It’s his team, his creation, his system, his on-court monster. Never, ever forget those internal basics about the coach-turned-ghost known as Steve Kerr. Don’t make the mistake of watching the Warriors, as they assault sports history, and assume that their astonishing ascent to a higher level means any Joe, Fred or Luke can guide them.
What it says, this giddily triumphant start, is that Kerr is an even better coach than we thought. He’s capable of appointing a still-raw assistant off his bench — a 35-year-old who knew little about the craft before joining the staff last season — and serving as a whisperer in channeling his processes and methodological brainstorms through Luke Walton. No doubt Cool Head Luke has been remarkably adept in maintaining a championship team’s equilibrium and fire, never losing poise when the Warriors fell behind the Clippers by 23 points, relentlessly imploring the players that they could win as they gradually completed a comeback that mesmerized a sports nation.
“We need stops. We can’t turn the ball over,” Walton said firmly during a fourth-quarter timeout, banging his clipboard. “And we’re gonna go take this. We’re gonna go take this game.”
And they did, just as they did Friday night against Chicago, their 14th consecutive victory to start the season.
Yet who put Walton and the players in position to succeed when most teams — including the Spurs without Gregg Popovich — would be letting down without a head coach who’s sidelined with health issues? This still is about Kerr, even in absentia, and anyone who actually believes Walton is a better coach should be reminded that Kerr continues to oversee the team during practices, keeps offering wisdom inside the locker room at halftime, made his first road trip with the Warriors to Los Angeles and delivered a rousing speech to the team at the shootaround.
Upon returning to Oracle Arena, Kerr also did the unfathomable. He told Stephen Curry — Basketball Jesus to the rest of the world right now — that he’s committing too many turnovers, 13 in the last two games, and putting his teammates in dicey fourth-quarter spots. With a smile, of course, Kerr mentioned the ongoing bet Curry has with his mother, Sonya: He owes her $100 for every turnover. The coach was being a coach. He needn’t wear a designer suit to perform the functions.
“That’s just me (not) making right decisions. The last four or five games has been pretty reckless,” Curry said. “I’m not worried, besides the bill (to his mother). Going forward, I’ll be able to clean that up. It’s just sometimes you get a little excited when you play, and you’ve just got to be smart. I won’t play differently. I’ll just make better decisions.”
And if the Warrriors, as expected, establish the NBA record for best start — they’d tie the current 15-0 mark by winning tonight in Denver, then break it Tuesday night at home against the Lakers — we’ll remember how Curry throroughly bought into this historic pursuit after intially downplaying it. Don’t think that priority shift isn’t coming from Kerr, too.
“It’s a goal that’s right here and now, and that’s something that we want to experience,” Curry said of 16-0. “It would be a huge accomplishment, because obviously doing something that hasn’t been done in the history of the league is special and you never know if this opportunity will come back again. So we want to accomplish that, since we’re here.”
Indeed, Kerr is coaching this team everywhere except in the public eye, where he can’t commit to spending an entire game on the bench until he’s absolutely comfortable he can get through 2 1/2 hours without recurring headaches and other symptoms from his post-surgery spinal fluid leak. If he returned and suddenly had to leave, say, in the middle of a game, the setback could ground him the rest of the season. A cerebrospinal fluid leak is as dangerous as it sounds. When a headache occurs, it can be so incapacitating that a victim is unable to walk or stand, needing to lay down to feel better because the pain is so fierce vertically. A coach, obviously, needs to stand, pace and shout, and if Kerr can’t do it without experiencing headaches, vertigo or other potential complications, then, yes, he’s better off staying behind the scenes on game nights.
That’s why he and the Warriors have no timetable for his return. “I think the better question or more pertinent is, once he starts being more engaged in practice or feeling up to it or starts asking me something like, `Hey, when do you think I should go back?’ ” said general manager Bob Myers, who obviously hasn’t heard the question yet from Kerr. “Hopefully, it’s at some point. We don’t pressure him at all, but we just want him to feel better and get better.”
Fairly soon, Kerr should be ready to resume his regular duties. Therein lies a delicate conundrum: Even when that day arrives, the timing must be right so his transition is seamless and doesn’t become a distraction. When a team is on a historic roll, you don’t want to risk even a slight bump on the superhighway; never mind that Kerr is a big reason why the superhighway exists. If LeBron James wanted to join the Warriors right now, you wouldn’t do the trade. The coaching situation is no different. Ride out the status quo.
Said Curry: “Luke has stepped in really well in coach Kerr’s absence. It’s the same system. They have different temperaments, but for the most part, coach Kerr is still plugged in, and Luke is pushing the right buttons. At the end of the day, it’s about whether those of us on the floor are bringing the energy every night, executing the game plan, playing smart and playing defense. If we do those things, we’re in pretty good shape every night, and Luke is doing a good job of keeping us focused on those elements.
Of course, Walton deserve large praise for a smooth transition. These four weeks have been so flawless, Kerr kids that Walton might be named NBA Coach of the Year — and it may not be a joke.
When James complains, “We lost in the Finals. And the team that beat us looks more hungry than we are,” — Walton deserves credit for not letting the hunger wane.
When Lakers coach Byron Scott says of the Warriors, “They don’t have that championship hangover. I think they want more, which is scary. They’re not living on last year,” — Walton deserves credit for not letting them loaf.
When the perpetually distraught Doc Rivers says of the Warriors after another devastating Clippers defeat, “They kept trusting, their ball found everyone, they kept finding the open guy,” — Walton deserves credit for honing the trust-and-share quotient.
Then, listen to the Warriors speak of their bulging confidence.
“I think we can bottle this — the way we’re playing and the belief that we have — through the rest of the season and the playoffs,” Curry said.
“We’re addicted to the feeling of winning,” Klay Thompson said. “We want it so bad again, we’ll almost play through anything.”
“You’re the champions, you feel like you can win any game, you never feel like you’re out of anything,” Walton said. “Our guys have that.”
When a machine is operating at optimum performance level, even the creator knows to stand back and let it thrive. Fortunately, Kerr does not have a sizable ego. If anything, he’ll be the one most cautious in monitoring the speed train and determining the right time to board. Maybe he’ll return during the natural break for All-Star festivities, which begins after a Feb. 10 game in Phoenix and doesn’t end until they’re due in Portland for a Feb. 19 game. Maybe it’s the Christmas game against LeBron and the Cavaliers, a time for perspective and thanks for love and good health.
But at the moment, as Draymond Green shouts every night, the Warriors must “stay the course.” And that means Luke Walton coaches while Steve Kerr watches, as the rest of the world observes in awe.
“We love their team and check them out all the time,” said Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who hosted Kerr at training camp two summers ago when a rookie coach wanted to learn from a Super Bowl champion. “Their ability to hold their mentality, following the big championship season, I think is extraordinary and really notable.
“And for Luke to get a chance to fill in for Steve when he’s down, it’s a rare opportunity with such a great team. But I’m sure Steve has helped them out as much as he can.”
Let it be.