If you’re hurt and injured and miss a chunk or all of the playoffs, nobody’s gonna feel sorry for you. That’s the standard NBA creed, cold as it may be. If you cannot perform through the pain, rub some dirt on it or suck it up, well, the tears from your opponents who want what you want wouldn’t be enough to moisten a postage stamp.
Well, to hell with that. Everyone should feel crummy for Steve Kerr.
This isn’t just about missing a playoff game or maybe a series. This is about a career, and quite honestly, about the quality of a life. The complications from back surgery are playing fiendish tricks on his ability to complete certain tasks while complicating the coaching situation with the Golden State Warriors.
Kerr is dealing with discomfort on a semi-regular basis, and if there was a solution in sight, you figure he would’ve found it by now.
Instead, the spinal fluid leak caused by the surgery he had almost two years ago is making the routine seem rigorous. Kerr would not disclose the nature of the symptoms that may send him into premature retirement from coaching. If they’re related to prior issues post-surgery, you can understand.
The headaches are the worst. The nausea, that’s not easily remedied, either. Evidently, those ailments and/or others conspired to push Kerr to a place he’d rather not be. That’s why he stepped away from coaching the last two games of the Warriors’ first-round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers. His condition has also forced him into some soul searching about his immediate and distant future.
Certainly you saw the interview Kerr gave to the media a few days ago, and more vividly, his expression. None of us are doctors, but all of us can spot pain. His face was lined with fatigue, a touch of concern and frustration. Perhaps deep down, Kerr was angry as well.
When Kerr, 51, said: “I can tell you, if you’re listening out there, if you have a back problem, stay away from surgery. I can say that from the bottom of my heart,” how could that not put a cantaloupe in your throat?
He’s a passionate and compassionate man, focused on winning yet never placing it above concern for his players or his fellow man. Kerr isn’t the stereotypical sports figure so consumed by the grind and the goal that he’s unable to focus on what’s really important.
His versatility on subjects ranging from shooting mechanics to politics to terrorism to music is as impressive as it is vast. He’s able to bring this social and intellectual gumbo to his job and apply it to just about every decision he faces in his locker room. This is a people-person job, first and foremost, and Kerr can forge a connection with both the fiery Draymond Green and clean-cut Stephen Curry.
He cannot, however, effectively coach himself through discomfort. There, he has met his match.
“What he’s going through right now and the way he’s handled it, it speaks volumes as to who he is as a person, giving us everything he’s got,” Curry said.
So, what’s next for Kerr? And for the Warriors?
Kerr answered both when he cryptically said that he won’t continue to coach, short or long-term, unless his health improved. It wouldn’t be fair to the players or organization, he reasoned, if he kept skipping games. That says plenty about Kerr’s character. And maybe it says a bit about the confidence the organization has in assistant coach Mike Brown, his (temporary?) replacement.
Surely, you’re asking: Mike Brown?
If the Warriors’ gig came open right now and everyone was considered, would Brown make the cut? Some who watched him coach the Cleveland Cavaliers (with a young LeBron James) and then a failed experiment with the Los Angeles Lakers (with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash) might wonder if Brown is tapped out.
LeBron and Kobe Bryant, two superstars he coached, liked him but didn’t go out of their way to save his job. He lacks a signature career moment even though the Cavs, in 2007, reached their first NBA Finals on his watch. Those are the imperfections that kept him from landing another job immediately after getting fired from the Lakers early in the 2012-13 season. (He landed with the Cavs again in 2013-14, but was fired after a 33-49 season.)
The Warriors are a thorough organization, and Bob Myers is a sharp GM, so they saw something in Brown last summer to give him the seat next to Kerr (who knew Brown from their time together as player and coach in San Antonio). They knew there was a chance Kerr’s health might flare up again, as it did in 2015-16 when he missed 43 games, and the Warriors needed the security that an experienced coach could provide.
In short, you can debate whether Brown is the right man … but he’s certainly in the right place at the right time.
Life is funny, isn’t it? Had Alvin Gentry stayed with the Warriors two summers ago instead of taking the New Orleans Pelicans’ coaching job, he’d be the coach-in-waiting. Had Luke Walton stayed last summer instead of jumping to the Lakers, he’d be leading the Warriors. Both men would take the Warriors’ job over the one they have.
Brown’s career was at a crossroads this time last year, and now there’s a chance he will go from unemployment to the NBA’s No. 1 job in less than 12 months.
The Warriors are confident in what Brown brings: Experience with star players, a postseason background with Finals credibility, a lack of ego and good communication skills. He’s been thrown to the fire before and maintained his composure, never became flustered, never took anything personally and never blamed his players. He’s a low-risk good guy who has obviously learned from his past.
And if Mike D’Antoni, one of the front-runners for 2016-17 Coach of the Year, can resurrect his image in Houston, why can’t Brown do the same in Golden State? It’s all about finding the right fit, and the Warriors are a smart, veteran team that’s good at self-policing.
They’re also good at winning no matter the coach. They’re 41-4 without Kerr all-time and 2-0 in these playoffs without him. When Kerr missed half of the ’15-16 season, the Warriors won at record pace with a young assistant coach (Walton) who lacked head-coaching experience. And they didn’t have Kevin Durant then. What the Warriors need from a coach is a motivator and stabilizer, not a boat-rocker … and that sounds like Brown.
In the last two games the Warriors responded to Brown and credited him for taking over in a tough spot. Of course, he hasn’t been tested yet, and may not for a few weeks, given the way the Warriors thumped the Blazers and how they flourished all season. Only the thermal heat provided by The Finals will give us an idea whether they’re in good hands with Brown (provided Kerr misses these playoffs).
If that happens, this would be the strangest coaching change since Jack McKinney fell off his son’s bicycle 19 games into the 1979-80 season with the Lakers. McKinney suffered a near-fatal head injury and the job of steering Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his prime and a rookie named Magic Johnson was gifted to Paul Westhead, the lead assistant. When the Lakers reached The 1980 Finals, Westhead was named the permanent coach and they took the championship weeks later.
Those were unusual and sad circumstances. Yet once again, the grim status of a successful head coach (Kerr is 207-39 with two NBA Finals trips in three years) is threatening to force change.
Ultimately, this is about health: Kerr’s and the Warriors’. The team is robust and frisky and built to last, the picture of near-perfection. Meanwhile, the coach wants peace from a back surgery gone wrong, peace he may never know the rest of his life. This is not something he wanted, not something he deserved.
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