They say players win championships. I’m not so sure about that.
I mean, I get what the saying means, that a coach can draw up the greatest game plan, but if the players don’t execute it and make plays, the team isn’t going to win.
But the Golden State Warriors are perennial winners, and the most important reason is coach Steve Kerr.
I know what you’re going to say. He has all these great players, of course he wins. But he hasn’t had all those great players, at least not all at the same time, for much of these playoffs, and past playoffs as well. Yet the Warriors are doing something not done in the NBA since the 1950s and 1960s: Playing in five straight NBA Finals.
Next Man Up
Kerr has had to juggle his lineup quite a bit this season, especially in the postseason. Yet the Warriors don’t seem to skip a beat, compiling a 13-5 record heading into Wednesday night’s Game 3, with a third straight NBA title just three wins away.
DeMarcus Cousins goes down in the first round? No problem. Kevin Durant is sidelined since the second round? No sweat. Andre Iguodala is sidelined for a game? Still another win.
Now Kerr has to deal with Klay Thompson possibly being less than 100 percent in Game 3 — if he even plays — and have one less bench player with the loss of Kevon Looney for the rest of the Finals, yet who is betting against the Warriors?
Building A Legend
In his five seasons as the Warriors’ head coach, Kerr has created a culture of winning. His rise to championship coach seems to mirror a couple of great coaches, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.
Riley was a Lakers broadcaster when he got pulled to the Los Angeles bench for the 1981-82 season, then was thrust into the head coaching role when Paul Westhead was fired early in the season. What did Riley, with no head coaching experience, do? Simply take the Lakers to the title in his first season, then lead the team to the Finals in six of the next seven seasons, winning three more titles along the way.
Jackson? Everyone remembers his NBA record 11 coaching titles with the Bulls and Lakers, but when he became head coach of Chicago, he wasn’t exactly a household name, making his NBA debut with the pressure of coaching Michael Jordan to a title. In his second season, he did it, starting a run of NBA titles in six of the following eight seasons.
Kerr was a TNT broadcaster when he decided to coach the Warriors (picking them over the Knicks – good choice) in 2014. Golden State has been in the Finals every season since, winning the title in three of the past four seasons and looking like a good bet for a “three-peat” this season.
Kerr isn’t widely renowned for his coaching acumen, not like someone like Gregg Popovich or even Mike Budenholzer, two coaches who have won Coach of the Year awards since Kerr began his Warriors gig.
Kerr has won Coach of the Year just once in this five-year run (he’s not among the finalists this season), and it took a 73-win season for him to earn it. Much like Riley — who didn’t win Coach of the Year until 1989-90, the season after the Lakers’ amazing Finals run — Kerr is overlooked because of the talented players he coaches.
Yet it’s the way he handles those players that makes him such a good coach. When Durant joined the team after they’d won 73 games, there were no hiccups or problems between players, because Kerr wasn’t going to allow it.
The soft-spoken Kerr has his players’ respect, which makes them play with confidence every time they hit the floor. Every player that he plugs into the ever-changing Warriors lineup this postseason has come out knowing their role and, more often than not, contributing to the team’s success.
That doesn’t just happen. While other teams — like the Raptors — shorten their benches in the postseason, Golden State has had nearly every player on its bench play some significant minutes in the postseason. Twelve different players have been in a starting lineup for the Warriors this postseason, showing Kerr’s feel for his roster as well as his confidence in even the deepest of bench players.
Kerr keeps his team at an even keel no matter what is going on. There’s a reason this team has won at least one road game in 23 straight playoff series. He doesn’t allow his team to get down or panic.
Again, you can point to Curry and Thompson and Draymond Green as leaders of the team that help him do his job. But, just like Riley had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, and Jackson had Jordan and Scottie Pippen, then Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, Kerr empowers his players to be leaders, so he doesn’t have to be yelling instructions at them all the time.
Kerr is on a historic run as a coach. The five straight NBA Finals are amazing, but then remember that he hasn’t had a season as a head coach end short of the Finals yet. If he wins a championship this year, he’ll have nine as a player and coach combined. That’s still short of Jackson’s NBA record of 13 combined titles, but it’s still pretty darn good.
And Kerr is just getting started.