Basking in the glow of his third title in four years as Golden State Warriors head coach, Steve Kerr acknowledged the challenges he and his team faced as they attempted to cap another season with a championship.
“Absolutely, there were doubts,” Kerr said after Game 4 of the 2018 Finals, his hair mussed from the postgame celebration. “The last month of the season was really difficult, and I was hoping we were going to be able to turn it up once the playoffs started [...] I think we lost 10 of our last 17, which more than anything was an indication of just how long this journey has been for us.”
Kerr, the players, and those who closely watch the Warriors all acknowledged how much more challenging this season was for the team. Between fatigue (both mental and physical), injuries, unforeseen challenges, and the knowledge that the “real” test wouldn’t begin until the playoffs, there were countless ways the Warriors could have gotten off-track in their quest for a championship. What kept them going and always pointed towards the ultimate goal of a title was Kerr.
By getting his team to another title despite all these difficulties, the 2017-18 season very well might have been Kerr’s most impressive as Warriors coach. Kerr’s thoughtfulness, his patience, his ability to view the big picture, and his basketball acumen—those things that define his as a great coach— were all on display during this championship season and were instrumental to the Warriors’ success.
A healthy season for Kerr
Perhaps most importantly, the 2017-18 season was Steve Kerr’s healthiest since his first year on the Warriors’ bench. Complications from his back surgery in the 2015 offseason caused the Warriors’ head coach to miss games in the 2015-16 regular season as well as the bulk of the 2017 postseason run.
But Kerr was on the sidelines for every game of the 2017-18 season and looked to be doing better. The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami noted this in a piece after the 2018 Finals win.
He hates talking about it. He hates to hear people speculating about it. He hates that he’s still going through it almost three years since a botched back surgery caused a spinal fluid leak — it’s not back pain, anymore, it’s the dizziness and other pain that has accompanied the aftermath of the leak.
But I thought Kerr looked as vibrant and animated as he has in years during the Western Conference finals against Houston, which was as pressurized as it has gotten around this franchise in a long time.
It is sometimes easy to forget that the players and coaches on our favorite teams are people. Thus Kerr’s looking and feeling better (from what we saw at least) can seem like a minor detail. But the fact that Kerr seems to be in less pain is something truly important and a welcome sight after the past couple years of recurring health-related problems.
One grind of a regular season
Though Kerr appeared to be doing better health-wise, the 2017-18 was nevertheless a challenging one for the head coach in terms of his team and their play, the most trying of Kerr’s four seasons as Warriors head coach. As he alluded to in his post-championship comments, the biggest issue was fatigue, both physical and mental, that goes along with these recurring, deep postseason runs.
“[I]t really is such a long haul to win an NBA Championship. It’s a nine-month grind. And to get here four years in a row [...] getting here is so difficult, and what both teams have been through going through this four years in a row, it’s a major grind.”
The Warriors had accumulated quite a few proverbial miles, having played late into June each of the previous four years. Since this was a team with championship expectations, the regular season itself was only important in so far as it affected the team in the postseason. It was going to be a regular season that needed to be endured and survived above all.
This dynamic necessitated Kerr striking a very delicate balance. This was a team capable of winning a championship, both in terms of its talent and in knowing what it takes to reach that level, and thus he shouldn’t overextend his team in the regular season. Sacrificing a high-seed in the playoffs might be worth giving players rest and preventing opportunities for freak injuries to occur. The micro (the game to game) is less important than the macro (being in the best and healthiest position possible once the playoffs began).
However, when Kerr enacted this approach and the team let games get away that in other years they might have won, the cries came up from the other side of this debate. The Warriors should be playing for the number one seed in the Western Conference and the best regular-season record in the league. Any loss, no matter to whom or what the circumstances and context were, was treated as a cataclysmic event and sign that the Warriors (and Kerr) might not be all that good.
Though it seemed difficult in the moment, when one looks back on the 2017-18 season they see that Kerr did in fact strike that balance. It was clear what was most important was the postseason, which kept individual losses from causing all that much distress. Though they coasted through parts of the regular season, the Warriors reminded everyone that they were the team to beat by turning in impressive performances in the marquee regular season games. Kerr’s ability to moderate, to not get overwhelmed by one methodology or another, was impressive, when in another situation and with a different coach it might cause a team to fall apart.
With his subtle touch, Kerr was able to navigate the Warriors through a season of highs, lows, injuries, and accomplishments. The team’s 58 wins was the lowest total of Kerr’s four seasons as Warriors head coach. Fatigue and carelessness cost the team games while also keeping their offensive and defensive numbers from being as impressive as they had been in previous years. Yet the Warriors were still the prohibitive favorites to win the title when the playoffs began and ended their season possessing a champagne-soaked Larry O’Brien Trophy yet again.
