Yeah, I know how it sounds. “It’s easy when you have Curry, Klay, and Durant.” I’ve heard it all before. The arguments against Steve Kerr being elite are large in number. But, I’m gonna break down exactly why Steve Kerr is the most important piece to this Golden State dynasty.
Steve Kerr has won three championships in four years but still doesn’t get the respect he deserves. Kerr doesn’t have your love. He doesn’t want your love. He doesn’t care what you think. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters to him is what’s in the win column.
You need talent to win, there’s no denying that. The GOAT Gregg Popovich is sitting there after a 1st round exit regretting how lackluster his roster has become without Kawhai. You need talent to win. Elite coaches like Kerr know how to maximize their talent to have serious success.
But before we get into it, let’s understand who Steve Kerr really is.
Steve Kerr played in the NBA…apparently. I only knew Kerr as the commentator from 2k15. But my father always blabbered on about how Kerr was, “Michael Jordan’s friend.” When Mark Jackson got fired in 2014 after a 51 win season in favor of Steve Kerr, I was admittedly skeptical.
So I decided to do my due diligence and figure out Kerr was as a player. What did I find looking at the highlights? Shooting. And a lot of it. Kerr was an absolute knockdown shooter. He shot a career 45.4 3PT%, that ranks #1 in the NBA all time. So yeah, he could shoot. So when Kerr takes the job, I’m thinking, “this guy will help the Warriors player development with his shooting ability.” Boy was I surprised.
In Mark Jackson’s final season the Warriors up in 6th place. When Kerr took over, he inherited the same exact roster from the year before. The difference? Kerr’s Warriors ended up with a historic 67 wins, 4th most all time. You already knew that though. I’m here to tell you why.
Steve Kerr came in with a plan. He formulated a system to tailor around the roster’s strengths, he knew which players he needed and which he didn’t. Kerr did not just create a system, he created a culture. A culture of sacrifice and unselfishness, where players do what it takes to win, not what it takes to look good.
Kerr immediately implemented his master plan. One of the most mind-boggling things Kerr did was the benching of star power forward David Lee. Keep in mind that David Lee was the Warriors highest paid player at the time. Lee, who was an all-star just the year before, essentially fell out of the rotation in favor of a relatively unknown commodity Draymond Green.
Starting Green may have just been the most important move for Kerr. Draymond became the de facto point guard for a team that is driven by off-ball movement and passing. He became their best defender and their vocal leader on the floor. He gave out defensive assignments, kept everyone in check, and most importantly had the ability to switch onto any player on the opposing team. You can see the spike in numbers as soon as Kerr started Green and put him in a role that maximized his strengths.
Green’s numbers rose in every single category, boosting his team on both sides of the ball. But Green’s biggest impact was his leadership, something that goes very underrated in basketball. Draymond’s leadership qualities are something you cannot teach. Keep in mind that if Kerr hadn’t taken this job, Draymond Green would still be sitting on the bench.
Andrew Bogut could never seem to stay healthy. Steve Kerr knew this when he inherited this team. To counter this, Kerr changed Bogut’s role entirely. Instead of having Bogut bang bodies in the post and wear Bogut out, Kerr used Bogut’s passing skills to great effect. Bogut played out of the high post a bunch and while the rest of the Warriors played off of him, creating a plethora of open looks for them. On defense, Bogut was a force, a physical defender, shot blocker, and rebounder. Kerr stripped down Bogut’s minutes to 23.6 minutes, lowest of his career at the time. The thing to remember is, Draymond Green has the versatility to play the 4 or the 5, so when Bogut came off the floor, Green would slide to the center position. The usage and minutes led to Bogut playing 67 games, the most since 2010. This in effect, preserved the big man and maximized productivity for such a fragile, but important player.
The Warriors signed small forward Andre Iguodala in 2013, hoping to add another star to the mix of a talented roster. At times Iggy looked dominant with the ball in his hands at times, but Kerr knew better. Kerr surprisingly benched the former all-star forward and slashed his minutes from 32.4 to 26.9 minutes per game.
This turned out to be a genius move. While Iggy’s stats fell a bit, his impact was undeniable. Iguodala essentially took the Draymond’s role for the bench. The leader of the 2nd unit, Iggy made his mark through his defense and his ability to do a little bit of everything. This led to GSW to being the 6th highest scoring bench in the NBA that season. This in addition to being the highest FG% bench in the NBA. Iggy’s impact on the bench propelled this 2nd unit to serious success, a serious factor in the 67 wins that year.
