During his segment with Tom Tolbert yesterday afternoon, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr was asked about his current situation, which sounds quite fortunate on the surface. Tolbert detailed the accomplishments: 67 wins, the most in NBA history for a rookie head coach, highest winning percentage for a rookie coach, getting to to work every day with such a great group of guys … the usual.
Kerr noted that these wonderful things were indeed true, but he didn’t sound like someone who woke up yesterday morning with a smile on his face and a “man, I’m just so gosh darned lucky to be alive” bounce in his step. Kerr instead mentioned that when he woke up in the morning, his first thought was “we’re 0-0.” It was the kind of wry remark with a sarcastic tone that sounded like something Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich might say.
Kerr has proven several things in his first year as a head coach.
- He can lead a team to a lot of regular season wins.
- He can put together one of the finest coaching staffs the Warriors have ever had.
- Along with the help of his assistants, he can install dramatic changes in the way a team plays in a short period of time.
- Kerr and his staff can foster individual growth — every single player who was on the roster last season is better this season … except maybe David Lee, whose offensive game started to wane last year, and Lee is a much better defender this season.
But none of those accomplishments matter if Kerr’s squad gets bounced by the Pelicans. Or if they lose to the Blazers or Grizzlies in the second round. Or even if they lose to the Spurs and Popovich, one of many great head coaches Kerr learned from as a player.
So Kerr is now a prisoner of his own success, although he’d probably never admit it. Not only has he crafted one of the best regular season teams in the history of the league, a squad with an average point margin of 10.1, he’s done it with a team that’s experienced very little postseason success. The 2012-13 Warriors lucked into a fantastic matchup with a fractured Denver Nuggets team that had already begun to tune out George Karl (which shows just how meaningless “Coach of the Year” awards are, since Karl was fired after Golden State sent the Nuggets packing after six games). Beyond that, they played surprisingly well in Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio in the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs, and took a Donald Sterlinged Clippers team to seven games in the first round last year. That’s it.
So that’s where we’ll get to what’s promised in the headline. There are two tenets of NBA Playoff success that are accepted by many NBA observers as absolute truths, and neither work in the 2014-15 Warriors’ favor.
1. Teams don’t just show up and win the title. It takes years of ladder-climbing.
The Warriors went up a couple rungs in 2013, then they slid down a rung in ’14 without Andrew Bogut. There are several more rungs to climb, and Kerr’s task is to drag this team to the top in one two-month mini-season.
Kerr’s playoff career shows the above tenet to be true. Not that Kerr was the star of any of these teams, but it was after two playoff runs with the Cavs (two series wins, 11-11 record combined) and two with the Bulls (two series wins, 11-9 record combined) that Kerr won the first of his five rings with the 1995-96 Bulls. Kerr then became the picture of postseason success, as he was on four straight title-winning teams — three in Chicago before joining the 1998-99 San Antonio Spurs.
Are these Warriors so much better than the field that they can snatch ultimate glory at a stage when most teams would lose a hard-fought conference finals in six or seven games? It’s up to Kerr to transfer the knowledge he gained over his first several years as a player so the Warriors accelerate this process and become just as successful as they were in the regular season — in an environment with far more pressure — against teams that aren’t conceding wins to Golden State in order to survive the marathon 82-game schedule.
2. Teams don’t run in the NBA Playoffs. Use up that shot clock and pound it inside … or die.
Charles Barkley has it all wrong when he says the Warriors are a “jump-shooting, finesse team.”
First, they led the league in field goal percentage and made the second-most dunks in the league with 396 (five behind Utah), which means they aren’t just chucking (no pun intended) the ball up from everywhere. If anything, they’re taking advantage of the corner three — they made 46% of threes from the shortest distance, with no one else coming close (the Spurs were second, making 42.5% of their threes from the corners).
Second, a “finesse” team wouldn’t also be the top defensive team in the NBA by just about any metric that adjusts for pace. And that’s where the unknown comes into play. Great defense creates turnovers, which allows for transition opportunities.
But against teams that are more careful with the ball (like the Spurs or even the Pelicans, who finished with the third-lowest turnover percentage in the NBA this year), can the Warriors get good shots in halfcourt sets, especially against a team (like the Spurs) with a wing defender capable of slowing Stephen Curry? The Warriors’ offense was a free-wheeling force with plenty of motion and unlimited shot opportunities throughout most of the season, but there were stretches — particularly when the reserves were on the floor — where desperation jumpers were the norm near the end of the shot clock. Then there’s the oft-mentioned “problem” of not having all that much experience playing close games.
Can the Warriors win games with scores like 95-94 or even 85-82 against more experienced playoff opponents? Will they even need to? Finding out is what’ll make watching this Warriors team fascinating in the weeks ahead.
The Warriors head into the NBA season that matters with a record that inspires confidence and attracts expectations. In a mostly unfamiliar environment known as playoff basketball, can Kerr enhance the former, get his team to ignore the latter, and continue to make history by becoming the first rookie head coach since Pat Riley to win an NBA title? After playing for teams that won 105 playoff games while losing just 52 and went 26-6 in playoff series, Kerr doesn’t care about 67-15. Unless he and the Warriors can prove those “truths” wrong and turn 0-0 into 16-(?), Kerr won’t wake up with a smile on his face at any point this summer.