The Passion of Kerr: Why Dub Nation can believe in their coach
The injured Warriors were left for dead by the NBA, but Coach Kerr kept the faith. How far can he lead this depleted team?
Remember earlier in the season when the Golden State Warriors appeared to be a mess of ill-fitting pieces, injuries, and no cap room with an offensive strategy that seemed outdated?
Well suddenly they’re the hottest team in basketball beelining on a collision course with the wobbling defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the play-in tournament. Coach Steve Kerr deserves tremendous credit for managing this squad out of the bleak reality of their earlier woes to tomorrow night’s primetime showcase.
Kerr’s toughest challenge
A huge narrative around Kerr is that he was gift wrapped a title contender in the wake of the deposed Mark Jackson and hasn’t had to coach too hard because his team was stacked. It was seared into the minds of all Dub Nation’s haters when Kerr literally had the players coach themselves in 2018 in a 46-point win. And then there’s the team’s stellar record during the games the coach has missed due to health concerns, like in this tongue-in-cheek Reddit post:
That narrative reached a fever pitch this season when despite having a healthy Stephen Curry the team scuffled in ugly fashion. Kerr openly spoke about needing several weeks of the season to figure out the rotation partially because James Wiseman and Draymond Green had missed most of training camp. If anyone took for granted that the Warriors would smoothly and immediately figure out how to replace the irreplaceable Klay Thompson, they were quite disappointed.
Let’s remember that Kerr and his staff activated the Curry-Thompson-Green trio into a three-headed monster of epic historical proportions. Without that trio intact (and the role players who helped them during the title years), Kerr has new guys step in attempting to fill some massive shoes. The SF Chronicle’s Connor Letorneau touched on this in December when Kerr admitted this season would be by far the biggest challenge he’d had.
Without Thompson, Kerr had the challenge of teaching the Warriors old ways into this new group of players without the benefit of one of the team’s foundational All-Stars. Was the learning process and depth chart finessing worth the pain of losing regular season games?
Perhaps understanding Kerr’s background can give us insight about the philosophies which the highly competitive champion roots his Golden State team in.
Identity: it’s kind of a big deal
Before Kerr became Golden State’s coach, he had a stint as a general manager with the “7 Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns. In a desperate attempt to help that fast paced, high-scoring group get over the hump by adding size, he swung a trade for an aging behemoth Shaquille O’Neal. The hope was that they’d finally have the size to defeat Tim Duncan’s Spurs, but the trade ultimately slowed Phoenix down. Kerr reflected on how he failed in that situation:
...it was a swing-for-the-fences deal. I was a young GM. It’s the kind of move that, yeah, you go for it, but you’re compromising the long-term health of the franchise. That was a mistake. The reasons for making it were not sound. We knew we weren’t good enough to win the whole thing. We’d been in it for several years. Kept losing to the Spurs. But it was a rushed, sort of home run swing that we struck out with. We went for it, which is admirable, but I just think we compromised our identity.
After seeing Kerr confess he made the mistake of sacrificing the team’s “7 Seconds” identity to adapt to what the dominant NBA archetype was, I gained better insight into the painful regret he suffered sacrificing team identity for chasing roster and scheme upheaval.
So what IS the Warriors identity under Kerr? HELLA BANNERS!
Okay, but seriously if we had to quantify what Kerr nurtures and demands from his team, what would it be?
If you haven’t read Baxter Holmes’ epic on the genesis of Kerr’s schemes with the Warriors, that’s required reading for all members of Dub Nation. Here’s an informative quote from Kerr and Warriors GM Bob Myers on the Golden State ethos:
"There's a makeup in every player who's ever played," Kerr says, "that if you get to touch the ball and you get to be a part of the action -- whether it's as an assist man, ball mover, shooter, dribbler -- the more people who are involved in the offense, the more powerful it becomes."
As GM Bob Myers puts it: "All of us want to be part of something."
One of my fav quotes on this comes from Off the Glass:
“(Kerr) The seven-time NBA champion approaches basketball from a mystical, almost religious point-of-view. He truly believes the ball generates energy as it moves, and the more times the ball is passed, the more likely it ends up in the hoop. He wants the Warriors to pass the ball 300 times every game. He commands two or three of the most dominant offensive talents of a generation, and he often wants them to set back screens so role players can get open shots.”
Kerr believes in maximizing synergy through everyone being involved. On offense that means guys are constantly buzzing around the court as a constant threat; standing around bored and aimless is mightily discouraged.
That explains Kerr’s reticence to the old Houston Rockets strategy of spamming pick-and-roll with two-players while everyone else hangs out aimlessly on the perimeter. Here’s our guy Apricot explaining the Warriors’ preferred bread-and-butter of ball and player movement:
To Kerr’s credit he did assert he would be willing to experiment more with pick-and-roll tactics to help the team get comfortable. But eventually the team would have to pick up the complicated scheme in order to unleash the power of the dynastic Warriors. That reminds me of what Green said during the shaky start about Kerr’s offense:
“We have a bunch of guys that just don’t quite understand all the reads yet, and that’s what made our offense so tough to guard [in the past],” Green recently said. He brings up a fair point: The system is complex. “Not only did we have some of the best scorers in the world, but a bulk of the offense was read and react…which also made it tougher for teams to scout because not only are you trying to guard some of the best scorers in the world, you also can’t just plan that they’re going to do this, they’re going to do that.”