Although Iggy is a fabulous player, benching him did not cripple the 1st unit. Kerr saw the light with Harrison Barnes, immediately inserting him into the starting lineup. Barnes turned out to be a solid role player and a perfect complement to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
Looking at Barnes’ stats you do not see a huge bump, what you see a serious rise in efficiency. Barnes’ FG% and 3PT% rose sharply playing with the starters. This gave the stars of the Warriors a reliable option who could knock down open shots. Starting Barnes over Iggy gave the Warriors a more reliable shooter on the wing, which improved the overall efficiency of the offense.
Now we finally come to star power of the team. The “splash brothers,” as people have come to call them. Let’s start with Klay Thompson. The star shooting guard has always been talented, and a tremendous shooter, but playing in Kerr’s system was a blessing in disguise.
Take a look at the Klay’s stats and you see what I’m talking about. In 2014 he set new career highs across the board. Most notable is the spike in points per game, but do not count out his improved FG% and 3PT%. Kerr used Klay strictly off-ball. This is most impressive considering Klay’s minutes dropped from 35.4 to 31.9. Constantly having Klay run without the ball off screens got him a ton of open looks, which he took advantage of time and time again.
This is not to discredit Steph Curry at all. The superstar is a self-made player who put in hours of work to become the player he is today. However, there is no denying Steve Kerr’s impact on Curry’s productivity. In this offense, Curry was able to operate with or without the ball. Everyone knows about the handles and his ability to create his own shot. But Kerr saw Curry’s ability to move without the ball and pushed it to the max. Curry is constantly running off of ball screens and getting perfect passes from plays like Draymond, Bogut, etc.
When you look at Curry’s stats the year Kerr took over, they mostly bounce around the same averages. What’s to note from that year is the rise in efficiency, as his FG% and his 3PT% both increased. Like Klay, Curry was able to hold up the stats despite the reduction in minutes from 36.4 to 32.7. The big thing to note is in Year 2 under Kerr. Curry had his absolute beastly year. Obviously, a ton of credit goes to Curry for working hard on his jumper and all other facets of his game, that’s without a doubt. You can see above the massive increases in PPG, FG%, 3PT%, RPG, and 3PM. Year 2 under Kerr is when Curry really bought into the system, running more without the ball, getting better quality looks, which was all a product of Kerr’s system.
This is a play from 2013, with Mark Jackson still as the coach. You see Curry get doubled as soon as he gets the ball. Curry sees the double coming and throws an errant pass to Andrew Bogut near the basket.
Now you see the full effect of the Warriors system. Steph Curry gets doubled, as he often does. He hits a simple pass to his wide open point forward Draymond Green. While most big men would get stuck and stand there. Green has the skills to drive straight to the basket and create for his team. Green draws the double team and hits the wide-open Shaun Livingston for an alley-oop.
This is a staple play for the Warriors, something they can run 100s of times. The change is simple. Having Draymond Green as the pick man instead of another big man makes all the difference.
It’s the little things that make a team go from good to great. The personnel changes that Kerr made went hand-in-hand with the system he implemented. Watch any Warriors game and you’ll find Kerr’s imprints all over it. Players are constantly setting picks and moving without the ball. Even in isolation sets, there’s still tons of off-ball movement happening. The Warriors are taught to always play with their head up, ready to pass to open teammates.
Offense is great, but what propelled the Warriors to 67 wins was the new and improved defense. In Kerr’s first year, the Warriors had the best defensive rating in the league. While there are some great defenders on this team, their defense is really a testament to what Kerr implemented for this team.
Kerr has put together a strong defensive system for these Warriors. The Warriors have elite perimeter defender Klay Thompson who has the ability to pick up the other team’s best opposing guard. But what happens when you go against two strong guards? Steph Curry is not a very good defender. Lucky for him, the Warriors play very strong team defense. They are very good at double-teaming, helping, and rotating on defense. They are excellent at communicating on defense, which starts with defensive captain Draymond Green. And once again, this was all installed by Kerr.
But don’t take my word for it, check out the game tape.
There are a few things to note on this play. First, you see the great ball denial from both Curry and Iggy keeping Harden from getting the ball comfortably. Then Jason Terry steps into the paint and away from the play. The most important thing is, Curry recognizes this and leaves Terry, but he communicates with his teammates to pick up Terry. Harden is ready to go 1 on 1. Check out what the Warriors do here.
The Warriors understand the game plan Steve Kerr laid out for them. To stop James Harden and live with the other shooters. They essentially form a wall to keep Harden out of the paint where he is very crafty. Harden gets by Iggy and drives straight to the basket where Leandro Barbosa and Steph Curry are waiting. Curry knocks the ball right out of Harden’s hands for the easy turnover. A play that is possible because of the great help defense of the Warriors.
Finding the weaknesses in teams is something Steve Kerr excels at. He’s pulled off a plethora of moves that show off his cerebral mind time and time again. His most impressive move to this day was in the 2015 Finals.
