It only took Mark Cuban opening his big mouth to call Kevin Durant a “villain” to ignite the worst in Oklahoma City Thunder fans and a talking head, like Stephen A. Smith, who used Durant’s decision to justify his personal beef against the player.
All of this, before the new-look Warriors had played their first game, and the season only became more “interesting” from there. Here’s a look at the season’s oddest story lines and how the the coaches handled them.
Soon after Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors, Steve Kerr found himself addressing these “villain” questions in the media. In an August 2016 interview on ESPN Radio’s TMI with Michelle Beadle and Ramona Shelburne, Kerr stated:
“To think of Kevin Durant or Steph Curry or any of our guys as villains — it’s kind of absurd. Especially Kevin ... one of the most likable people in this league. He’s just an awesome human being. What he did in Oklahoma City was just amazing for that community.”
By the end of the season, however, Kerr’d had enough. He was done justifying/defending/going along with a story sparked by a jealous NBA team owner and kept ablaze by the likes of Smith. So, what better way to gear up for Game 5 of the NBA Finals than rocking a “Supervillains” t-shirt during practice and at the post-practice presser:
Steve Kerr with the "Supervillans" t-shirt pic.twitter.com/PSx53wBDPs— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) June 11, 2017
This cup is filled with the tears of my enemies, by the way. #KerrThoughtBubble
That ‘frenetic’ first game
“Is this real life,” Dub Nation fans were asking. “Do we really have Kevin Durant on our team?”
And then, just like that, the first game of the regular season let all of the air out of the balloon. By halftime against the San Antonio Spurs, the Warriors were down 64-46. In an interview before the second half, Kerr referred to the team’s first half play as “frenetic” — a spot-on assessment of Golden State’s cringe-worthy play.
The game ended with Golden State on the wrong side of a 129-100 blowout to its biggest rival in the Western Conference: the team that had repeatedly challenged them and would “force the Warriors to evolve or die.”
While many Warriors’ fans were freaking out — allowing doubts to creep in about the ability of Durant to play with the other shooters — Kerr didn’t give two shits about the loss beyond it being a letdown for the fans. In fact, he was grateful for the first-game ass whipping by the Spurs, stating:
“The reason you do want to play them is because they’ll expose your weaknesses right away. I don’t really care that much about the loss to be honest with you. I felt bad for the fans, who had to suffer through that. But as far as our team goes, even though it was embarrassing and humiliating and nobody slept very well that night, it really opened up every weakness that we had. And it’ll sharpen our focus, and we’ll be able to work on a lot of things based on that game.”
Kerr’s assessment proved to be not only wise, but prophetic, considering that the Western Conference Finals against the Spurs basically amounted to this.
One weakness that was not really resolved after the team’s first season with Durant on the roster, however, was Klay Thompson’s struggles to find a rhythm. Is this something Kerr & Co. can address during team training for the 2017-18 season?
Road trip to Hell
None of us can forget the grueling road trip in March, which Golden State of Mind’s Jason Lee described as:
“[A] horrible version of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’: Over 9,500 miles traveled, 10 days, eight games total, seven away, six time zone changes, two sets of back-to-backs — sing with me now — and a tragic MCL sprain.”
In an interview with 95.7 The Game, Kerr said the NBA-created travel schedule was “the worst stretch of schedule that I’ve ever been a part of and I’ve been in the league since 1988.”
Kerr stated in a prior interview that he was concerned about the brutal road trip the minute he saw the schedule. But it was Durant’s injury that prompted him to look more carefully at the effects of the schedule on player health and that forced him to rest other players. (Kerr denies that the decision was a middle finger to the league for giving the team such a rotten schedule.)
In an interview with ESPN.com, Kerr said, “What we couldn’t have anticipated was KD’s injury, which is playing a major role in [the decision] to rest players.”
After resting several players in the March 11th game and losing to the Spurs by 22 points, Kerr was asked in a press conference in advance of the March 29th rematch if he intended to rest players for that game, too. “I’m going to rest all 13 guys that game,” Kerr quipped. “So we’re just going to forfeit.”
The Warriors won the final game of the Spurs-Warriors three-game series, 110-98. Curry walked away with a 29 points and 11 assists.
Kevin Durant’s return to Oklahoma City for the first time since signing with the Warriors turned into a nasty little affair, complete with heckling, trolling and racist insults.
But this is before the Warriors won the 2017 NBA Championship:
And this is after the Warriors won the 2017 NBA championship:
After the OKC trip, Kerr — like the Zen boss that he is — chose to praise rather than condemn the Thunder organization and fans, stating: “Sports fans are emotional, as they should be.”
Whether these are his true feelings is irrelevant. Kerr knew a public tongue-lashing against Thunder fans would heat the pot to boiling over. Instead of doing that, he turned off the stove.
It’s too bad his counterpart in San Antonio didn’t get the memo on how to deal with wayward fans.
The Western Conference Finals tipped into the danger zone when San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich spit out a tirade in the media, accusing Zaza Pachulia of being a dirty player. Yes, Kawhi Leonard, his best player, was out with an injury. No one, not even Warriors’ fans, wants to see a player go down — especially at this critical time of the season.
But instead of chalking it up to an unfortunate event as he should have, Popovich upped the ante. The likely result of a “leader” with a microphone inciting fury in others is violence. In this case, San Antonio fans issued death threats against Pachulia and his family.
In response, Mike Brown — serving as interim head coach while Kerr was seeking treatment for his health issues — demonstrated that he, too, graduated from the School of Cooler Heads.
He kept the focus on the game and the play. He explained why the refs blew the whistle at Pachulia but not at LaMarcus Aldridge a few plays earlier. He, amazingly, refrained from calling out Popovich for whipping his fan base into a potentially dangerous frenzy.
Mike Brown may have been done with Gregg Popovich, but Gregg Popovich was not done with Mike Brown.
As the Western Conference Finals wore on, Popovich did not back down from his ire. If he thought getting riled up would give the remaining players confidence that they could win without Leonard, it didn’t work. So, while Pachulia had disabled social media accounts and hired security for his family, Popovich was cooking up a “prank.”
The Spurs coach claims he didn’t know it was Mike Brown in the vehicle that got stopped by the California Highway Patrol on the way into Oracle Arena in advance of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals — an incident that almost resulted in Brown’s arrest.
If Pop knew it was Brown and set the wheels to this incident in motion, it shows major disrespect for his coaching peer and so-called friend. If Pop did not know, he still was wrong for laughing and uttering words that came off as sinister: “Somebody’s got to teach him that when the California Highway Patrol tells you to move over, you move over.”
As an African-American man in America, a worldly guy like Brown surely knows not to fuck with police. After all, he shares a name with a young man whose encounter with police ended in death. He does not need this “lesson” from Gregg Popovich.
Considering the gravity of the situation, Brown did an impressive job of recounting the events that occurred — without judgment or accusation — and leaving it there. Brown even laughed it off as he explained his tardiness to a pregame presser.
Perhaps if the CHP officers had feathered hair like officers Poncherello and Baker from the television show CHiPs, it would have been hilarious.
But in 2017?
Steve Kerr and Mike Brown are consummate professionals. Throughout the season, both demonstrated poise and wisdom in situations that could have turned violent or even deadly. They should be looked to as exemplars for the ways they handled the various controversies of the 2016-17 NBA season.
Something we can all take away from their level-headed methods?