After the Golden State Warriors nearly handed a truly stunning and embarrassing game to the Philadelphia 76ers Saturday night, only to be saved by a last-second Harrison Barnes three-pointer, head coach Steve Kerr had no problem excoriating his team.
When the discombobulated Warriors scuffled through the first 12 minutes at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks the following night, Kerr smashed his clipboard in half.
Someone might want to remind Kerr that his Warriors, who will face the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center Wednesday night, are 44-4, and on pace to break the regular season record of 72 wins set by the Chicago Bulls in 1996. Then again, perhaps the Warriors – despite their incredible start – need exactly the kind of tough love that only their coach can give them if they’re going to attempt to make history.
“He was dead serious,” Draymond Green after Golden State’s 116-95 win in New York. “He broke the clipboard and then threw it. It was probably well-deserved. We were really bad … he expects perfection, and we’re never there.”
The NBA is considered to be a player’s league — something reinforced by the first few months of this Warriors’ season, when Golden State rattled off one of the best starts in NBA history with Kerr watching from afar while recovering from back surgery. Luke Walton, with one year of NBA assistant coaching experience under his belt, took over and took the Warriors right back to the top of the standings. The fact Golden State’s opponent in last season’s NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers, just fired head coach David Blatt despite a 30-11 record in 2015-16 furthered that notion, as well.
But the perception that coaches do nothing but roll the ball out onto the court ignores the examples of strong leadership and the dividends its paid. Yes, the San Antonio Spurs have had a tremendous run over the past 20 years with one of the NBA’s all-time great players in Tim Duncan. But through those title-rich years in San Antonio, it was Gregg Popovich presiding over a constantly changing roster, keeping everyone in check and everything moving in the proper direction. As amazing as the early years of Michael Jordan’s career were in Chicago, he didn’t start winning championships until Phil Jackson became his coach. Likewise, Jackson brought championships to Los Angeles, taking over a team that had yet to make it out of the second round of the playoffs and immediately turning it into one that claimed the next three championships. He then maintained that success as the Lakers evolved from Shaquille O’Neal’s team into one with Pau Gasol as Kobe Bryant’s running mate.
Even a year ago, when Kerr took over for Mark Jackson, there’s a telling example. Kerr inherited a very good Warriors team that had made the playoffs back-to-back seasons and won 51 games in Jackson’s last year in charge. Kerr immediately turned that team into a 67-win juggernaut and a champion last year, a team that’s now on pace for a potentially historic win total.
The evidence of impact coaches litters the league’s recent history. Just don’t tell that to Kerr, a self-deprecating person by nature, and someone who has only deflected credit away from himself since the Warriors began storming through the league last season.
“It means I’m glad I’m coaching this group of guys,” Kerr said with a smile Sunday night after improving to 44-4. “They’re amazingly talented and, as I said, committed to one another. We’re not really paying much attention to the record we’re just trying to get better but we don’t take winning for granted.”
To say the Warriors’ spectacular start wasn’t expected when Kerr announced his leave of absence in October is a definitive understatement. This was a situation that seemed destined to have some rocky moments. But between Walton’s calm, laid-back demeanor and the players doing their best to try and prove they could keep themselves steady and focused while Kerr recovered, Golden State instead exploded to a remarkable 39-4 start before Kerr finally returned on Jan. 22 at home against Indiana.
“There wasn’t too much change,” Andrew Bogut said. “Luke let us play like Steve does, and made sure we kept to our principles, and made sure there was no slippage. But we have a professional group in this locker room. I don’t think that situation works with probably 20, 25 teams out of 30 in the league. We police ourselves, we have veterans we know what it took to win a championship last year, and that carried over.”
The costs, particularly to coaches, of a discordant team culture can be steep. It can cost first in terms of wins. And as games pile up in the loss column, it can cost in terms of jobs, as a growing lack faith in a coach to build or sustain a winning environment often leads to changes.
Jeff Hornacek, for instance, was fired early Monday morning in Phoenix after the Suns, following a surprise 48-win season in 2014, have been unable to find anywhere near the same kind of chemistry after a series of ill-fitting personnel moves. Kevin McHale lost his job earlier this season in Houston despite taking the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals last year because of a roster full of odd personalities — led by stars James Harden and Dwight Howard — wasn’t meshing under his leadership. It hasn’t looked all that much better under interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff.
That’s what makes the continuity of how the Warriors played under Walton, while practicing the previous preaching of Kerr, such a remarkable success. But even amid that terrific run, it was clear there were things going on that wouldn’t happen if Kerr had been around, particularly in terms of player accountability.
The voice of any assistant or interim coach just doesn’t resonate the same as a head coach, particularly in a player-centric league like the NBA.
“It’s not [Walton’s] place, and he’s just not that type of guy, anyway, because he’s so laid back,” the Warriors’ Brandon Rush said. “He’s cool with everybody. I played against him, and he’s pretty much cool with everybody. He never got into anybody’s [case] like Steve does.”
Kerr changed that nearly immediately when he returned a little less than two weeks ago. As he’s proven with Golden State’s last two games, he has no problem letting his players know where he stands.
“He has that capability,” Shaun Livingston said. “He’s the head coach, he won a championship. He’s our leader. Luke was our leader by default, he did a great job, but he’s an assistant. It’s different.”
As the Warriors have rampaged through the NBA this season, bearing down on the record set by the 1996 Bulls team – one coached by Jackson and that included Kerr as a player – it’s been obvious the Warriors are adamant on chasing the record, whether they admit it or not.
It wasn’t going to be possible, though, without the guidance that Kerr can provide from the bench.
“It was really tough to be away,” Kerr said. “ I was thrilled that the team was doing well but at the same time I was so disappointed that I was missing out on what was happening. We are well aware that this is uncommon to have a group like this and a run like this, playing the way we are.”
Golden State may have gotten off to that start without Kerr, but they weren’t going to have a chance to make history if they didn’t get their leader back on the sidelines. While some of the NBA’s rapid-fire coaching changes can fuel the perception that head coaches lack in import, the league’s best teams — the type of team the Warriors are striving to be — have always had a steady, static hand on the wheel.
“We need him,” Livingston said. “When things gets tight, we’re going to need his leadership.”