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How the Stephen Curry-Kevin Durant pick-and-roll could be key in the 2017 NBA Finals

These two coaches are evolving the Warriors by using Durant and Curry in different ways.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There has been an undeniable magic since Steve Kerr took over as head coach of the Golden State Warriors.

Kerr took a an extremely talented existing roster and turned it into something sublime. Under Kerr’s leadership, the Warriors’ offensive rating jumped from 12th to second in his first year, and has since gone on to become the #1 ranked offense in the past two consecutive seasons. A magical blend of talent and system have transcended what we knew to be the “best” form of basketball. But this is not an end state and, believe it or not, the next transition for this offense will be undertaken by none other than Mike Brown.

Kerr’s health issues have been well documented elsewhere, but bottom line is that he’s still experiencing an untenable amount of pain — it’s the sort of thing can dominate every moment of your life (and probably is, in Kerr’s case). Everyone is incredibly clear on one thing: Kerr’s health matters more than anything.

"He is a fantastic coach and a fantastic human being and a great friend," Lacob said. "I told him the other day, 'I don't even want to talk about or think about anything other than winning this championship. You can contribute in any way you can, and we'll worry about the future in the future… He is still here. He's in the locker room. He's around. His imprint is all over this," Lacob said. "I don't view it as he's not here; he's just not on the bench."

These upcoming Finals though, may serve as something of a swan song for the Kerr scheme in the current form. As Kerr becomes more of the architect, Brown is slowly re-engineering what Kerr built. Like Lacob said above, Kerr’s imprint is all over this. The “this”, of course, is everything; it’s the open communication, the inventive and detailed offensive and defensive preparations that Kerr has nurtured here — a whole system. But the way Lacob is talking, and given that we just want Kerr to be ok, I think it’s important to talk about the next stage of “this” because I think we are seeing the beginning of a change, and we are going to see our offense evolve even further in the 2017 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Mike Brown has been filling in for Kerr in his absence, and while Kerr is definitely around the team, the “imprint” is beginning to show it’s first signs of strain. A separation is hinted at, if you look close enough. And oddly these cracks are showing through from a fissure that fans have been clamoring about since at least mid season. It’s a simple question: Where the hell is the Curry/Durant pick and roll?

You see, the pick and roll is a play designed to force a mismatch that is attacked in an isolated situation - generally by sticking a larger, slower guy onto your primary ball handler. But the thing is, it works just as well (if not better) when you also have a big who can handle the ball well enough to attack off the dribble – a guy like Kevin Durant, for example. If those guys can initiate it, then it also puts a guy like Steph out on the perimeter with an isolated big man as the only defender.

It would seem that having Durant (or Curry) driving to the basket against a mismatch with the other guy popped out waiting to take an open three pointer would be one of our offenses top priorities. But for whatever reason, Steve Kerr has been pretty reluctant to run it. Like…ALL season. Maybe he’s been saving it up for the post season and we haven’t got to see it due to his declining health? Or, maybe it’s something intrinsically tied to the play that is an anathema to Kerr’s motion-heavy offense.

The Warriors ranked dead last in isolation plays, and 26th in pick and rolls out of the entire league. Does it tell you something that Kerr – this amazing basketball genius –refuses to use players like Curry and Durant in isolation? And remember, this resulted in the top offense for the past two seasons.

Kerr says the two coaches have talked recently about playing mismatch basketball in the right doses. "Mike is right about me, but I also recognize the need to do it more as defenses get tougher," Kerr says. "It's about finding the right balance between isolating when we need to, and keeping the flow that makes us who we are."

-courtesy of Zach Lowe, ESPN

So, enter coach Mike Brown.

A guy who I was extremely critical of prior to his arrival (and maybe a little after, as well, if we’re being honest) based on his previous coaching. Namely, he ran way too many isolation plays. Young LeBron James would get the ball at the top of the key and.. well, that was pretty much the Cavs whole plan actually. Give James the ball at the top, and then just clear everyone out and to borrow a phrase from our ex-coach Mark Jackson, “Let your best player go to work.” Not terribly exciting or efficient. But honestly, it pretty much worked. There is some value to this approach, a vanilla-like power of simplicity. And now due to Kerr’s continuing health struggles, Brown has the power to not just advocate this approach, but to run it in the most critical time of our season. And it could in fact be at a time when we need it the most. Again, from ESPN’s Zach Lowe article:

"Steve isn't really into this much," Brown says. "He's more about spacing and movement -- and that's fantastic. I love Steve, and wherever I might go, I'm going to incorporate a lot of stuff he does. But in the playoffs, sometimes you have to attack a mismatch. When I need a bucket, that's what I'm going to do."

Here’s my problem though — I hope this doesn’t turn into the Warriors problem under Brown as well — that sort of basketball is not transcendent and over-reliance on it could reduce the magic efficiency that this offense has managed to attain. Attacking mismatches is at the heart of every basketball offense (well, the good ones, anyways). The question isn’t just about what you do, but how you do it. On the other hand, maybe we do want more of it. Just a little more sprinkled in to combat the off ball treatment that Curry has to fight through? This would be the next evolution of our team scheme, if we can pull it off without upsetting the rest of our offense.

Here’s the always excellent Marcus Thompson on this dichotomy:

Brown puts the ball in the hands of his best players and allows them to improvise. Kerr prefers to milk the skills and threat of his stars for the benefit of the whole by folding them into the system of motion and ball movement.

As Thompson goes on to discuss, the Kerr system uses ball movement to invigorate their offense when it stalls out, but the problem is that this approach can directly feed into the defense’s plans. Once Curry lets go of the ball, the off ball defenders are granted much more physical leeway in their defense of Curry. Between the bumping, grabbing, holding, and willingness to accede open shots to a lesser player, it can take Curry out of the game.

And that’s what our next problem is: What is the best way to get through the Cleveland Cavaliers? How do we best break Steph Curry free from the clutching claws of the off-ball defenders? And what about Durant, the guy who put up 30 per game on .650 TS% against LeBron’s heat in 2012? What’s the best way to use him? He sure as hell seems to prefer isolation plays. We saw that in the Spurs series, coach Brown was willing to spam the attack button on the KD isolation play and it worked. There’s something to be said for just letting Durant drive by his defender.

And that’s why the pick and roll between Steve Kerr and Mike Brown is more important than the pick and roll between Curry and Durant. This may be the added wrinkle that we need to flummox James and the Cavaliers. And I wonder if Tyronn Lue is trying to play reverse psychology with his recent comments. Maybe by saying the Celtics egalitarian offense is harder to plan against, he is signaling that the Cavs fear the Durant isolation plays that Mike Brown is likely to lean on heavily if he sees that it is working.

We’ve got less than seven days before we see it, but I’m excited to see the team take this next step.

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