Steve Kerr doesn’t want your praise.
The coach of a Warriors dynasty that just won its third NBA title in four straight Finals appearances has probably earned some bragging rights, but you won’t catch Kerr saying one word about himself … unless it’s a sarcastic one. Occasionally he’ll facetiously boast about how the Warriors’ devastating third quarters are a result of his brilliant coaching schemes, but more often than not he’ll simply defer to his incredible roster — dotted with future Hall of Famers and polished veterans coaches dream of having.
It’s almost enough to make you think Kerr could just roll the ball out onto the court and Golden State would still coast to another championship — and some probably think that’s the case. But this year tested Kerr’s ability to handle a team full of superstars that had grown so accustomed to winning that they got bored, complacent and sloppy. We’ve seen dynasties come to an end that way, but the Warriors persevered, in large part because of their fearful leader.
Kerr knew what was going to happen. He was scared of it before the season even started.
As he often mentions, it’s generally not about Xs and Os with this team. They run some beautiful sets, but for the most part their success is determined by effort and discipline. Are we cutting hard? Are we boxing out? And Kerr’s nightmarish pet peeve: Are we turning the ball over?
This season’s challenge came off the court — with the team’s mind-set and focus. After all, Kerr knows. He was a backup guard for the Chicago Bulls during their three-peat from 1996 to ’98, then added two more titles in 1999 and 2003 as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. He’s a disciple of coaching greats such as Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, and he’s seen what happens when teams get used to winning. He feared it would cause his Warriors to underachieve — which, for them, was anything short of another championship.
So Kerr pulled trick after trick from his sweat-soaked sleeves, trying desperately to keep his team engaged through the long and laborious grind of the regular season — no easy task for a team that had already seen firsthand how meaningless those games can be. After setting an NBA record with 73 wins during the 2015-16 season, the Warriors infamously blew a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers to miss out on the title. The playoffs were the real season, and everyone knew it.
To keep his players interested, Kerr brought in guest speakers, among them famed motivator Tony Robbins. He also stepped back and, sparking hot-take fires around the league from critics saying that the move was disrespectful, that the Warriors should be ashamed. Kerr sounded exhausted when explaining his actions.
“I haven’t been able to reach [the players] the last month,” Kerr said after the game. “They are tired of my voice. I’m tired of my voice.”
The Warriors had an up-and-down regular season, losing more games in the first month (five) than some thought they’d lose all season. But all the while Kerr, dealing with sporadic crippling back pain, was enacting possibly his most important coaching move of the year.
All season long, Kerr was adamant about getting everyone on the roster playing time. Whether it was a surprise start or just a few minutes here or there, Kerr insisted on getting his reserves experience. Part of his rationale comes from the fact that he spent a lot of time on the bench as a player, and he knew how much more invested he was when he actually got off the pine every once in a while.
When Kerr played Kevon Looney, JaVale McGee (who was out of the rotation, even inactive at times) rookie Jordan Bell and two-way player Quinn Cook extended minutes, he’d always provide the same message: I have a feeling we’ll need these guys one day.
So when the injury bug hit in the regular season — Curry missed 31 games, Durant missed 14, Green missed 12 and Thompson missed nine, Kerr’s prophecy came true. Reserves became starters, and they were forced to deal with defensive attention and pressure that they hadn’t yet felt in their careers. With their “B-squad” at the helm, Golden State skidded into the postseason by losing 10 of their final 17 games, but the lessons their backups learned immediately paid dividends in the postseason.
Cook averaged 18 minutes per game in the first six games of the playoffs while Curry dealt with a knee injury. Looney was often the first player off the bench for the Warriors in the postseason, and started the last four games of the seven-game battle with the Rockets after Iguodala suffered an injury. Bell provided great minutes as a mobile, switchable big in the final two rounds. And McGee — well, just ask the Spurs or the Cavs about the impact McGee and his rat tail made in this championship run.
Kerr saw all of this coming. He played the long game. Knowing how much it takes to get back to the Finals for a fourth straight year, something only six teams in NBA history have done, something Kerr never accomplished as a player, he sacrificed regular-season wins with the big picture in mind. He gave players more rest days, and often gave them more recovery time than necessary following injuries. He dealt with,, “all our B.S.”
As he received his annual champagne shower in the locker room on Friday, it was surely worth all of the obstacles along the way. And he’ll have to deal with a whole new set of obstacles next season.
“It’s still euphoric,” Kerr said at the podium, drenched and relieved. “But three years ago was, ‘I can’t believe this happened,’ and now it’s, ‘I can definitely believe this happened, but it was hard,’ and it gets more and more difficult as you go through. Next year will be even tougher.
“I may not show up until All-Star break, because they’re not going to listen to me anyway.”