Letting the players coach
Keeping the team from developing bad on-court habits while also conserving their energy for the eventual postseason run was Kerr’s primary task in the 2017-18 season and it was not an easy or straight-forward one. Since the Warriors were a veteran team with a championship pedigree, the traditional methods (more practice, discipline, yelling, things of that nature) weren’t going to work. Kerr was going to have to find different and slightly unconventional ways to motivate his team.
On February 12th against the Phoenix Suns, we saw what this looks like in action and it gave us one of the memorable parts of the Warriors’ regular season. Kerr had his players call the plays and make decisions about what was happening on the court rather than him or his coaching staff doing it.
“It had everything to do with me trying to reach my team,” Kerr said after that game, rebuking the notion that it was a disrespectful move that was rooted in showing up their opponent. “I haven’t been able to reach them the last month. They are tired of my voice and I’m tired of my voice. It’s been a long haul these last few years. I wasn’t reaching them and we just figured it was probably a good night to pull a trick out of the hat and do something different.”
While the Warriors started this game playing in the lackluster and unfocused manner that colored much of their regular season, their demeanor changed as Kerr instituted his plan. Where they might have sleepily made their way through the game and squeaking out a win, the Warriors blew out the Suns 129-83 and one could see the team’s energy level was dialed up when it might not have been otherwise because of Kerr’s gambit.
Kerr the teacher
Kerr’s decision on that night to give his players the steering wheel (as it were) was part of his overarching coaching philosophy.
‘’It’s the players’ team. It’s their team and they have to take ownership of it. As coaches, our job is to nudge them in the right direction, guide them. We don’t control them. They determine their own fate.’’
Kerr stressed how the players are in control. He puts them in the best position to succeed but it is up to them to determine how the team does. Kerr does not possess the stern, overbearing hand of the taskmaster coach, full of self-importance and seeing himself as singularly responsible for his team’s success. Rather, Kerr is a great teacher-as-coach, helping his players to see what they need to do so that the team can do well.
There is a quote about pedagogy attributed to the great scholar and professor Mark Van Doren: “The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.” Kerr’s coaching style is this idea, but moved from the classroom to the basketball court. Though he can call the right plays, Kerr’s biggest strength is his ability to assist his players in discovering and tapping into how great they can be, both as individual players and as a team.
One of the brighter spots of this season was Kerr’s ability to develop the younger players on the Warriors roster into reliable contributors. Rookie Jordan Bell jumped into the team’s rotation early in the season, his progress only quelled by unfortunate injuries. Kevon Looney, languishing on the bench for most of his Warriors tenure, made an enormous leap during the 2017-18 season as Kerr’s coaching coupled with off-season changes and improvements turned Looney into a stellar big man for the Warriors’ style of play.
Finally, there was the rapid ascendancy of Quinn Cook. Initially playing on a two-way contract and splitting time between the Warriors and their G-League affiliate, Cook was pressed into greater service and a full-time contract after Stephen Curry’s late-season Grade 2 MCL Sprain. Cook went from being waived by the Atlanta Hawks at the beginning of the season to playing starter’s minutes for the defending champions down the stretch.
That Cook was able to play well after being thrust into such a prominent position, not wavering or looking overwhelmed, is a testament to Kerr’s coaching abilities, getting the most out of all his players as well as making the best of difficult situations. Kerr has shown himself to be not just a great coach in the game or as a great manager of talent but also in terms of getting players to develop and become better.
Right moves in the postseason
In the postseason, Kerr’s decisions played a big role in the Warriors claiming their second-consecutive NBA title. The first of his deft postseason moves came at the very beginning, in the first game of the first round against the San Antonio Spurs. As Curry continued to recuperate from the Grade 2 MCL sprain he suffered late in the regular season, Kerr had to make a decision about what his playoff starting lineup would be. The conventional wisdom was that Cook would take Curry’s place in the Warriors starting lineup until the two-time MVP was ready to return. However, Kerr went a different way and gave Andre Iguodala the start against the Spurs.
When asked about the decision, Kerr said he “just wanted to put our best defensive lineup on the floor from the beginning. I think the whole point of these games here early in this series is to reestablish our defense.” The move had the intended effect as the Warriors’ defense was much sharper than it had been in the weeks leading up to the playoffs, holding the Spurs to just 96.8 points per game as they dispatched the Spurs in five games.
In the Western Conference Semifinals, Kerr made another decision that proved to be the correct one. Curry returned to the Warriors for their Game 2 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. However, even with Curry back, the Warriors dropped Game 3 of that series on the road with a very lackluster performance, losing 119-100.
With Anthony Davis and the Pelicans feeling confidant after that win, Kerr knew he needed to squelch that glimmer of hope in the underdog’s locker room so that this series would not go on longer than it needed to.
In Game 4, Kerr elected to start his best lineup—the “Death Lineup” or the “Hamptons 5”— of Curry, Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green. It was the first time Kerr started a game with this lineup since Durant joined the team, though he’d obviously deployed it in other high-leverage game situations. Again, Kerr’s choice proved to be the correct one. In Game 4, the Warriors looked focused and determined, dominating the Pelicans on their way to a 118-92 win before closing the series out in Game 5.
