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Steve Kerr leads with unique style
Former Chicago Bull Steve Kerr brings his 16-2 Golden State Warriors to the United Center Saturday night
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By Sam Smith | 12.6.2014 | 9:15 a.m. CT
There is no proven formula to produce a great NBA coach. Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson couldn’t be more different, Red the cigar smoking city kid who didn’t play and Phil the meditating small town kid who did. Gregg Popovich and Chuck Daly didn’t play in the pros; Pat Riley and Larry Brown did, often excelling. Though there generally is one trait common among the great ones, which is an ability to communicate, a mastery of human understanding without any training or degree, a concern for individuals amidst the harsh demands and generally a wry outlook on their crazy world.
Having really good players also seems to help.
Steve Kerr has those good players on his Golden State Warriors, who come into the United Center to play the Bulls Saturday as both statistically, and perhaps empirically, the best team in the NBA.
They have the best record at 16-2 and 9-1 on the road, off to the best start in franchise history. They are ranked No. 1 both in offense and defense, the best shooting team in the league that also holds opponents to the lowest shooting percentage. They’re the most unselfish team, leading the NBA in assists, and the most dominant in leading the NBA in margin of victory. And All-Star forward David Lee has only played seven minutes all season because of a hamstring injury.
The Warriors with MVP candidate Stephen Curry and backcourt mate Klay Thompson are this young season’s version of both Lakers’ Showtime and Celtics’ efficiency. They’re more fun to watch and more difficult to play with a deep and versatile lineup.
And in his rookie season coaching, former Bull Kerr if he never much dunked shows he has the right stuff for being an elite NBA coach.
“The way I’m coaching is the totality of my experience under a lot of different people,” Kerr said in an interview Friday. “Not just Phil and Pop (his coaches in Chicago and San Antonio, where he was on five title teams). Cotton Fitzsimmons and Lenny Wilkens and Lute Olson; you sort of take a little from each person. But what they all told me was to be yourself. They said you have to be yourself, that players will know if you are trying to do something that is not you.
“I like humor, I like keeping things loose,” said Kerr, noted for his wry and sarcastic view of the world. “The thing I took from Pete (Carroll, Seattle NFL coach and a friend) is we do play music during practice at times, which I think is great; gets us going, players like it, puts a bounce in their step. Mostly, I’m just trying to incorporate my own ideas and beliefs into basketball and bonding wise; it’s easy to do when you have guys so willing to embrace and who were blossoming before I got here. And are that good.”
Kerr’s not one to take credit for the terrific Warriors start, but he does appear to be the right guy at the right time. Which is as good a definition of success as there is. This has been a good and developing Warriors team that was a second round playoff participant in the tough Western Conference in 2013 and won 51 games last season. Curry’s become a star and Thompson was perhaps the best player for USA Basketball this summer. They’ve got size, depth, athleticism and great shooters. They bring former All-Star Andre Iguodala off the bench and probably Lee when he returns.
In some respects, Kerr’s ascension in Golden State is reminiscent of Jackson in Chicago, replacing Doug Collins, a less confrontational personality to take that next step to the proverbial Point C. Kerr will be judged on that level, which is difficult. But it also was a big part of the appeal.
He was in line to coach the Knicks, though he concedes basically because of his relationship with Jackson.
“I was having a hard time grasping the balance of that job and family,” said Kerr, who still has a son in high school in California. “I knew it was a makeover and was going to take a few years. When this came up, it was an ideal fit for me. But I would have gone to New York if it didn’t.”
It’s a bonus for the Warriors as well since Kerr has the makeup of greatness as an NBA coach. I’ve been around most of those top guys and the one trait that stands out—even if it’s not always obvious to the public—is a comfortable way of bonding with their players and showing concern for them as people while also commanding respect for their knowledge and honesty. It really is something either you have or don’t, and Kerr seems to possess the most vital elements.
You may remember Kerr at the Bulls 1997 Bulls victory celebration when amidst a surprisingly elegiac setting with rumors of it being the last run, Kerr broke up the crowd and team with a scenario of how Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen asked Kerr to bail them out. There’s a famous picture Kerr loves of he and Jordan matched up in 2002 when Jordan was with the Wizards and Kerr shouting, “Mouse in the house,” telling teammates to get him the ball. It’s an ability to laugh at yourself when you also have achieved. It’s infectious if not easy to acquire.
“He has a really good demeanor with the team, really good communication,” says Ron Adams, the former Bulls assistant who runs the defense for Kerr. “He’s a very measured person. He’s fun. I think he brings out the best in a lot of our players, the way he relates to them and manages them. He’s created a very good atmosphere, one serious yet fun.
“He’s very innovative in how he makes an atmosphere,” Adams added. “The guys enjoy it, but we enjoy winning as well. He’s flexible and open and he listens. Those are all strong suits. He really loves the game, works at it; he allows us to work around him. A lot of good qualities, but they emanate from the human being, the person.”
