NBA Finals: Don't sell Steve Kerr's contributions to the Warriors' title short
Kerr helps lead Warriors not only to second championship, but revolutionary status in the history of the game
His hair tussled and spiked with champagne, Steve Kerr did what he always does as he sat down for an NBA TV interview on the very floor his team had just claimed a second title. He praised his players, downplayed his achievements, spoke of how lucky he is, and, of course, smiled.
There will come a time when Kerr vanishes, and it may be soon. He missed much of the year and playoffs with debilitating complications from back surgery that never quite healed. It's cruel that Kerr has had to endure it, not only because no person should have to deal with that day-to-day physical misery, but because he is anything but someone wrapped in misery. Despite his condition he's remained kind and humble with a sense of perspective and humor.
Kerr will never take credit for this run of the Warriors, a three-year whirlwind that resulted in the greatest regular-season record of all time, and two titles. He'll never write books about what he did to make them great. He'll credit Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and the role players, all the way down to David West and James Michael McAdoo. He'll say it was the front office and the individual talent.
But this Warriors team is a testament to what Kerr helped build. The Warriors were dangerous before he arrived, sneaking up on the third-seeded Denver Nuggets in 2013 and challenging the Clippers in 2014, but nothing close to a juggernaut until Kerr came on board. They were, to borrow their phrase, light-years away. Kerr took a team stuck in an isolation-heavy, limited system and empowered them to run. He dared to envision a team that could play at a high pace and defend at an elite level, augmenting the defensive structure installed under Mark Jackson.
He freed Curry, now a two-time MVP and the man who shattered what we thought possible for 3-point shooting. And he kept the Warriors from spinning into sloppy habits while pushing them to challenge convention. He's directed a group that will be remembered as arguably one of the greatest of all time. Kerr's absence this year has been used to invalidate his contributions, to make it seem like he was just along for the ride and anyone could have coached this team to 67 wins and a title.
Don't fall into the trap of thinking that Kerr's influence wasn't everywhere. Last season, after their Finals collapse, Kerr quietly mentioned in interviews that they got away from what made them successful. They weren't the same defensive team. They got too loose with their emotions. They failed to find discipline along with joy, the balance Kerr had used to lift this team in the first place. So this season, all of that returned. This was a team that was defense-first. Was the offense awe-inspiring? To be sure. But it was all the product of the stops they created.
Kerr managed to blend in a former MVP in Durant without removing the flow that Curry's offense provides or sacrificing Draymond Green's role as a leader and defensive presence. Both of those players sacrificed as well, testament to the culture Kerr inspired and making this team is as much Kerr's as it is anyone's.
Kerr preached energy while maintaining focus. He empowered players to make the most of their talents within the team construct. And he never had to rely on mysticism or dramatics to make it happen. He's not a barking drill sergeant nor a lovable player's coach. He's the balance of all those things and a man with nine rings as a player and coach who never feels the need to steal the spotlight.
Assistant Mike Brown managed the ship through the playoffs, and his job of managing not to land on the rocks deserves praise. But coaching is more than Xs and Os, it's largely a system of decisions that includes when and how to practice, philosophies, identities, roles and rotations. Kerr still was managing or influencing those decisions, even when he wasn't on the sideline.
If Curry is the soul and Green the heart, Kerr might be the central nervous system of the Warriors.
Kerr doesn't have the longevity to be the greatest coach in NBA history, and he won't always be this blessed, for however long he coaches (and it wouldn't shock anyone if his condition led to a premature departure from the game). But if you want to compare the job he's done to any three-season stretch in league history, from Phil Jackson to Gregg Popovich to Red Auerbach, Kerr stacks up in accomplishment and put his distinct mark on the game.
For Durant, this was a coronation, and for other Warriors it was redemption. But Kerr, who shed happy tears he said resulted from his personal travails, may have the best perspective because his body failed him in a way that took this special season away from him at times.
In the end, while the Warriors whooped and hollered, basking in their own earned greatness, it was of course Kerr who saw the big picture -- and smiled.
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