They are seamless, selfless and flawless in their ongoing Kerr-lessness, making the question about their current leader almost tasteless. Should Luke Walton receive statistical credit for the Warriors’ record 18-0 start? Or shall he remain a cold victim of interim coach discrimination — an unwritten rule adopted by the NBA without ever considering circumstances such as, oh, a defending champion bolting to the hottest start in league history without a head coach whose dura was nicked during back surgery, leading to spinal fluid leaks and severe headaches that required a short-term replacement.
For a basketball machine that has been copacetic in its unprecedented majesty this month — the Warriors even drove Kobe Bryant to announce his retirement Sunday, effective April, after his 1-for-14 crash in their historic 16th victory last week — the Walton stumper is the only subject that remotely resembles a stress point. Yes, it seems only fair that Walton, who has made the strategic sideline decisions during all 18 wins, would have those numbers inscribed by his name in history even if he’s an extension of the revolutionary system that Steve Kerr created. Walton claims not to mind, saying, “It doesn’t matter to me. It really doesn’t. I’m good either way.” It doesn’t because the Warriors, if you haven’t noticed amid a 101-game strangle in which they’ve won 81 times and claimed a colossal trophy, are a classic work of all-for-one harmony and genuinely shun individual credit. It also doesn’t matter to Walton, because, truth be told, he’s relieved not to have screwed up a thing in one of the trickier assignments imaginable — even if his temp work has been masterful and he now can name his next head-coaching job.
Yet it does matter to Kerr, who is annoyed to have been assigned the 18 victories and told ESPN.com, “Ridiculous. I’m sitting in the locker room and watching the games on TV, and I’m not even traveling to most of the road games. Luke is doing all the work with the rest of the staff. Luke is (18-0) right now. I’m not. So it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, to be honest with you.” And it generally does matter to anyone who has toiled in the workplace and wants to be acknowledged for a job well done, especially after assuming someone else’s workload.
It even matters to Bryant, who, I’m guessing, is off to a network career as an outspoken commentator, then to a Lakers management seat — where he might hire Walton, his ex-teammate, to coach. After relating that he always told Walton he was a better coach than player and that he saw him as the next Phil Jackson, Bryant saw humor last week in Walton getting no NBA credit. “By the way, this should be the easiest Coach of the Year award,” he said. “If Steve Kerr wins Coach of the Year, that’s amazing. Let Steve Kerr get it. Break Luke’s balls a little.”
As if the league isn’t breaking them enough.
The issue, in this case, is an old, stale criterion. And freakily, it involves a Warriors legend of a different era. The beloved Don Nelson owns the league record for most career coaching victories with 1,335. But during the 2004-05 season, in his final season with the Dallas Mavericks, he missed time due to health problems and was replaced in some games by interim Avery Johnson, who eventually was named to the position full-bore that March. If the league alters its policy this week and awards the 18 victories to Walton — removing the awkwardness of naming him as a well-deserving Coach of the Month with a 0-0 record — then it also must address how Nelson remains at 1,335 when Johnson won at least 10 games as an interim. And if those wins are removed? Nelson suddenly wouldn’t be the all-time wins leader, relinquishing the honor to Lenny Wilkens, who won 1,332 games. Some people view the Warrriors’ killer smallball lineup and say Nellie was running a similar system back then — including Mitch Richmond, one-third of the Run TMC party that rocked the building and who’s now part of a St. John’s coaching staff led by the “C” in that dazzling formula, Chris Mullin. So imagine the stink in some quarters if Nellie loses his record as Walton gains one: the NBA coach with the longest career-launching win streak.
That’s why it’s a delicate decision for the league. A suggestion: Allow a grandfather clause that protects past coaches such as Nelson while moving forward with a firm rule that credits interims with wins. “Hopefully,” Walton said, “they’ll make a decision and we won’t have to talk about it anymore.”
If this is all the Warriors have to worry about — this and the sprained left ankle of Harrison Barnes, which simply allowed Walton to unleash Brandon Rush’s three-point storm in a Saturday night blowout of Sacramento — it’s no wonder Stephen Curry dropped the “33-0” bomb on a global media audience the other day. While politely accepting comparisons to the soccer great, Lionel Messi, during a conference call that further confirms his new status as America’s predominant sports figure, Curry said he has spoken to teammates about the NBA-record 33-game winning streak of the 1971-72 Lakers. If you count four regular-season wins at the end of last season, the Warriors are at 22 heading into tonight’s potentially losable game against the young, gunning Jazz in Salt Lake City. The way Curry sees it, the Warriors won 16 straight last season and have opened this season with 18 straight. That’s 34, math majors.