Kerr’s magic touch continued into the seven-game battle in the Western Conference Finals against the Houston Rockets. With Iguodala sidelined with a knee-injury and his team facing elimination in Games 6 and 7, Kerr needed to find players who could pick up some of the minutes that the 2015 Finals MVP normally covered. Kerr’s decision to give those minutes to Bell and Nick Young proved to be the right one as both players provided positive contributes as the Warriors rallied from a 3-2 series deficit to eliminate the Rockets in Game 7.
Though both Bell and Young’s playing time had waxed and waned throughout the season, they were still ready to play in those incredibly crucial spots, a testament to Kerr’s ability to have his players ready even if they hadn’t been seeing regular minutes. Also, Kerr was able to see that Young and Bell were players who could stay on the court given how the Rockets liked to play.
It’s lost in the shuffle of the other great stories that came out of that epic Western Conference Finals but it was quietly an important and savvy coaching call that Kerr made.
Kerr’s decision to start JaVale McGee in Game 2 of the NBA Finals also worked well. After giving the Warriors good minutes in the Game 1 overtime win, Kerr elected to play McGee from the opening tip. McGee responded by scoring 12 points in the Warriors’ 122-103 Game 2 win.
Again, it’s become a bit of a footnote given the way the Finals unfolded but it was still an instance of Kerr making the right call and putting a player in position to succeed and help the team win. Just as the Warriors saved their best on-court play for the playoffs, Kerr saved his best coaching for the playoffs as well as he and the Warriors earned their second-straight title.
Though there have been years in which the Warriors have played better or more consistently under Kerr, the 2017-18 season really was his best coaching performance and the greatest example of all the things he does so well. Over the course of the season, there were many things that would have derailed any other coach and sent any other team spiraling out of contention. Yet Kerr never let those things keep him or his team down for all that long. While the regular season or postseason record might not have been as flashy as in some of the previous seasons, Kerr’s ability to handle whatever issue came up and keep his team firmly on the championship path makes this season easily his most impressive.
A thoughtful voice
Just as Kerr’s approach as the Warriors head coach yielded great success, his actions as a concerned private citizen (with an admittedly large public platform) were inspirational and effective as he continued to be a thoughtful voice on non-basketball matters.
In the wake of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Kerr participated in a town-hall meeting on the issue of guns and gun control at Newark Memorial High School on March 12th. The issue of gun control and gun violence is especially important to Kerr, whose father was shot and killed by two gunmen while at the American University of Beirut.
After the tragedy in Parkland, Kerr voiced his frustration that these acts of violence continue to occur while members of the government seem to sit idly by and not try to address the problems.
“It doesn’t seem to matter to our government that children are being shot to death day after day in schools. It doesn’t matter that people are being shot at a concert, in a movie theater. It’s not enough, apparently, to move our leadership, our government, people that are running this country, to actually do anything. That’s demoralizing.”
But beyond his advocacy for certain issues or articulating criticism for the actions and policies of the current presidential administration and Congress, Kerr stressed the importance of being informed and involved.
The Warriors’ head coach made a point of addressing this during that town-hall meeting.
“One in five people your age take the time to vote, to register to vote. One in five. Let’s get that number to two in five and three in five. So how do you do that? Well, grassroots. Look at his T-shirt: ‘Stop gun violence.’ It’s happening right now. There’s a movement. There’s going to be a walkout on Wednesday. Is that right? Let’s use that walkout … This is not about let’s walk out and, yes, to skip school for an hour. Let’s use that for momentum. Use that walkout to remind your classmates to go register to vote. Use that walkout for momentum for the march on the 24th. I’m going to take part in the march here in San Francisco. I encourage all of you to take part in that.”
More recently, Kerr tweeted a response to Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke’s statement about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem not only highlighting a point that we know he agrees with but also bringing attention to an example of “thoughtful leadership.”
In troubling times in the world, Kerr has provided a great example of what it means to be an informed and engaged citizen. Just as Kerr is thoughtful in the way he considers these larger issues that impact real people off the court, he is equally thoughtful in how he manages the players on his team with a fundamental sense of humanity. And, perhaps more so than his previous seasons with the Warriors, it defined his 2017-18 NBA season.
In the off-season, Kerr was rewarded with an extension of his initial contract with the Warriors, confirming that he will be coaching this team well into the future. Looking back over the 2017-18 season, it’s clear that he deserves that extension and that we should count ourselves lucky that he is the man running the show from the Warriors’ bench.
If you enjoyed my thoughts on Steve Kerr’s season as Warriors head coach, please consider picking up a copy of my book, Golden Age: The Brilliance of the 2018 Champion Golden State Warriors. It is published by Triumph Books and available in both paper and digital copies.