There’s much misunderstood about NBA players because of the incredible salaries and celebrity. Professional athletes in this era are not as approachable and often have their own paid friends. But what’s never changed about NBA players is they want a few things from anyone who is their coach: Help them improve; try to fool them and they’ll tune you out in a moment.
The Warriors play almost two units with large substitutions; no one on the team averages more than 33 minutes per game and sacrifice has been a hallmark from Iguodala heading up the second unit to accommodate Harrison Barnes to Kerr’s own decisions.
Though he declines to discuss it, Kerr asked the Warriors for less money than they offered because as a rookie coach he didn’t feel he should be paid at the level of accomplished veterans like Popovich. The Warriors acceded to his wishes.
The players have as well, like Iguodala in a unique move for a rookie coach.
“He was willing to accept that, which made all the difference in the world,” Kerr said of Iguodala. “He understood we needed Harrison to flourish; he (Barnes) had a tough year last year. It was a lot to ask to lead the second unit. I felt like Harrison needed to start with our starting group in order to get better shots and help his confidence. And I thought our second group would be better anchored by Andre because he’s really a do-it-all player, a point forward who gets us organized.
It’s a good fit, but not something Andre is thrilled about. The fact he has accepted it and sacrificed has kind of set the tone for our team. They look at him and see an All-Star and Olympian and guy who’s been around the league and willing to step back; that’s pretty powerful.”
It’s also the sort of move that could have roiled a team; but Kerr’s own record of accomplishment and sacrifice, playing a role for five title teams, along with his open personality has been a secure fit for a team that seemed disturbed by the firing of coach Mark Jackson last spring. Instead, Kerr has made a point to note he is building on some great steps the Warriors have made.
Unlike some of the coaches who came in after Phil Jackson and bragged about ditching that triangle offense. Right, the one that helped win 11 titles?
“The key thing I wanted to do was keep going what they’ve done and how good they’ve been,” said Kerr, who reached out individually to every player last summer. “I didn’t want to be the know-it-all-guy who came in and said, ‘We’ve got to change this, we’ve got to change that.’ This thing was already building and the foundation was already set. My whole approach coming in was ,’Let’s take what you have already done and let’s try to keep it moving forward; let’s try to get better.’ You can’t come in and be a know it all. You’ve go to come in and respect what guys have done individually and as a team and find out how can we get better. We have great guys, all very receptive. I found out they were incredibly coachable and willing listeners and good guys. You could feel right away this was a team that would have good chemistry.”
Kerr also is a good one to understand, which is a trait you’ll find in some of the best coaches. Kerr never dreamed the great NBA life, but has been there. He can appreciate the ones who got there and also want to be there.
“I actually thought about (coaching) when I was in high school,” said Kerr. “I didn’t think I’d play in the NBA. When I was at Arizona, I thought, ‘All right, when I’m done playing here I’ll come back and be a grad assistant under Lute Olson.”
It’s a similarity Kerr has with coaches like Tom Thibodeau and Scott Skiles. They studied the game when they were kids with this in mind because a career seemed unrealistic. It’s also generally why they make better coaches than the kids who were star players.
“Obviously, when things worked out the way they did and I ended up playing a long time things changed,” said Kerr. “When I retired from playing I preferred to raise my kids and the TV thing came up. But it’s always been there in the back of my mind. The time was right.”
It’s working out well for the Warriors. But hardly just in demeanor. Kerr has instituted an aggressive, active defense that mirrors the offensive excellence in its creativity and relentlessness. Kerr obviously has studied for this in his time as a broadcaster and general manager with the Suns. He’s studied the defensive evolution of the league with the frequency of zone play and provided a freedom to his players with fewer play calls. Of course, he also has some pretty impressive talent.
“Defensively, we’re No. 1 in the league in efficiency,” noted Kerr. “A lot of that is we have so many guys 6-7 and long; Klay and Andre and Harrison and Draymond Green), Shaun Livingston. We switch a lot. So we can blow up a lot of the opposing teams’ actions they are trying to run and get them into a late shot clock situation. When we do that, that’s when we can get out and run. Against the Pelicans (Thursday) we had 43 fast break points, which is crazy. A lot of that is if we can take away the first couple of options, then a team has to take a bad shot and they are vulnerable in transition.
“Watching the league the last couple of years as a broadcaster, it was Erik Spoelstra’s term, positionless basketball,” noted Kerr. “That’s the way the league has changed. You can overload the strong side and do a lot of switching you couldn’t do under the old rules. Harrison Barnes is a perfect example. (Against New Orleans), he guarded Tyreke Evans, Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, he switched onto (Omer) Asik. When you have that kind of versatility at multiple positions, it takes away a lot of your decision making as a coach. I don’t have to say, ‘Are we going to go big or are we going to go small?’ We’ve also got a lot of well adjusted, normal human beings. It’s really been fun.”