kinds of teams win titles. Championship teams aren't supposed to heavily rely on outside shooting to drive their offense in the playoffs, but that is what the Warriors did. Homegrown teams are supposed to fail a few times in the playoffs, accruing their share of heartbreak before breaking through to a championship. The Warriors became the first team since the 1981-82 Lakers to jump from losing in the first round to winning a championship without adding a major player to their roster. Championship teams are supposed to be grizzled and experienced, but the Warriors, in a miracle of cosmic symmetry, were the youngest team to win a title since the last Golden State title team, 40 years ago.

And yet, despite the Warriors' incredible regular season, questions emerged in the offseason about whether their playoff run had been quite as convincing as it had seemed. They hadn't faced the San Antonio Spurs or the L.A. Clippers, the teams that had eliminated them from the playoffs in the prior two years, and which were thought to be the second- and third-best, respectively, in the West. None of the teams Golden State beat had been completely healthy; in the Finals, the Cavaliers were missing their second and third best players. In fact, Steph Curry never faced a matchup against a healthy starting point guard. As dominant as the Warriors had looked throughout the season and the playoffs, the chatter went, hadn't their season been a little charmed? Hadn't they been a little bit lucky?

The Las Vegas oddsmakers gave both the Cavaliers and the Spurs better chances to win this season than the defending champions. NBA analysts concluded that while the Warriors would be as good as they were in their championship season, roster acquisitions by the rest of the contenders in the Western Conference had improved them enough to close the gap or even pull ahead. And it would make sense for the Warriors, having won their title, to be a little sated, a little nonchalant—the symptoms of the so-called championship hangover.

When you're not listening to the doubters. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Yet somehow, impossibly, the Warriors have gotten better. They've brought back their league-best defense, a many-tentacled monster that strangles opponents on the perimeter and smothers them near the basket. Their egalitarian, free-flowing offense has become a beautiful machine. Curry, already the reigning league MVP, has had the highest-scoring opening salvo since Michael Jordan, hitting more three-pointers on his own than entire teams so far this season.

The Golden State Warriors are 8-0. They began their season with four straight blowout victories, totally dismantling each of the Western Conference teams they'd faced in the playoffs: the Pelicans, the Rockets, then the Pelicans again, culminating in a 50-point demolition of the Memphis Grizzlies. Just as impressive is what came next: They survived early foul trouble from Curry and came back from 10 down in the fourth quarter to beat the rival Clippers. They pushed through an atrocious shooting night to beat the Kings with dominant defense. Against the upstart Pistons, they won with their superior bench.

What should truly make the rest of the NBA uneasy is that it feels like the Warriors have not yet reached their ceiling. Steve Kerr, one of the best coaches in the league, has been kept from the court by complications from back surgery. While Luke Walton has been ably filling in for him, he hasn't made the minor adjustments necessary to tighten a defense that could stand to be more frugal, or make their offense a bit less dependent on Curry. Andrew Bogut, their starting center, has hardly played because of multiple injuries; his return means more depth and versatility—and fewer minutes for Marreese Speights, whose cold start is a photonegative of last season. The return of Bogut's interior passing and dribble handoffs will also help Klay Thompson, who, perhaps hampered by a nagging back injury, also has not looked completely like himself on offense.

A metaphor for something. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

So what is the Warriors' ceiling, exactly? Are we going to watch them have another historically great season? Can they match or pass the Bulls' record 72 win season, widely thought to be greatest of all time? Can they become only the third franchise to win back-to-back titles out of the West? I don't know the answer to these questions. Trying to map the likely course for this Warriors season is just to establish bounds for the incredible, like writing "here there be dragons" over uncharted territory.

Here's what I do know. Previous incarnations of the Warriors (the galvanizing 2007-08 "We Believe" team, the 1989-91 "Run TMC" squad) played with the freedom of those who have nothing to lose. This version plays with the joy and assuredness of a team that knows they have already won. Steph Curry is a sui generis savant who makes shots, casually and routinely, that no other player in history has even had the gall to take. Draymond Green is their engine and their heart, a versatile defender who can credibly defend every position on the floor. Andre Iguodala is a Swiss Army knife, one of the fancy ones that has, like, pliers and a magnifying glass. Harrison Barnes is a cerebral kid who plays best when he's not thinking at all. Andrew Bogut is very large and very Australian and will do anything to win. Shaun Livingston has no business even walking after the injury he suffered eight years ago, but here he is, running the Warriors offense from off the bench. I routinely catch myself smiling at the selfless way the Warriors hunt for open shots. Oracle Arena roars like a naked jet turbine in an airplane hangar when threes start falling in the third quarter. I have friends who don't watch sports who've made an exception for the Warriors simply because they are a delight.

Every contender in the Western Conference has improved. The rival Clippers have returned the league's No. 1 offense and have shored up their bench. Kevin Durant is healthy and his Thunder are desperate to win in the last year of his contract. The Spurs, one of the spiritual fathers of the Warriors' and perhaps the only team that truly intimidates them, went big in free agency for the first time. And LeBron James will be back with a healthy Cleveland team behind him, hungry for vengeance and to bring his hometown its first NBA title. Barring injury (let us redouble our offerings to the basketball gods), watching these Warriors rise to meet their foes is going to be a joy to watch and a privilege to remember. I'm going to savor every moment.

Ezekiel Kweku is following the Golden State Warriors as they defend their NBA title.