OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors knew there was a possibility Steve Kerr could be sidelined again this season. They knew about the constant pain he still experienced because of complications from back surgery in the summer of 2015 — issues that sidelined him for the first 43 games of the 2015-16 season and only got to a point where he could manage them, as opposed to disappearing, when he came back.
So as Kerr and the Warriors were searching for a replacement for assistant Luke Walton on Kerr’s staff last summer, experience was a must. Although Walton excelled in his stint as interim coach, leading Golden State to a 39-4 record that catapulted him to the Los Angeles Lakers head job, the Warriors knew if something happened this season — particularly with the added scrutiny of Kevin Durant’s decision to join them in free agency — a battle-tested coach would be required.
Eventually, the Warriors found their man: Mike Brown, the former head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers (twice) and the Lakers; a guy who has won 347 games, two coach of the year awards, led a team to the NBA Finals and worked with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
In other words, he checked every box. And if Kerr ever needed to be away from the team, everyone involved knew the squad would be left in safe — and experienced — hands.
“Last year, this happened, and Luke took over for a while,” Brown said before Tuesday night’s opening game of the Western Conference semifinal between the Warriors and Utah Jazz. “They knew that this could be a possibility.
“Seeing it last year, I knew it could be a possibility. You don’t know when or anything like that, especially the longer the year went along and being around him. You don’t think much about it.”
That changed, of course, when Kerr was forced away from the bench halfway through Golden State’s sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, putting Brown in charge. And, so far, things have gone just fine, as the Warriors have won all three games they have played with Brown at the helm — including Tuesday’s 106-94 victory over the Jazz.
Under the circumstances, it’s hard to think things could have gone any better, given the potential upheaval that could be caused by something as dramatic as a team’s head coach suddenly being unable to man the sideline during the crucible of the postseason. But that’s also why the Warriors, going all the way back to the decision to hire Brown last summer, have been preparing for the possibility this could happen.
“Being here for the year has helped out,” Brown said. “If it was the beginning of the year it might be a little different because I didn’t really know the culture here or didn’t have a great feel for the guys. You see it from the outside looking in, and it’s different once you are in here.
“Steve has done a fantastic job laying a great foundation down culturally and X’s and O’s, basketball-wise. We have a great staff. The staff has helped out tremendously and [General Manager] Bob Myers and his group. The leaders on the team, the veterans that we have, everybody has kind of pitched in to help us keep heading in the right direction during this time.”
That leaves an obvious question: How long will “this time” last for the Warriors? Every day Kerr isn’t around, the chances of him returning at some point during the postseason fade further. The goal here for everyone — except for maybe Kerr himself, being the hyper-competitive person that he is — is to find a way to get him healthy again, to allow him to do his job and live a normal life at the same time. The basketball is secondary.
But it’s the basketball that, in Kerr’s absence, is the easy part for this team. The Warriors cruised past a talented Jazz team Tuesday, leading wire-to-wire while holding everyone on the Jazz to no more than 13 points — including leading scorer Gordon Hayward, who went 4 for 15 and scored 12 points. Even for a team as good as Utah, one with an all-star in Hayward, one of the league’s three best defensive players in center Rudy Gobert and a capable and deep cast of role players around them, the Warriors are a combination that’s too much to handle.
“There’s pressure on you all the time,” Jazz Coach Quin Snyder said. “So you’re going to have a breakdown in basketball.
“People make mistakes. You just can’t have them consecutively, or that many of them.”
The Warriors’ margin for error was supposed to grow with Kerr going away for a time — possibly, if not probably, for the rest of the playoffs. Instead, they appear to have both too much talent and institutional knowledge to let the absence of one of the game’s best coaches deter them.
Most of Kerr’s coaching staff outside of Brown — including longtime NBA assistants Ron Adams, Jarron Collins, Bruce Fraser and Chris DeMarco — has been with the team since he arrived three years ago. The same goes for the front office, led by Myers, and five of Golden State’s 15 players: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.
Everyone knows what Kerr wants, and what he expects. And now that he’s out, they’re all doing their part to pick up where their coach would want them to, something that’s possible because of Kerr’s approach to the job.
“It’s like you guys,” Brown said, referring to the assembled reporters, beginning an example about Kerr’s approach to the job. “You have bosses, and they may say to you, ‘You need to write this story … and take this angle.’
“You may write a few things and he says, ‘Change this, change that.’ And he’s really micromanaging you guys. I’m sure you wouldn’t like that … those aren’t the best circumstances.
“With Steve, it would be like him saying, ‘Write a story on the Warriors and just make it good.’ ”
It’s an approach that has allowed everyone to take ownership of their own situation — an empowering message, and one that’s serving the Warriors well without the man who instilled it in them in the first place.
It’s also making something that many thought could be this group’s undoing look like it won’t be. And that, despite everything Steve Kerr has achieved over the past three years with the Warriors, might be his greatest accomplishment yet.