The reigning US basketball champs, led by last year’s MVP, haven’t lost a game this season—and that’s generating lots of buzz about their winning momentum.
The Golden State Warriors held off the Toronto Raptors last night (Dec. 5), with a 112-109 victory. The team has won its first 21 games this season, an NBA record for the best start to a regular season. If you include last season, the Warriors have actually won 25 games in a row.
What does research say about the Warriors’ ability to keep a streak like this going? In particular, are there psychological factors that reinforce winning momentum?
The research is divided, though it mostly suggests that such momentum—the idea that being on a winning streak improves the odds of continuing it—isn’t a significant factor. One large-scale study of university hockey teams found that winning a first game in a two-game weekend series didn’t increases the chances of winning the second.
Other research has found that individual players could have “hot hands,” where hitting a free throw or bowling a strike increases their chance of success at subsequent attempts. And teams react to individual players on a streak by trying to give them more chances to score, according to separate research that looked at volleyball; that improves a team’s overall chance of winning.
Regardless, more significant factors arguably are the fundamental skill of the team itself and, over time, ability of its biggest contributors to avoid any injuries that might sideline them.
The Warriors’ winning streak is the third-longest in NBA history. The 2012-2013 Miami Heat (27 games), and the 1971-1972 LA Lakers (33 games) are the only teams ahead of Golden State. Both teams won the championship those seasons.
Statistically, the Warriors are on pace to set even more records. A USA Today analysis comparing Golden State to the NBA’s all-time greatest teams, including the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, concluded that the Warriors outpace the others in eight out of sixteen major statistical categories. The Warriors are setting records in three pointers and how many points the Warriors are beating their opponents by.
The Warriors play tonight (Dec. 6) in New York, facing off against the Brooklyn Nets and hoping to get a bit closer to the all-time LA Lakers record.