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What lesson can Steve Kerr learn from Kevin Durant’s critique?

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The Warriors last Finals MVP let it be known that he didn’t fully trust his former coach’s system. How can the Dubs learn from it to win in the future?

2019 FIBA World Cup: USA Basketball - All-Access Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Ah, so THAT’S why Kevin Durant left the Golden State Warriors dynasty.

According to his illuminating interview with the Wall Street Journal, the 7-foot assassin was hungry for two things that he never got with the Dubs:

  • An offense that allowed him to use the regular season to hone his individual skills to be more prepared for stingy playoff defenses.
  • The complete adoration of the fans akin to the love showered on the core stars who brought the Warriors their first championship in 40 years.

The latter seemed to be brewing after two Finals MVP’s and a heroic effort in the 2019 NBA Finals on a damaged Achilles tendon. Bay Area fans have had their hearts broken on numerous occasions and KD’s hesitance to commit longterm was a clear impediment in that relationship. The local fanbase is long jaded from a revolving door of star athletes springboarding out of Oakland to polish their Hall-of-Fame careers elsewhere.

That issue may be something only a psychologist could handle. Durant’s other claim about the Warriors’ offensive system being effective “to a point”, but lacking improvisational edge? That complaint falls squarely on the feet of Warriors coach Steve Kerr.

Is it fair to blame Coach Kerr for not keeping Durant more engaged with the offense? Or is Durant misguided to believe the system should have adapted more to his liking? Most importantly, how will this shape Kerr’s ideas going forward?

Kerr’s coaching helped make Durant a champion

When Coach Kerr took over the Warriors franchise in the 2014-2015 season, he inherited a team with an intriguing young core with a truly unimaginative offense. Like, so bereft of creativity that they were ranked dead last in passing under Pastor Mark Jackson’s iso-heavy system. Under Jackson’s tutelage, budding point guard Stephen Curry spent a lot of crunch time possessions hurling up prayers as his teammates stood and watched.

Kerr’s arrival and subsequent institution of a motion-heavy offense emphasized the purposeful movement of ball and players. The strategy came as both a sigh of relief for Dub Nation and a harbinger of terror for the rest of the NBA. Records fell, the game was revolutionized, and the NBA’s longtime doormat by the Bay became an intimidating champion.

Kerr’s offense even drew the wandering eye of Kevin Durant, a ringless MVP trapped in heroball hell in Oklahoma City. In 2016, Durant’s final season with the team, the Thunder were at the bottom of the NBA in passing as Durant and his feisty teammate Russell Westbrook took turns jacking up shots with impunity.

After the Warriors eliminated OKC from the playoffs that year using Kerr’s offense, Durant left the midwest and joined the budding super power in Oakland, captivated by “selfless” players who play the game in its “purest form”.

After some early growing pains from the Warriors assimilating Durant’s massive potential alongside nuclear warheads Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors unleashed hellfire on the NBA.

Let’s take a look at the top three greatest offensive teams in NBA history:

  • #1) 2018-2019 Golden State Warriors 115.9
  • #2) 2016-2017 Golden State Warriors 115.6
  • #2) 1986-1987 Los Angeles Lakers 115.6

THAT’S PRETTY RIDICULOUS.

Durant’s individual numbers stayed stellar as well, averaging 25.8 PTS/7.1 REB/5.4 AST/1.5 BLK on .640 %TS in three seasons with the team. Those are MVP level stats!

2018 NBA Finals - Game Four
Steve Kerr helped take Kevin Durant’s game to the next level
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Two championships, two Finals MVP’s, and three Finals trips later, Durant left for Brooklyn. In his wake, he levied a strong critique of Kerr’s offense.

“‘The motion offense we run in Golden State, it only works to a certain point,’ he says. ‘We can totally rely on only our system for maybe the first two rounds. Then the next two rounds we’re going to have to mix in individual play.

We’ve got to throw teams off, because they’re smarter in that round of playoffs. So now I had to dive into my bag, deep, to create stuff on my own, off the dribble, isos, pick-and-rolls, more so than let the offense create my points for me.’ (Durant) wanted to go to someplace where he’d be free to hone that sort of improvisational game throughout the regular season.”

Fascinating words from the future hall-of-famer who carried the team on his back on several occasions deep in the playoffs, and will soon have his jersey hanging in the rafters of the Chase Center.

A very trolling and hilarious take on that interview:

Although it’s curious that Durant felt the system was inadequate, considering that same offense eliminated Durant’s Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference Finals.

Kerr and Durant: Pushing each others buttons

There have been various times over Durant’s tenure with the Warriors that he appeared to be in a tug-of-war with Coach Kerr over the way the offense should run. It’s no secret that Kerr eschews the pick-and-roll until the playoffs over concerns of role players losing their mojo as they stand and watch.

