Tonight the Warriors begin their longest road trip of the season, seven games over ten games, beginning in Detroit and ending a week from Saturday in Atlanta. Many in the pundit class are talking about how 5-2 or 4-3 are easy targets for the Warriors, and how anything worse will represent a failure, especially given how many of the games are against the supposedly-weak Eastern conference.
A quick look at the past, however, suggests that an easy road trip is not in the cards.
For starters, just look at the schedule. Seven games in ten days. Two road back-to-backs, which are challenging for any team, and both of those back-to-backs are the third game in four nights. It would be hard for any team to come out of that stretch with a positive record.
In addition to the demands of travel, road teams often suffer at the hands of the refs. The NBA referees have a hard job, and do the best they can, but the simple truth is that it’s hard for them not to be influenced by the crowd. Studies have shown, for example, that referees watching potential fouls on tape were more likely to say that a foul should have been called for the home team - if they could hear the crowd. Take the sound away, and the bias vanishes. And refereeing an NBA game is a loud louder and more intense than calling soccer fouls on tape.
It should be no surprise, then, that the Warriors have struggled in recent years on the road. Since the "We Believe" season, the team has averaged almost eight and a half fewer wins on the road than at home per season (a number which is skewed down by last year’s shortened schedule).
"But defense travels," the die hard fan will say, "Our previous teams have relied on offense, but this team is different." Well, let’s look at some other recent defensive teams. If we look at the league leader in DRTG (points allowed per 100 possessions) for the last five years, we see that those teams have averaged over 9 fewer wins on the road than at home per season. That’s over .100 of winning percentage over the whole season - the difference between, last season, the Clippers (a mid-playoff seed) and the Suns (completely out of the hunt).
Let that sink in. A mid-playoff seed, where most Warrior fans expect the team to be this year, versus completely out of the hunt. Those easy games against the "Leastern" conference stop looking so easy.
You can see the effect in individual players, too. For his career, Stephen Curry has averaged a point less, one and a half assists less, and .018% less FG% in the road - and if there’s one thing we know about this team, is that they need Curry at his best to be competitive.
One of the biggest challenges to being a fan is keeping some perspective as the season grinds on. It’s what’s poked fun at in this cartoon:
When the team wins a few close games, we like to talk about how they’ve learned, how they’re showing toughness. When they drop a few close games, we talk about how they need to learn how to finish. A winning streak brings out comments about maturity and smart decision making, and the losing streak chatter about a lack of clutchness. But these things aren’t necessarily true. Almost every team has losing streaks, and then they turn around and have winning streaks - or vice versa.
Which is to say that the next two weeks are going to be challenging for Warrior fans. We’re going to lose some games that we’d like to think we should win. There’s going to be a temptation to read a lot into those loses ("David Lee is too soft!" "Stephen Curry isn’t a real point guard!" "Klay Thompson is too streaky") which may not have anything to do with reality. (Well, that last one might be true).
Quite frankly, if the team manages to beat .500 ball over the next seven games, I’ll be very happy. The medium-term goal for this team has to be to be above .500 when Andrew Bogut returns, be that in January or March.