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Steve Kerr reads coaching legends to find ways for Warriors to sustain success in a league built to beat them

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Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr during the first quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers on October 12, 2018 at SAP Center in San Jose, California. (Chris Victorio / Special to S.F. Examiner)

SACRAMENTO — This Christmas, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr got six books to read. A fan of both fiction and nonfiction, Kerr first knocked out a book on New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, the second one he’s read on the five-time Super Bowl champion.

Kerr is an avid consumer of coaching books, be they on (or by) John Wooden or his own former coach, Phil Jackson. If Gregg Popovich wrote a book, Kerr said, he’d read that. “He’s not going to write a book, though,” he said after Saturday morning’s shootaround at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento.

Kerr has used what he’s read in now two books on Belichick, as well as books all the books by Jackson and many from Wooden, with his staff, in meetings, in tweaks he’s made to practice schedule and in general preparation.

“I probably couldn’t be any more different from Belichick,” Kerr said. “Our personalities are entirely different, but a great coach is a great coach. You study certain things, you read about certain things that they do. I read about a lot of coaches. A lot of things click.”

Last season, the Warriors were a bit listless during an injury-plagued regular season, and Kerr searched for how to motivate a team that had been to the Finals four straight years. With Golden State approaching the midway point of this season, mired in a near-monthlong malaise, Kerr is again tasked with divining ways to sustain success in a league he and the Warriors changed, a league populated by more and more teams purpose-built to beat them at their own game.

“We are going to continue to work and get to the point where we’re going to reach our potential, but we haven’t gotten there yet, that’s for sure,” Kerr said. “We just haven’t gotten to the point where we know what to expect from our group, night-in and night-out. It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster ride the whole first half of the season. Some of the this to do with injuries. Some of that has to do with the fact that we just haven’t built the momentum that can come through consistent play and attention to detail. That’s what we have to get to, and I’m confident we’ll get there.”

Inconsistent play plagued Golden State last season, in large part, Kerr said, because it was tough to find adequate motivation for a team that had won two of the last three NBA titles, avenged a Finals defeat and had been to the NBA Finals three years in a row. He vowed to find ways to make this year more fun, and at times, the Warriors have played with their trademark joy, but more often than not, they’ve been disjointed. Kerr’s broad reading and sports consumption is not a new habit, but it’s one that could find more expression in the dog days of the NBA season.

“I think it’s really interesting to look at other sports as a coach, and see what other coaches, managers are doing,” Kerr said. “I watch Premier League soccer, and I enjoy watching the postgame press conferences with the managers — which, by the way, is a way better term than ‘coach.’ That’s what we’re doing: We’re managing. I may start referring to myself as a manager.”

These Warriors, Kerr has said recently, are arguably the most scrutinized team in NBA history, partly for the place and the historical moment in which they arrived — in the Bay Area, a hub of technology, in the midst of the social media boom, in front of a long-suffering fan base. It’s why there’s seemingly more pressure to be perfect, and to manage multiple multi-millionaire personalities under ever-higher expectations.

“You’ve got to deal with all the noise, because where we are right now as a team, anything less than a championship, and the dynasty’s over,” Kerr said.

For Kerr, the word ‘dynasty’ is one with a nebulous meaning, especially in today’s context.

He looks to Belichick’s Patriots — who have played in eight Super Bowls and won five in 17 years — and Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs  as models for what he and president of basketball operations Bob Myers want to establish.

“The Spurs and the Patriots, as far as I know, are the only two teams that have been doing this for two decades in professional sports,” Kerr said. “I think we have the potential to be a franchise like that. But, there’s also a lot of luck and a lot of work that goes into it. That’s what we’d like to do.”

Kevin Durant and Draymond Green’s spat earlier this season was seen by many as the first cracks in a charmed four-plus-year existence for the Warriors. Impending free agency for both Durant and Klay Thompson looms, and Green’s after that. The youth movement the Warriors have tried to establish through the draft has seen mixed results. The end is coming, and Kerr has not been shy about saying that, but perhaps only the end of this version of the Warriors.

“I think of it in terms of ‘Let’s be good for a long time,’ and that’s Bob’s goal, that’s Joe [Lacob]’s goal,” Kerr said. “If you think in the NBA, that means 20 straight years we’re going to have a team that’s going to be a championship contender, I don’t know, I don’t think there’s ever been [a team like that].”

Certainly not one that’s caused a tectonic shift in the way the game is played at the NBA level, with more and more positionless basketball, a concentration on the 3-point shot and a rapid uptick in pace of play.

“There’s no question that the league is dramatically different now, compared to 2015,” Kerr said. “Teams have emulated us in a lot of ways, in terms of pace. Four years ago, we were No. 1 in the league in pace. Now, we’re in the middle of the pack, and we’re actually playing faster than we did four years ago, so the whole league’s playing faster, the whole league’s playing smaller, shooting more threes.”

To Kerr’s point, the Warriors in 2014-15 led the league with a pace of 99.29 possessions per game. They are now 10th, at 101.67.

Golden State just lost to a Houston Rockets team whose general manager, Daryl Morey, out-and-out said his team last season was built expressly to beat the Warriors, and were it not for a Chris Paul hamstring injury, the seven-game Western Conference Finals could have gone down in Houston’s favor. On Thursday, the Rockets — pacing the league in 3-point shot frequency — made up a 20-point deficit to win in overtime at Oracle Arena.

Likewise, the Toronto Raptors — a team with arguably the deepest roster in the NBA, and certainly deeper than Golden State’s — blasted the Warriors by 20 back in mid-December. The Denver Nuggets are built following Golden State’s model, too, and won 100-98 earlier this season.

Saturday’s opponent, the Sacramento Kings — who have been atop the pace rankings most of the season — currently stand in second in terms of pace of play, at 105.05. They belong to an owner in Vivek Ranadive who was once a minority owner of the Warriors, and is by several accounts obsessed with Golden State, to the point of drafting a point guard in Buddy Hield, who he thinks is the next Stephen Curry. In the first two meetings with the Warriors this season, the Kings have lost by one and five points.

“They say imitation’s the sincerest form of flattery, and that’s true,” Kerr said. “We’re seeing a lot of teams that are coming at us, just like we’ve been going at other teams for many years. The league’s gotten better. The quality of play out here, the number of teams in the Western Conference who are really good, including this one, here tonight, totally different than four years ago.”

With the league catching up to them, the Green-Durant dust-up and the latest monthlong swoon that’s seen the Warriors (25-14) drop to third in the Western Conference behind the Nuggets and Oklahoma City, there has been no shortage of stories written about the beginning of the end for Golden State. Kerr had seen that before, when he was with San Antonio.

“We have to live with the headlines, and the headlines are going to be written,” Kerr said. “The minute we take a dive and lose a few games, the stories are already being written: Is this the end of the Warriors dynasty? We can’t worry about that.”

The only constants in Belichick’s tenure has been Tom Brady, and yet, the Patriots have endured. For the Spurs, who have played in six Finals and won five (none consecutive) since Popovich took over in 1996, the constants were David Robinson and Tim Duncan, then Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Then it was Kawhi Leonard, until he was traded to Toronto amid bad blood between him and the organization. Despite that turnover, San Antonio has been to the playoffs in every season since Popovich arrived, save his first.

“They sort of have periods where they’ve re-assessed and re-loaded, kept going and maybe even had a new iteration of their team,” Kerr said. “Pop’s probably done that three or four times,” Kerr said. “That’s the goal. But, what everybody’s going to talk about is this version of the Warriors: How long will that last? That’s got a finite term limit. It just does.”

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