Kurtenbach: Steve Kerr turned in his best coaching performance of the year… by not coaching
OAKLAND — Steve Kerr found a way to make a game against the Phoenix Suns in February interesting.
If that’s not coaching genius, I don’t know what is.
The Warriors are days away from the much-needed and much-anticipated All-Star break, and that gave Monday’s game against a shorthanded Suns team a good chance of being the nadir of a season where the Warriors’ dazzling talent has too often given away to disinterest and on-court lethargy.
But Kerr was able to coax a strong, engaged effort out of his team in their final home game before the break, as the Warriors beat Phoenix by 46 points.
And all Kerr had to do to get his team to play their best basketball was to get of the way.
Kerr handed over control of his team to… well, his team, on Monday and it paid almost immediate dividends. Instead of his stars — fried from three-and-a-half years of being the NBA’s best team — going through the motions against an inferior team, they were the ones drawing up the motions on the grease board during timeouts. (To varying degrees of success.)
It was a pitch-perfect move executed at the right time and, to me, it stands out as the best coaching performance of the season for Kerr and one of his finest performances of his career. Yes, even though he wasn’t really the coach on Monday.
We’d like to think that coaches prove their worth in the big moments or over long spans of time, but the truth is that they’re also defined by how they handle a team during Monday night games against the Suns in February.
Kerr admitted after Monday’s game that he felt his team was tuning him out — something that didn’t come as a surprise to anyone who covers the team regularly — and that it needed a new voice, at least for a day.
“I have to coach my team,” Kerr said. “I have not reached them for the last month. They’re tired of my voice. I’m tired of my voice. It’s been a long haul over these past few years.”
But Kerr also needed his players to give a damn on Monday — after their worst stretch of play this season, the Warriors appeared to pull out of their malaise with wins last Thursday and Saturday, and Kerr didn’t want them to go back into a funk with two games to play before the All-Star break. But that was going to be a tall ask — Phoenix is really, really bad, and the Warriors have turned half-efforts against bad teams into an art form this regular season.
By letting Andre Iguodala be the coach at shootaround Monday morning (with JaVale McGee running the tape), and then letting him, Draymond Green, Stephen Curry, and David West handle the huddles in Monday’s game, Kerr found a way to get the Warriors players to engage in a game that they almost certainly considered perfunctory 24 hours earlier.
Again, it was a stroke of brilliance.
Kerr could have “given the game” to an assistant — a move Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has done before — but assistant coaches are still coaches, so it probably wouldn’t have elicited the desired engagement. After all, the Warriors assistant coaches have always played a significant role under Kerr —remember: top assistant Mike Brown coached an NBA Finals game last year.
No, Kerr had to go bigger than that Monday.
Kerr and his assistants handled the rotations, but he let the players call plays both in-game and during timeouts. It was bold and different — Kerr couldn’t think of a precedent and I certainly haven’t seen it done at the NBA level since the era of the player-coach, when Bill Russell and Al Attles worked both sides of the sideline — and that grabbed the Warriors’ attention.
More importantly, the responsibility coaching Monday’s game tapped into the Warriors players’ prodigious (but too-often wayward) pride without challenging it.
That’s a tricky line to not cross, but Kerr walked it perfectly Monday.
We shouldn’t be surprised Kerr came up with a plan like Monday’s. After all, the Warriors’ coach isn’t fame-seeking ideologue — something too many coaches (most all of them terrible) are these days — he understands that coaches are merely custodians of talent, and he’s proven time and time again that he handle someone (or someones) else taking control.
Yes, Kerr has always been wise enough to know that his success as a coach — he became the fastest coach to 250 wins in NBA history on Saturday — is 100 percent a byproduct of inheriting great players who were already well coached before he arrived. Now Kerr has done a tremendous custodial job since he took over before the 2014-15 season, no doubt, but he’s always been quick to acknowledge that players like Curry, Green, Iguodala, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson win championships, not him.
And it should have come as no surprise that Kerr’s players proved capable of coaching themselves for a game (or two, or 10 — if need be). Frankly, it would be bizarre if they couldn’t.
A good coach empowers players to make key decisions — in other words, to be coaches. Outside of some of his playoff rotations, Kerr has never been a micromanager, but on Monday, he took empowerment to a new level.
Now some, like NBATV’s Sam Mitchell, believe that Kerr letting his team coach itself Monday was disrespectful to the Suns.
I’d imagine that Mitchell was just projecting some insecurity. There’s a reason that he doesn’t currently hold an NBA coaching job and is broadcasting, and seeing Iguodala and/or Green work the grease board probably served as a reminder that both players could put Mitchell out of a work as either a coach or a broadcaster.
And I would argue that putting the players in charge of the game is a competitive advantage for the Suns, and if they felt disrespected by such a concession, then they should have done something other than lose by 46 points Monday.
(I’m wondering how much Phoenix would have lost by if Draymond Green wasn’t the one most often drawing up plays Monday. I think Green is a brilliant basketball mind and I’ve long held the belief that he could absolutely, 100 percent, be an NBA coach if he wanted to go that route when his career is over, but the man called an alley-oop play for Omri Casspi Monday night — clearly his touch as a play-caller isn’t well refined.)
Now Kerr, to his credit, was aware that Monday’s move could ruffle some feathers, leading him to talk to Suns coach Jay Triano about his decision after the game. But at the same time, he knew what he had to do to get the best performance out of his team. If that upsets you Troy Daniels, so be it.
Let’s not forget that, far more so than drawing up plays in a huddle, getting the best out his team is Kerr’s job as a coach. (This is a lesson for you, Sam Mitchell.)
Kerr did just that on Monday.
Source: Kurtenbach: Steve Kerr turned in his best coaching performance of the year… by not coaching