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Coach of the year? Kerr’s impact spans the ages

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Steve Kerr has been the catalyst that took the Warriors from a good team to a transcendent force in the NBA. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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My breaking point came when broadcaster Jim Barnett, paid by the Warriors to analyze games on TV, endorsed Portland’s Terry Stotts as NBA Coach of the Year. Um, J.B., ever heard of Steve Kerr? The Coach of the DECADE? The coach who has turned Steph Curry into a sports and cultural supernova, the coach whose team has won 144 of 170 games since his arrival?

The coach who could become the first in modern American sports history, in a major league, to win two championships in his maiden two seasons in the profession? And the coach who just extended a league-record home win streak to 50, thanks to a 121-85 laugher over the comical New York Knicks?

Does Joe Lacob know your feelings on this topic, Jim? Does Steve Kerr know? Are you worried about your next paycheck?

Not to pick on Barnett, a comfortable game-night presence for the team’s growing throngs of fans, but he’s among many basketball folks who are bypassing Kerr’s historic impact. While the world rightfully drools over Curry’s creative transcendence, now hear this: Never, ever forget who emboldened and turned loose this devilish fiend. Before last season, Curry was a fine NBA point guard who was toughened by Mark Jackson and strengthened by his inner will after overcoming career-threatening ankle issues. But it was Kerr who recognized the sublime shooting skill of Curry and Klay Thompson, saw how they were woefully underutilized in Jackson’s offensive system — and told them to let it rip and have fun.

The result is an unstoppable, dizzying hoops revolution. The result is that Kerr, like Curry, will be in the Hall of Fame someday. The result is that Kerr, with another title in June, would have two rings as a coach to go with his five as a player, leaving him in rare air among the sport’s all-time winners.

Yet Terry Stotts is Coach of the Year.

“No one should forget that Steve created all of this,” said Luke Walton, Kerr’s assistant.

“I didn’t have any doubt that he was going to be a great coach,” said Alvin Gentry, Kerr’s top assistant last season and now head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans. “Steve is a terrific leader. This isn’t anything that’s new. He’s been preparing for this for a long time. He worked at it so hard. I learned so much from him just being here the one year.”

The timing was right Wednesday night to honor Kerr’s work. After all, the Knicks were at Oracle. Remember, he could have bit when Phil Jackson, who saved Kerr’s playing career in Chicago and elevated him from a castoff jumpshooter to a cog in the Jordan dynasty, offered him the Knicks’ coaching position 22 months ago. But Kerr, as shrewd as he is worldly, saw a much better opportunity in Oakland, where the Warriors had a talented roster in a practice gym only a few miles from Berkeley, where his daughter, Maddie, played on the Cal volleyball team. It was Kerr who alerted the Warriors of his potential availability. Lacob and Bob Myers, thinking Kerr was Manhattan-bound, were merrily shocked. When he left the meeting room after showing them binders filled with ideas, they knew they had their man and threw $25 million at him. A lot of us were shocked at the price; Kerr never had been a head coach on any level.

Turns out he was a bargain. The rest, truly, was sports history.

Not that Kerr ever will do anything but deflect all praise, among his most admirable talents.

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“It’s so rare in the NBA, in your first coaching job, to inherit a great team,” he said. “They had already won 50-plus before I even got here. A lot of talent and continuity was already there. I’m pretty lucky to coach these guys.”

Yeah, going 61-6 after going 83-20 is lucky. This team has had every reason since last June to lag, take nights off, cruise to the postseason. Kerr won’t let that happen, which is an NBA miracle. “It’s a little tougher to deliver a message this year, for sure,” he said. “Last year, we hadn’t won a championship and I could always play the card, ‘I know how to win a championship and you don’t’. It’s more a case of me reminding them why it’s important. It does get tougher as you go once you have won one and trying to repeat and trying to do it again and again. The message gets old. Got to find creative ways to deliver it, I guess.”

So how does he deliver it? “What we’re telling them is that we are preparing for the playoffs,” Kerr said. “It doesn’t matter who we are playing. We are trying to build the right habits, habits that are going to win in the postseason. We are harping on that from one game to the next — you don’t know what to expect. Shots go in and shots don’t go in, that type of stuff. You don’t want to see anyone getting beat on backdoor cuts on the weak side and nobody missing a box out. That’s what we are locked in on.”

As the Warriors seek new levels of the unprecedented, how curious that the Knicks have stumbled these two seasons. Derek Fisher, Jackson’s second choice after Kerr’s rejection, was fired last month when slow progress was exacerbated by a weird episode: a bizarre love triangle between Fisher, NBA veteran Matt Barnes and Barnes’ ex-wife that exploded when Barnes confronted Fisher. Jackson is struggling in his first executive tenure, which would be a disaster if not for the selection of 7-3 Kristaps Porzingis in last year’s draft. Rumors are strong that Jackson will opt out of his Knicks deal in the summer of 2017 to join his girlfriend, Jeanie Buss, as a tandem running the Lakers. Their coach in that scenario?

Walton, who would serve one more season under Kerr in a possible three-peat attempt. Anyone who watched the Lakers rout the Warriors this month realizes the potential of D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson coupled with $60 million in cap room. Walton keeps a house in Manhattan Beach, too. Meanwhile, an ESPN The Magazine piece suggests that Jackson might coach home games next season while Kurt Rambis, the current interim coach, works road games. Carmelo Anthony, whose career is doomed to fade in postseason underachievement, shot that one down. “Let’s kill that rumor. Phil ain’t coaching no more,” Anthony said. “He’s 70 years old, he don’t want to be on the sidelines.”

Nor would Anthony allow the home/road concept, not that it’s his decision. “I don’t think that should be accepted, I wouldn’t accept that if that was the case,” he said.

See what Kerr is missing? Rather than developing Curry into a spectacle for the ages, he could have been brought down by Anthony. His decision to join the Warriors altered basketball forevermore.

Yet Terry Stotts is Coach of the Year.

If that happens, Kerr will have yet to win the award despite a two-year run of blurry domination. Not only has he built the culture, rarely has he been wrong. Remember when he asked Andre Iguodala to come off the bench so Harrison Barnes could start? Worked. Remember when he stayed with Draymond Green as a starter after David Lee returned from his injury? Worked. Remember when the Warriors went to their smaller death lineup in the Finals, restoring Iguodala as a starter in an idea hatched by Walton and Nick U’Ren in a Cleveland bar? Worked. Remember when Walton, raw as he was, got the call to coach the team while Kerr was recovering from headaches and surgery symptoms?

Worked.

In his only crisis of an otherwise smooth season, Kerr didn’t lose his cool when Green blistered him with expletives during intermission in Oklahoma City. A private discussion was followed by Green’s public apology. That worked, too.

Coach of the Year? Just let Stotts have it. For as long as his health and spirit allow, Steve Kerr will be the best coach in sports. The only trophy necessary is the one named for Larry O’Brien.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.

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