It’s also no secret that Durant (and Curry for that matter) are big fans of the easy to run action because it gives them control over multiple facets of the game.

Remember last December when Kerr complained about a lack of ball movement and demanded more of it, only for Durant to respond to the contrary?

Durant’s supreme belief in his skills could often turn his All-Star teammates into bystanders, and when it went wrong, it felt like a crushing indictment on his basketball IQ.

The most glaring example of Kerr trying to coach up the superstar came about in Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals when Durant, mired in a major slump (8-of-22 shooting with 0 assists that game), was pulled aside by Kerr and cautioned about getting tunnel vision in isolations.

And yet, there were way more high-leverage moments in which Durant bailed the Warriors out with his brilliant individual skills. Like when he bounced back in that same series and ripped the Rockets’ souls out of their chests.

And those NBA Finals when he went into Cleveland, a noted house of horrors for the Splash Bros-era Warriors, and damn near singlehandedly won two different Game 3’s. There was a major reason he won two Finals MVP’s despite being matched up with LeBron James.

I certainly can’t forget when he scored as many points as the Splash Bros COMBINED for through the first four games of the brutal war with the Rockets in the 2019 playoffs.

Crunching the numbers

An easy way to figure out if Durant had a real gripe can be traced back to the cold, hard, statistics. I went to NBA.com and sorted through isolation and pick-and-roll play types to see how much of the time the Warriors ran those plays and how often Durant was showcased in them.

2018-2019 Warriors isolation frequency:

  • Regular season 6.4%
  • Postseason 7.0%

2018-2019 Kevin Durant isolation frequency:

  • Regular season 15.6% (Durant had the fourth highest isolation possessions in the NBA!)
  • Postseason 20.6% (higher than heroball legend Kyrie Irving’s 19.9%)

2018-2019 Warriors pick-and-roll frequency:

  • Regular season 10.8% (dead last in NBA)
  • Postseason 10.7%

2018-2019 Kevin Durant pick-and roll frequency:

  • Regular season 19%
  • Postseason 12.4%

These numbers tell us that while Durant had plenty of opportunities within the offense to showcase his individual skills, the offense definitely was not designed to run on a consistent diet of those actions. I’m assuming this was because the Warriors had other All-Stars that needed to get their shots up and Kerr didn’t want the ball to stop.

Just for fun, I compared Durant’s numbers to his OKC days, when he pined for more ball movement.

2015-2016 OKC Durant iso frequency:

  • Regular season 14.9%
  • Postseason 18.0% (Russell Westbrook’s was 21.1% lmao)

2015-2016 OKC Durant PnR frequency:

  • Regular season 19%
  • Postseason 15.7%

Clashing philosophies led to beef between KD and some fans

“When I get the ball and I’m in position to score, I will look to score,” Kevin Durant said. “But if I don’t have an option to score, I will look to pass. We run a lot of plays here. We move the ball every time downcourt, so every time I touch it, I’m not going to break a play just to be aggressive just because I need to get up 30 shots.

Because it would look like something is wrong with me.”

- Kevin Durant, 4/17/19

This peculiar quote from Durant spilled out during his pointed “You know who I am” interview during the Golden State Warriors’ first round slugfest last spring with the Los Angeles Clippers. He was responding to Coach Kerr’s prodding to be more aggressive after a bizarre Game 2 where the Warriors blew a 31-point lead and Durant had more turnovers (9) than shot attempts (8).

“Because it would look like something is wrong with me.”

Was Durant being passive-aggressive and mocking Kerr’s edict for him to keep the ball-moving? Was it a shot at his critics, including a vocal mob of skeptical Dub Nation members who routinely debated whether or not Durant came to the Warriors as a ring chasing ballhog in sheep’s clothing?

The only thing the NBA knew for sure was that Durant was ready to ball, which he did, going on a scoring binge of epic proportions until his calf gave out from the effort in the next round.

Durant left in the offseason after tearing his Achilles in the Finals, and according to the interview, hasn’t been back to the Bay since.

Durant’s gone, how will Kerr adjust?

Funny enough, in Durant’s absence, the Warriors were forced to redesign their roster around the acquisition of D’Angelo Russell. The 23-year old point guard ran the second highest amount of pick-and-roll actions in the entire NBA last season.

In hindsight, should Kerr have made an allowance for more dribble-heavy actions for the goal of appeasing “Slim Reaper”? Or is it insane to nitpick over an offense that was literally the most efficient in NBA history?

I’m not foolish enough to claim I can guess how either Durant or Kerr should have figured out this balance. The closest I can get to controlling an unstoppable 7-foot scoring machine while still keeping the Splash Bros happy would be by booting up my PS4 and activating NBA2K.

Even in the virtual world, I’d be hard pressed to pull off magical moves like those Durant was capable of before his devastating leg injury.

In the exploration of the balance between Durant’s individual brilliance and team success, two out of three championships ain’t bad.