The Warriors were down 2-1 against LeBron James and the Cavs. Kerr had a trick up his sleeve he had not used all season. His name was Andre Iguodala. After not starting the entire year, Kerr inserted Iguodala Game 3 into a small lineup that featured Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Iggy, and Green. A very versatile offense that would match up perfectly against the equally small Cavs.
Starting Iguodala allowed the Warriors to put a lockdown defender on LeBron James. This proved to be the difference in the series. Despite putting up enormous numbers, LeBron shot a horrendous a 39.8 FG%, credit to Iggy’s defense. After starting Iggy, the Warriors won the next 3 games handily and Iggy was awarded Finals MVP. It’s moves like this that really show off the worth of Steve Kerr. Time and time again, his ability to see beyond what the normal coach can do has been fruitful for this team.
Kerr is also flexible and adaptable with his game plans. He understands how to maximize the talent on whatever roster he is given. A perfect example of this was in the 2016 playoffs against the Trail Blazers. Keep in mind this was before Kevin Durant joined the team. A core of Curry, Klay, and Draymond led the Warriors to 73 wins that year, most in NBA history, so naturally, the expectations were high. The playoffs came about and the injury bug hit Steph Curry, hard. This effectively knocked out Curry for 3 of the 5 games that series.
The questions arose. How would the Warriors fare without their best player and league MVP? The answer? Steve Kerr knew it before anyone else.
The Warriors revolve around Curry, but Steve Kerr knows how to adapt to any situation. He played Draymond Green at the point guard position. He also gave Klay Thompson a lot more work with the ball. Both players responded with flying colors.
Let’s start with Green. He averaged an outstanding 22.2 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 7.4 APG, 45.2 FG%, and 43.3 3PT%. This in addition to the 3.2 BPG and 1.8 SPG Green piled up. Klay had a fabulous series as well averaging 31.0 PPG on 49.5 FG% and 50.0 3PT%. All those numbers blew his regular season averages out of the water.
Talent is talent, there’s no changing that, but elite coaches know how to players’ roles if/when injuries occur. This was a perfect example. Klay Thompson was regulated to playing off-ball all season, running off screens and getting open at will. In the snap of a finger, Kerr had Klay’s role change completely, asking him to become one of the primary ball handlers. With Kerr’s ability to change his system, this worked perfectly.
Draymond was mostly a passer all year who made this team better. When Curry was out, Kerr changed up the game plan which showcased Draymond’s ability to score with the ball in his hands. This showed up in the stat sheet with his 22.2 PPG.
It’s most impressive to note how Klay and Green, despite having this scoring skillset, are willing to step down and play beta roles in this offense. This is a testament to the culture Steve Kerr has instilled for this team. All his players are ready to take on a lesser role if it means winning, or take on a bigger role if need be.
Steve Kerr’s system is so easy, a caveman could do it. Okay, not really. But Steve Kerr has missed time with back pain and other issues throughout his coaching career. Despite this, his team hasn’t faltered. Luke Walton coached the Warriors to a 39-4 record and Mike Brown to a 12-0 record. Kerr has created such a strong system, that his players know how to operate even without Kerr.
This does not make Kerr expendable, however. When he was not coaching, he was still chipping in giving advice to his assistant coaches. The value of Kerr comes with the tough teams. His ability to smell out weaknesses in opposing teams and attack them is indispensable. Kerr has taught his players the system so well, that they might as well coach it.
In fact, they did.
On March 17th, 2018, the Warriors went up against the Phoenix Suns. After losing 3 of the last 4 games, Kerr knew something needed to change. Not a change in scheme, or a change in personnel, but rather a different voice in the huddle. He allowed various players including Iggy, Draymond, and Curry to explain the play that Kerr drew up for the Warriors. The result? A whopping 46 point victory over the Suns.
While this move was viewed as disrespectful to the Suns, I believe this was actually very smart. This was almost like a team building exercise where the players gain confidence amongst themselves. They start trusting each other on and off the floor. This once again a great move by Kerr which the end result was his 3rd title in 4 years.
Implementing players to a new team can sometimes be a struggle. For Steve Kerr, this never seems to be a problem. The culture he instilled here makes his players ready to sacrifice playing time and usage for the wins. Whether its a superstar like Kevin Durant, or a role player like Nick Young, they’re always ready to adapt.
Talent and coaching go hand in hand. You can’t do one without the other. The impact of a coach, however, can go miles toward making elite talent into an actual dynasty. Without the talent on this roster Golden State would not have won 3 championships in 4 years, but keep in mind the jump in productivity from all these players when Kerr joined. More than productivity, however, is the winning percentage which jumps out at you. Kerr has been the most important piece to this Warriors system. As superstar forward Kevin Durant would say, “Steve Kerr, you da real MVP.”