“It’s important to have tangible goals that you can look at it and really work for, but for us, we do a great job of just staying in the moment,” Curry said. “We talk about 33. I think I’ve probably talked about it more than anybody else on the team, just because I know about the history and just really how hard it is.”
I’m with Curry. Thirty-three no longer is crazy. Improbable? Definitely, with the Warriors on a seven-game, 13-day road journey rife with vulnerability. If they survive Utah, imagine the emotional hullabaloo Wednesday in Charlotte, where Curry returns to his hometown as a conquering hero while his father, Dell, is honored by a Hornets franchise owned by Michael Jordan, one-time leader of a Chicago Bulls dynasty that posted the league’s lone 72-win season — also eyed by Steph. Then it’s off to Toronto, against a Raptors team that almost beat the Warriors at Oracle; then the next night to Brooklyn, where the New York media will be waiting in its smothering pomposity; then to Indiana, where a healthy Paul George and the Pacers are playing three-point ball. The trip concludes with a back-to-back in Boston, where old pal David Lee will be jacked to beat them, and in Milwaukee, where an Oakland hoops icon named Jason Kidd might spill a soft drink on them.
Pressure? Every time the Warriors have faced pressure — down 2-1 in the playoffs in Memphis, down 2-1 in the NBA Finals in Cleveland, their march to 16-0 this season — they’ve handled it well. Why would the eyes of the sports masses bother them? “We’re just having fun in general, not necessarily the streak,” said Draymond Green, coming off successive triple-doubles as he thrusts into the league’s top-10 individual elite. “This is a special group, special guys to be around, so we’re always having fun. And not just on the court; it’s whenever we’re together.”
Said Walton: “I don’t think our guys play with pressure, to be honest. I think challenges like this, in this streak, bring out the best in them.”
The biggest challenge of his basketball life — receiving a call in October from Kerr, who handed him the keys to the most supercharged engine in sports — also has brought out the best in Walton. Don’t make the mistake of thinking he just rolls out the ball. He has to manage their moods and maintain their equilibrium, their edge. When they won No. 16 in front of a worshipping throng, he immediately adjusted focus to a weekend back-to-back. Rather than let Curry stay in the Phoenix game and help the Warriors set a league record for three-pointers, Walton rested him. Rather than let Curry re-enter versus Sacramento when brother Seth was drlling threes late in a rout, Walton continued to rest him. “I looked at Luke for a second to see if he’d put me in to guard him for a possession or two, but that was about it,” Steph said.
“I’m sure Steph doesn’t like it,” Walton said. “But the coaching staff and the training staff, we’re thrilled to get him that rest.”
When Barnes hobbled out, Walton installed the journeyman Rush as the starter Saturday and called plays for him when he got hot. He also resisted any urge to start Andre Iguodala and repeat the whim that he and Nick U’Ren had suggested to Kerr in the Finals manuever that won a championship. Said Walton: “Andre is so big for what we do. We love the chemistry and flow our second unit has. Brandon is big enough and rebounds well enough to guard threes and he can hit open shots.”
Then there was his classy reaction to Bryant’s rough night, which may have directly inspired him to write a poem for The Players’ Tribune website, called “Dear Basketball,” in which Bryant wrote: “My heart can take the pounding. My mind can handle the grind. But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye. And that’s OK. I’m ready to let you go. I want you to know now. So we both can savor every moment we have left together. The good and the bad. We have given each other all that we have.”
Said Walton that night of his ex-mate: “He’s one of the greatest players ever. I try to focus on the fact that it’s still great to see him out there on the court, playing in that Lakers uniform and finishing his career with that team.”
Above all, Walton keeps spreading Kerr’s mantra in his absence. At the shootaround before No. 16, Kerr wanted to re-establish his core principles and wrote them for the team on a whiteboard: joy, mindfulness, compassion, competition. “He emphasized how proud he was watching them, because we’re hitting all four of those values,” Walton said. “The most important one is probably joy. He wants us having fun. It’s a long season, this game’s meant to be fun. When we hit those four things, we’re not only very tough to beat but we’re very fun to watch, very fun to coach, very fun to be around.”
The NBA is blown away. Bryant said 33 is possible. Sacramento coach Georhe Karl said he’s never seen “a better shooting and passing team,” describing Curry as “video-gamish.” Jeff Hornacek, the Phoenix coach, said they might break the Bulls’ single-season victory record. The 18-0 Warriors are the sports buzz of Planet Earth.
Except that Luke Walton is 0-0, according to the league.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.