Sans Kerr, Golden State's scorching start to the season giving interim coach credibility, confidence and sense of relief
POSTED: Nov 13, 2015 12:31 PM ET
Luke Walton, with two seasons of coaching experience, has the Warriors off to a 10-0 start to the season.
OAKLAND — It all could have been so different, something other than the Warriors on top of the NBA, still, and an increasing chorus of playful jabs about whether Steve Kerr will be up to the challenge of replacing Luke Walton as coach.
Once, it had been the other way around, questions, even skepticism, over how Kerr's indefinite leave of absence to recover from two offseason back surgeries would impact the defending champions. It wasn't just losing Kerr, after all. It was losing Kerr after Alvin Gentry, the top assistant of 2014-15, left to become the new Pelicans coach. And it was replacing them with 35-year-old Walton and his grand total of two previous seasons as an assistant in the NBA and D-League, plus a temp job on the staff at the University of Memphis while he was a Lakers forward awaiting the end of the 2011 lockout.
I'm not thinking about the big picture and how crazy it is that I'm head-coaching the NBA championship team.
– Warriors' interim coach Luke Walton
Even if the Warriors were never going to collapse without Kerr -- too much talent, too much maturity, and, as has been proven, too much focus even when a November champagne hangover would be understandable -- there was at least the potential for problems, and that's enough on the line. Problems lead to losses. Losses lead to criticism and doubt. Criticism leads to pressure when there is enough already.
Instead, as it turned out: 10 games, 10 wins, two victories over the Grizzlies and one against the Clippers, and winning margins in the five road games of 20, 14, nine, 16 and 13 points. Three of those were either both sets or the finish to a back-to-back.
As strange as it is to say the early days of the season have been an accomplishment to a team plotting a course to June, the first two-plus weeks have uniquely and realistically been exactly that. To have so much look the same, from the standings to Stephen Curry making a mockery of defenses to Golden State's efficiency on both sides of the ball, is meaningful.
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"It's important for him and it's important for everyone," general manager Bob Myers said. "It's important for me. It's important for the players that we got off to the stretch we did because it's natural to raise those questions. We have our coaching leader on the sideline, we have high expectations, so with that comes a lot of responsibility. It becomes a pressure. To find a way to mitigate that pressure with a good start is very helpful. We're under scrutiny all the time. If we had stumbled out of the gate, those questions would have been raised and probably fairly raised. I don't think it would have been an indictment of Luke because I'm sure he would have been doing the best that he can. But it does placate some of those thoughts."
It does provide a sense of relief.
"A lot of relief," Walton admitted. "Absolutely. Big picture, we know that if we started off slow it wasn't the end of the world. But the NBA game is at the point now where there's so much media and social media that without Steve here, if we would have lost a game or two early on, there would have been a ton of stories all over the place. So even though in the big picture it wouldn't have really mattered to us and what we're trying to accomplish, there's relief that we're (10-0) right now."
This is Walton's job indefinitely, with Kerr saying on opening night he is headed in the right direction and Myers following up this week that Kerr is improving, but with no one so much as guessing at a timeline for the return. Maybe in 10 minutes, maybe after Christmas, maybe after the All-Star break. Kerr saying "I'm very confident I will be back this season, and I can't wait" will have to do for definitive statements.
In the meantime, responsibility for in-game adjustments and running practices, albeit mostly with Kerr's script and in consultation with Kerr, falls to someone younger than several active players. And Walton barely has more coaching experience than Andre Miller, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Manu Ginobili, among others. The partial season at Memphis -- he and Tigers coach Josh Pastner were teammates at the University of Arizona -- 2013-14 with the Los Angeles D-Fenders, 2014-15 with the Warriors, and that's it.
The promotion for this season was supposed to be to Kerr's top lieutenant, Gentry's old job, with another assistant, Ron Adams, essentially remaining as defensive coordinator. There was no indication of anything more when training camp opened Sept. 29 with Kerr in his usual role. But on Oct. 1, after deciding it was too difficult to work between the waves of headaches and fatigue, the result of leaking spinal fluid from the first back operation, the Warriors announced their coach would take an indefinite leave. Having already misjudged the recovery once, there would be a priority this time on healing once and for all, not coming back to see how he felt and maybe stepping away again.
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Kerr and Myers could have turned to Adams with his 20 years as an NBA assistant, another 20 years in the college ranks and time as a head coach at Fresno State, plus international experience. Walton was their clear choice, though. They liked that he could relate better to players after a 10-year career with the Lakers and Cavaliers while reasoning he had literally been around the pro game all his life as Bill Walton's son. Besides, if any organization is unfazed by a lack of coaching experience, it's the Warriors -- Kerr had never been on a bench before being hired and neither had Kerr's predecessor, Mark Jackson. By comparison, Walton is overqualified.
When Golden State then rode on Curry's shoulders to the 10-0 start, it became the confirmation. Believing in Walton was the right move. Putting him, and themselves, on the line, was the latest in a long line of sound moves from the front office. Management considered adding a former head coach, with many options, to help guide Walton, but so far has not made a hire.
"I probably just don't know any better, but, no, I don't," Walton said when asked last week if he feels the inexperience. "You get yourself caught up in what you're doing and you're so focused at the task at hand, at least for me, I'm not thinking about the big picture and how crazy it is that I'm head-coaching the NBA championship team.... Right now, I don't feel that."
The first 10 games have been a confidence builder for all concerned, 2 ½ weeks that mattered more than just another good start by another defending champion. This means something for the credibility of the interim coach, the guy with a lot to prove from the 2014-15 team that doesn't have anything left to prove.
Luke Walton, 35 years old, with two seasons of coaching experience, can handle the job. It is a relief. A lot of relief.
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