Teamwork comes in many forms.
It could reflect the unity of five people on a court working within a singular system towards the same goal (as with basketball players), or it could take the morphology of one runner passing a baton to another in a relay race (as with track-and-field athletes). Additionally, most teams, whether in sports or any other profession, are buoyed by personnel working behind the scenes: set designers, costumers and lighting directors in theater, or trainers, nutritionists and equipment managers in sports.
The Golden State Warriors were able to dominate the 2016-17 NBA regular season by unity coaching — with both Head Coach Steve Kerr and Assistant Coach Mike Brown on the sidelines, together. But the 2017 NBA Playoffs were a tag-team, pass-the-baton kind of affair, with Brown serving as interim head coach for 11 games while Kerr battled serious health issues.
But the foundation for success that had been poured long before the start of the 2016-17 season allowed Golden State to dominate the postseason, too.
A failure to prepare is preparation to fail
Two games into the Warriors’ first-round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, Kerr’s back pain and headaches were so pronounced that he was forced to take a medical leave of absence. An enormous competitor as a player and coach, Kerr undoubtedly struggled with the decision. But his body made convincing demands in the form of agonizing pain, which forced him to listen.
Kerr had back surgery in the offseason following the Warriors’ championship-winning 2014-15 NBA season. But the surgery left him with a spinal fluid leak and the intense headaches that go along with it. At the start of the 2015-16 season, Kerr was forced to take an indefinite leave of absence to have the leak repaired, which placed the clipboard in then-Assistant Coach Luke Walton’s hands.
Walton proved himself to be a capable substitute, leading the team to 19-0 to start the 2015-16 season.
When Kerr returned to the bench following the team’s impressive start, fans and media assumed his health issues had been resolved. But the Warriors’ organization knew otherwise. So, after Walton accepted the head coaching job with the Lakers following the disappointing end to that season, Warriors’ managers — aware of the likelihood that Kerr would need to take another leave at some point — were adamant about bringing in an assistant with experience coaching a championship-contending team.
Enter Mike Brown.
Brown had twice coached the Cleveland Cavaliers and worked with LeBron James (more on this coming up in Part 2), once coached the Lakers (and worked with Kobe Bryant), “won 347 games [and] two Coach of the Year awards,” and “led a team to the NBA Finals.”
In an interview with The Washington Post during the Western Conference Semifinals between the Warriors and the Utah Jazz, Brown stated that he knew upon hire that he needed to be prepared for Kerr to step away at a moment’s notice. “Last year, this happened, and Luke took over for a while,” Brown said. “They knew that this could be a possibility.”
He was quick to admit that he benefited from the late-season timing of Kerr’s absence, stating, “If it was the beginning of the year it might be a little different because I didn’t really know the culture here or didn’t have a great feel for the guys [yet].”
Thanks to the groundwork Kerr had laid throughout his time with Golden State, the team managed not only to stay afloat during the playoffs, but to sail smoothly to a 16-1 record — coming up just one game shy of a perfect 16-0 postseason run
(thanks to the dubious officiating of NBA referees).
The Warriors’ ability to thrive despite a coaching change at the most important part of the season is rare. Many teams could be firmly grounded in offensive plays and defensive schemes but still come unglued under the pressure of change.
Brown explained it this way in The Washington Post interview:
“Steve has done a fantastic job laying a great foundation down culturally and X’s and O’s, basketball-wise. We have a great staff. The staff has helped out tremendously and Bob Myers and his group. The leaders on the team, the veterans that we have, everybody has kind of pitched in to help us keep heading in the right direction during this time.”
In other words, the Warriors’ team-first mentality and humble attitude kept them grounded. In Kerr’s absence, players stepped up their performances and came together to help each other. They did not point fingers or cast blame, as many humans are apt to do when under stress (see: current state of Cleveland Cavaliers, for example).
Additionally, Brown’s approach to taking over for Kerr was not “an ego thing,” as Draymond Green put it.
Instead, Green credits Brown for sticking with the philosophies Kerr and the team had established as the key to the smooth transition. Brown obviously respected the system that was in place because it was working. Therefore, to shake things up would have been for reasons of self-aggrandizement only. That Brown did not do this reveals his motive: to bring another championship to Oakland (rather than to make a name for himself individually).
Yet, in an interesting twist of irony, Brown stated that subbing for Kerr worked well because he had been granted the freedom to execute the previously-established philosophies within his own style of team leadership. In other words, Kerr did not micromanage him, but allowed him to flourish in his own way. This low-pressure approach nudged everyone, especially Brown, to be accountable for the team’s success or lack of success. It empowered him to lead with his own strengths rather than trying to emulate those of his boss.
The Warriors finished the regular season at the top of the league, with a 67-15 record and home-court advantage. The team went 16-1 in the playoffs, with Brown leading the team to 11-straight victories — across four series — while serving as interim head coach.
These wins include:
- Games 3 and 4 against the Portland Trail Blazers
- Four-game sweep of the Utah Jazz
- Four-game sweep of the San Antonio Spurs
- Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers
Kerr returned to the sidelines for Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
2016-17 NBA season coaching grades:
Kerr/Brown, regular season: A
The team is competing against itself by setting the bar of excellence so high with its history-making, 73-game regular season in 2015-16. Now, that was an A+ season! But the coaches did a lot of things well that contributed to ultimate victory — like resting players in March (to the chagrin of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver).
Brown (solo), Playoffs: A+
Although he and the team made it look easy, Kerr’s absence at the most crucial point in the season had to come with a fair amount of stress ... and lost sleep. Brown did not merely get the team to the Finals — he did so without losing a single game! His path through those 11 wins was not free of obstacles and controversies, either.
Kerr/Brown, Finals: B
This is another case of the team setting the bar of excellence so high that it is competing against itself. By going perfect in the Playoffs in the run-up to the Finals, the team needed to stay perfect against the Cavs for a grade of B+ or higher. Yes, the duo was coaching against the Cavaliers as well as the NBA referees! But they still let the Cavs get away with a 21-point Game 4 victory.
Kerr/Brown, overall: A
How would you grade the 2016-17 Warriors’ coaching?
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