As anyone who watched the Dubs this season can attest, that learning process has been excruciating at points.
Discipline and patience
Kerr was willing to suffer a few losses during the regular season if it helped the players connect the dots down the road. I’m reminded of his thoughts about not cranking up Curry’s minutes to “chase wins”, something he learned winning a title under legendary coach Gregg Popovich in San Antonio:
"It wasn't just play your best five guys to death," Kerr says. "It was play everybody. You go deep into your rotation, even if it means losing a couple of games in the regular season, just empower everybody. It's kind of the beauty of basketball, the old cliché about the total being greater than the sum of its parts -- I believe in all of that. Five guys have to operate together, but the other seven on the bench, or nine, however many, they've got to feel part of it."
Kerr’s strategy of conserving Curry’s playing time seems to have worked out. Curry won the scoring title and is a top-tier MVP candidate while averaging 34.2 minutes per game (ranked 25th in the league). Coincidentally that’s the MPG he averaged during his Unanimous MVP year. But as we saw in the 40 minutes Curry played against Memphis last game, Kerr isn’t afraid to up his minutes in high stakes games.
But let’s go back to that “together” stuff he mentioned in that Holmes quote. Why is it important for the players on the team to feel part of it? Here’s Kerr’s thoughts:
"I learned this with Phil Jackson and the triangle. When everyone is involved, touching the ball and cutting and screening, there's a magic that happens, there's something special where guys feel empowered, their defense gets better because they're involved. And so I think, what's important for me as a coach is to play the style we do."
I like that line about defense. It’s amazing that despite how Scotch-taped together this roster is, they somehow have a top-5 defense. And as our astute commenter Abbadon led me to find out, the Warriors have the #2 DRTG over their last 15 games. Sounds like Kerr’s strategy of keeping players involved on offense to help fuel their defensive intensity is actually paying off.
It’s a shame newcomers Kelly Oubre Jr. and James Wiseman haven’t had more time to grow into the system. They are the freakishly athletic wildcards that the Warriors coveted to add another dimension to the team. How many ways will injuries rob this team?
A bittersweet silver lining is their injury absences allowed extra minutes for other healthy Dubs to get more comfortable in repetition as the rotation tightened. Remember Kerr’s “minutes are up for grabs” quote? This season has been about Kerr toggling lineups to figure out where everyone can fit; without the benefit of Thompson as an All-Star safety net.
Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, Juan Toscano-Anderson and Kevon Looney were all labeled non-factors before they had time to soak for multiple seasons in Kerr’s hoops philosophy. Now they’re entrusted components of a pretty scary playoff team. That’s the power of playing with Curry and Green under Kerrball. I really do wonder how some extra experience would gel KOJ and Wiseman (and sophomore Eric Paschall) into this machine.
It also provides for some juicy topics of debate for Dub Nation:
This team leads the league in assists despite constantly shuffling the rotation and missing star power; that’s a positive sign for a team that allegedly lacked playmakers. Imagine what they can do playing with a healthy squad.
If we’re talking about this franchise contending for championships in the future, it’s of vital importance Kerr pushes these youngsters/newbies hard to learn his uniquely unpredictable scheme. The Dubs expect to heavily employ it next season when the greatest shooting tandem in NBA history is flying around the court causing havoc with their scoring and spacing.
Which brings me back to the Warriors’ post-Klay injury prognosis for the season: low playoff seed AT BEST. Charles Barkley told Klay to his face back in October that Golden State wasn’t gonna make the playoffs!
Kerr used this season of the unknown to grow guys in the Warrior Way. Wiggins, Poole, JTA, and Mychal Mulder have made huge strides since since last season. Thanks to the superpowers of Curry and Green, Kerr was able to buy time for that learning process while still making the play-in.
The true key to analyzing this season is finding out which new guys will assimilate into the system to keep the machine chugging in the long-run.
If you add in the awesome draft picks the Warriors may snag next season, the Dubs could develop a whole new army of high IQ hoopers! Letourneau said it well:
“As much as Golden State would like to reach the playoffs, it knows next season could be extremely promising.
That’s when a healthy Thompson is expected to join a core of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and James Wiseman. The Warriors also might have an elite prospect such as G League Ignite’s Jalen Green or Jonathan Kuminga, USC’s Evan Mobley, Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham or Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs if they can use the top-three-protected 2021 pick from Minnesota they acquired in the Wiggins deal last February.
Trust me, I get Warriors basketball has been painful to watch at times. But the pain of discipline is far better than the pain of regret; I’m proud that the Warriors are taking the time to learn their lessons the right way.