More than a quarter of the NBA season has passed, and the Golden State Warriors have yet to lose. And while redefining what it means to get off to a fast start, the Warriors appear to be speeding toward their second straight league title. But let's not forget: The finish line is nowhere in sight.
The Warriors' record-setting opening act doesn't guarantee that they'll have a great closing one. Across every sport, many factors -- the grind of the regular season, injuries, infighting, complacency, formidable opponents, etc. -- have derailed teams that looked unstoppable early on.
For the Warriors, the challenge will be to sustain the incredible standard they've set in obliterating the NBA's mark for consecutive victories to open a season and repeat. If the Warriors keep it rolling, they'll join the short list of teams that used historic starts as a springboard to championships -- which is what truly defines success.
Elgin Baylor is watching. A student of sports history, the NBA legend believes Golden State has what it takes to complete another great season, "and what they've done ... man, it's really something," he said recently via phone. "I don't care what sport you're talking about, it's so hard to play at such a high level for any part of a season.
"And it's hard to win a championship and then do it again. If it wasn't hard, it would happen all the time. But they really have a great team. They've proved it with everything they've done, and they could be one of those teams you just look at and just say, 'Wow.' You never know what's going to happen, no one has a crystal ball, but you see what they're building."
At 22-0, the Warriors have extended their record for victories to start a season, which they claimed by passing the 1948-49 Washington Capitals and the 1993-94 Houston Rockets, who each won their first 15 games (those Rockets also won the NBA title). The Warriors are so far ahead of the pack -- among other things, they lead the league in scoring and scoring differential and are sixth in opponent field goal percentage -- that there's no debate about who is the NBA's best team.
Of course, it's only December. The Finals are played in June.
Although the Warriors have a deep, versatile roster, navigating the regular season will be trying. Whether you're talking about playing 82 games in the NBA and NHL, Major League Baseball's 162-game marathon or facing 16 games in the NFL, it always is.
"The most difficult thing will be trying to maintain this level of play until June," Basketball Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas said. "That's eight months of sustaining this, which we all know that in the NBA, and any sport, really, is extremely difficult to do."
But not impossible. The 1972 Miami Dolphins went 17-0, becoming the only team in NFL history to finish a season, including the playoffs, undefeated. The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls sped to a 41-3 record en route to finishing 72-10 -- the NBA's best all-time regular-season record -- while beginning a run of three straight titles. In 1998, the New York Yankees never broke stride: They went on a 45-9 tear after a 1-4 start, finished at 114-48, won their second World Series title in three seasons and launched a three-peat run.
"It's such a long season that it [a fast start] is good for morale. It's definitely good to get the fans excited," said baseball analyst Eric Karros, the 1992 National League Rookie of the Year with the Dodgers. "Is that nice? Is that a luxury? Yeah. But you know the old saying: You're not going to win the pennant in the first month."
It all adds up, though. Teams build their résumés over the entire season. A strong start plays a part in determining postseason seeding, which, often, is a factor in who wins championships.
"The games you win early on in the season are just as important as the ones you win at the end of the season," Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "If you get off to a fast start, it takes a lot of pressure off of you early and puts pressure on the other teams in your division. It gives the team almost a feeling of invincibility."
In 2007, it seemed the New England Patriots couldn't be stopped. They went 16-0 in the regular season, won two games in the AFC playoffs and were heavily favored to defeat the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. On that day, however, the Giants were better. Despite finishing 18-1, the Patriots failed to get the victory they needed most.
Sometimes, injuries end the fun. After winning the 2007-08 NBA title, the Boston Celtics went 27-2 to start the next season. Clearly the league's best team, Boston had the look of a back-to-back champion. But Kevin Garnett suffered a knee injury in February that kept him out of the playoffs and, well, ended the Celtics' hope of earning another ring that season.
This season, Stephen Curry is the key to the Warriors' short- and long-term goals. Last season's MVP is playing at even higher level these days. Although the Warriors wouldn't be the same without Curry, they have other impressive parts. One superstar isn't enough to ignite the type of run the Warriors are on.
The 1991 Washington Redskins won their first 11 games and finished 14-2, eventually winning the Super Bowl. In addition to having many talented players, they also had another essential ingredient for a super start and strong finish: team chemistry. The Redskins assembled the right collection of players, and it showed on the field.
"You win one, two, three games in a row and so on, and as you get on those waves, you realize how good you are and you come together even more," said former All-Pro returner Brian Mitchell, a key member of the Redskins' last Super Bowl team.
"As an athlete, any time that you can get peak performance, you take it. Would you rather have it come in the last two months of the season than the first two? Yes. But you're always striving to be your best." Isiah Thomas
"What happens is, no one wants to be the guy who makes the mistake and causes you to lose. Everyone is together and it just keeps you going. You look at the Warriors, and you can tell they're together. You watch them play, offensively and defensively, everybody contributes. You can just watch them and see those guys are all working for one thing. That's a big reason why they're able to do what they're doing."
But if the Warriors fall short of repeating, their start -- the best ever for a major U.S. pro team -- will be relegated to a footnote in history. So unless they bookend it with a title, some observers would undoubtedly argue it didn't matter much.
"I wouldn't say it didn't matter," Thomas said. "As an athlete, anytime that you can get peak performance, you take it. Would you rather have it come in the last two months of the season than the first two? Yes. But you're always striving to be your best. You shouldn't take for granted or dismiss what they're doing. You shouldn't do that, because it's impressive."