Here is an early link to my Thursday Warriors column. The full text runs below:

On their way to bigger things — they hope — the Golden State Warriors clinched the Pacific Division title Tuesday night in Portland. First time they won the division in 39 years.

The Warriors may be the best team in the NBA. The playoffs will have something to say about that. The Warriors may win the league championship. It’s certainly possible. Maybe even probable.

And that leads to one essential, staring-you-right-in-the-face question: Why is this season’s team so much better than last seasons’ team when the Warriors have pretty much the same players?

One answer is obvious. The coaching staff is new and improved. Mark Jackson had certain talents but he is nothing like Steve Kerr. And Jackson assembled the league’s worst coaching staff bar none, and Kerr assembled one of the best.

But let’s move on to the players. The NBA is a players’ league in a way the NFL isn’t and never can be.

It is a truism that a good team, a championship contender, needs three significant players. You might even say superstars. One superstar and you’re merely cute. Two superstars and you ascend to interesting. Three superstars and you become serious. You become the San Antonio Spurs.

Until this season, the Warriors were cute. They were the cutest darned team in the league. They had one superstar, Stephen Curry. He could sink 3s all night long, and he established himself as one of the greatest shooters in history.

Quick aside. Did you see what Rick Barry said? Curry is one of the greatest long-range shooters ever, but not one of the best shooters. My brain still hurts trying to figure that out. Does Barry mean Curry shoots poorly as he moves closer to the hoop and the shots get easier? What are you thinking, Rick? Are we sensing jealousy? Poor Rick.

OK, let’s return to Earth.

The Warriors now have three superstars, or near superstars. Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Call Thompson and Green superstars emerging. Having these three makes all the difference. Makes the Warriors a league powerhouse. And the Warriors developed all three from inside the organization, a credit to the scouts and general manager Bob Myers who drafted them. This is most definitely an inside job.

Thompson was an All-Star this season. He is a great shooter, loves to shoot. He and Curry could be the best shooting backcourt of all time, and I’m talking from anywhere on the court, not just long range. Although the Knicks’ Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe weren’t exactly bad. And Thompson is an A-plus defender, a big guard, a shut-down defender.

Then there’s Green. Draymond Green is a flat-out phenomenon. He took the power forward job from David Lee, a very good player. Just grabbed the position. He made Lee vestigial like the appendix. Hard to do. Because of Green, the Warriors simply have evolved past Lee, a poor defender who cannot guard a 3-point shooter.

Green defends all five positions. He is a smart passer. He shoots 3s. He doesn’t always make the 3s but he poses a threat teams must respect. Along with Andrew Bogut he is the roughest toughest Warrior. The Warriors used to be a soft polite team. No more.

Consider how Green dominates the Clippers’ Blake Griffin, an elite power forward. Griffin likes to go one on one. Likes to take the low post and push back the defender. Griffin cannot push Green. Green hits him — all within the rules. Green frustrates Griffin, takes Griffin out of his game. After a while, Griffin starts taking jumpers or he passes the ball. Griffin wants no part of Green. Cries uncle.

Green is the biggest surprise on this season’s Warriors and he absolutely is a difference maker. He plays center when the Warriors go small. He can defend centers underneath the hoop. Centers cannot push him back like they pushed back Andris Biedrins — moved him like a feather.

The Warriors’ bench has improved. That’s because Andre Iguodala is the sixth man. He should not start because he does not score enough. He is a defense-first player, a great defender. This he brings from the bench. He is reluctant to shoot, but he can shoot. Has a sweet stroke on his jumper. He is shooting more lately.

Kerr uses several substitute guards. Expect him to do this in the playoffs. He is not a coach who limits himself to seven or eight guys. His whole thing is matchups. Sometimes he will use Shaun Livingston. Sometimes Leandro Barbosa. You get the idea.

Here’s a ranking of the Warriors’ starting five. It’s my ranking. Feel free to disagree. I rank from first to fifth based on the player’s importance to the team.

No. 1: Curry. Need you ask? He freaks defenses out and requires a double-team, and that makes everything available to Thompson, Green and Harrison Barnes. And Curry has become a stern defender. Not great. Extremely stern.

No. 2: Thompson. He’s an all-time great shooter and he’s getting better. And he is one of the best defenders on the team.

No. 3: Green. The Warriors would not have the best record in the NBA without him. His take-no-crap spirit has become the spirit of the team.

No. 4: Andrew Bogut. No disrespect to Bogut by putting him in fourth place. He viciously defends the rim. He routinely makes players change their shots. He is mean and he is tough. The Warriors could not win a championship without him — if they win the championship. It’s just that he plays 24 minutes a game and Green plays 32, and the Warriors need center Marreese Speights for offense when they absolutely need offense at center.

No. 5: Barnes. Someone had to be fifth. Barnes did not learn he would start until just before the season. He is a basketball baby, 22, and still developing. He has a gorgeous shot and drives the hoop and grabs rebounds. He eventually will be a star. More than anyone on the Warriors, he benefited from the coaching shift from Jackson to Kerr.

The Warriors — these astonishing Warriors — have the best record in the league. Will have the best record when the playoffs begin. Will have home-court advantage in every playoff series. They earned that.

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