Steve Kerr's jump from the broadcast booth to the most coveted open head coaching position this summer must have seemed peculiar to anyone with an outsider's perspective. After all, Kerr had no previous coaching experience and his last stop in the league was defined by tearing down one of this era's most beloved teams as the general manager of the Suns.
None of that mattered to the Warriors and Knicks, who each made Kerr their top choice to fill coaching vacancies last summer. Those around the league had long sensed Kerr held the appropriate demeanor for the job, combining a rare patience and dry sense of humor forged after a lifetime as player who was never the most talented or athletic.
The signs of a great basketball mind were always present. A thoughtful comment on TNT here, praise from the likes of Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich there. But to truly pull back the layers on what made Kerr a championship coach for Golden State and a seemingly perfect leader for the modern NBA, you have to go back to the proudest moment of his playing days.
The Bulls and Jazz were tied at 86 with 25 seconds left in Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals. Chicago had the ball, and everyone in the world knew where it was going with a chance to clinch the title on the line. The Bulls isolated Michael Jordan on the left wing, where he drained the clock and made his move with time ticking down. But when John Stockton came over to double him, the biggest star in the world did the unthinkable: he passed.
Kerr was standing in the middle of the court, a step inside the three-point line, and calmly sank the game-winning shot.
A few days later, Chicago gathered in Grant Park to celebrate a championship for the fifth time. The city had come to see Jordan and Jackson and Scottie Pippen, but it was Kerr who stole the moment. He proved himself to be funny, self-deprecating and charismatic all at once as he took to the microphone:
In a league so often known for big egos and outlandish personalities, Kerr seemed like a refreshing alternative. He was smart and respected and never took himself too seriously. The fact that Jordan even passed Kerr the ball after punching him in the face during practice only a year and a half earlier told you everything you needed to know.
There's no questioning Kerr's ability at this point. He turned a 51-win team into a 67-win juggernaut in just one season. The Warriors went from the team that threw the fewest passes in the NBA under Mark Jackson to one that lapped the league in total assists and points created by assists.
Tactically, Kerr had a golden touch all season. He took the Warriors from a two-post team to a four-out team when he started Draymond Green over David Lee, then doubled down on the small ball in the NBA Finals by famously benching Andrew Bogut for Finals MVP Andre Iguodala in Game 3 with the Warriors trailing 2-1.
Adjustments like that are easy to point to in the wake of Golden State's first championship in 40 years, but Kerr's biggest effect might have come in the small moments few got to notice. Instead of the sanctimonious air Jackson brought to the team, Kerr let the Warriors have fun.
He livened film sessions by cutting embarrassing footage of players or assistant coaches into video (as expertly detailed by ESPN's Ramona Shelburne). He let Stephen Curry take full court shots in practice. Maybe most importantly, he always played loud music to keep the players fresh and energized. Other employers should take note: Nelly improves productivity in the workplace.
Now playing at GSW practice: Ride Wit Me by Nelly— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) April 3, 2015
Every Instagram video video from the Warriors' plane showed a team that didn't just talk about being loose, they lived it. You might as well have given the Warriors the championship trophy the minute David Lee was shown singing a Big Sean song at the top of the lungs with all his teammates. This was a team that was too smart, too talented and too together to lose.
Who knows if Kerr gets the Warriors job if he wasn't Joe Lacob's golfing buddy. Who knows if the Warriors would have been this good without brilliant assistants like Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams available for hire. Staying healthy and catching seemingly every playoff opponent hampered by injuries obviously helped, too.
But while it will become trendy to copy his tactics and his in-game adjustments, it's the atmosphere he created around the team that was most important. Kerr didn't just empower his players on the court, he let them act their age and enjoy themselves off of it. NBA basketball might be a big business, but Kerr and the Warriors found success with the human element as much as any game plan. Sometimes, you know it when you see it.
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