It’s a humbling reality that with Steve Kerr to the Golden State Warriors come questions that this franchise has worked so diligently to answer over the past few years. Say what you will about Mark Jackson’s tumultuous, successful three-year tenure in the Bay, as long as it’s not related to on-court or locker-room mystery.
Jackson consistently preached, literally, the same frustrating but fruitful strategy and rhetoric that led to Golden State’s sudden rise from laughingstock to sub-contender. And even though both angles often baffled the Warriors front office and fan base, the results – two consecutive playoff appearances and a roster that worshipped him – were hard to overlook.
That’s ultimately why his firing was met with such fanfare. The value of continuity is obvious in the NBA, and there’s almost no type of justification worth breaking it if it’s yielded such positive results. But Jackson’s overtly divisive nature was just that kind of means, especially when coupled with a devotion to old-school offensive principles that directly clashed with Golden State’s array of individual talent.
So he’s gone and in comes Kerr, a long-time friend of the front office and purportedly brilliant basketball mind. Those distinctions are pertinent; it’s debatable whether Jackson is the former, but certainly not whether he’s the latter. In an interview yesterday with USA TODAY Sports, owner Joe Lacob made delicate reference to the importance of both aspects.
“In the end, it wasn’t working out [with Jackson], which only we can probably appreciate on the inside,” Lacob told Sam Amick. “I get that people see the win total, and they think that’s all that matters. But we have an organization that’s 200 people, and everyone has to get along and work together…
“Look, at the end of the day I know that [Kerr] knows a lot about basketball. We’re taking a little bit of risk on his coaching ability, but we did that with Mark and it worked. So it’s just about finding the right fit for the organization and a guy who has extremely high potential, is a hard worker and very prepared. That’s what we have got.”
Those words are carefully minced, but extremely telling nonetheless. Lacob clearly believes that Kerr is the considerate, adaptable organizational fit that Jackson never was and Stan Van Gundy would not have been. That top-to-bottom synergy is something the league’s best organizations have and its worst sorely lack. Golden State’s been without it for so, so long despite this recent renaissance. And with a talented roster in place, Lacob, general manager Bob Myers, and company are smart to believe that franchise-wide unity and collaboration could be a final piece of the puzzle to a title.
But they’ve sacrificed sideline experience in striving to achieve that symbiosis. Kerr’s track record as an NBA decision-maker is a mixed bag. In three years as general manager of the Suns, he broke up Seven Seconds Or Less by trading for Shaquille O’Neal, hired and fired Terry Porter, and hired Alvin Gentry, who eventually guided Phoenix to a surprising 2010 Western Conference Finals appearance. Kerr laid the foundation for that team by acquiring versatile sharpshooters Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley, ultimately getting Phoenix back to its small-ball, space-based roots that he abandoned when getting O’Neal.
And it’s that specific strategic choice that is of chief importance to Kerr in his first year as Warriors head coach. Does he take Jackson’s lead of utilizing two traditional big men? Or will he fully embrace the merits of four-out, one-in? A vocal majority no doubt pines for the second approach, but the truth is that Kerr – rightfully, it be should added – will hedge to somewhere in the middle. When asked by Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News if his philosophy would strictly align with principles of the triangle offense, he alluded to such a compromise.
“The game has changed and I think my [offensive] philosophy would reflect that,” Kerr said. “For instance, I would be crazy to do away with screen and roll with Steph [Curry] – he’s devastating in it. We’ll do plenty of that.
“But we have the opportunity to make some strides offensively and I think that will be reflected in my influences – which have been [Gregg] Popovich, and Phil [Jackson], and Lenny Wilkens. They’ve all been coaches who emphasized ball movement, spacing, and flow, and having a system to rely on, and that’s what I’m looking to give.”
That layered thinking is what Lacob – and countless fans in the Bay Area, no doubt – never saw with Jackson, and something that Kerr made plainly obvious during an hours long sit-down with Golden State’s upper management in Oklahoma City on Tuesday night. Kerr has the reputation of a tireless worker and progressive basketball theorist, attributes that Jackson lacks. The influence of that standing can’t be discounted in what made him such an attractive option for the Warriors brass.
Even so, all of this is hope for now. Kerr the coach won’t be Kerr the commentator, Kerr the announcer, or Kerr the splashy offseason hire. Golden State doesn’t know for sure what its getting, but seems ultra-confident its found the right man to take the Warriors to the next level – Kerr’s five-year, $25 million contract speaks to that belief as much as anything else.
But while there’s so much cause for optimism, there’s at least some for pause, too. Disposing of a successful coach and hiring a first-time one is definitely a step back. For now. The Warriors need to learn Kerr, Kerr needs to learn the Warriors, and perhaps most importantly, Kerr needs to learn himself before all of this promise can be realized. There’s ample time for that this offseason, though, and indications – the talent of this roster, the commitment of Lacob, and the all-encompassing disposition of Kerr – point to all parties eventually making good on it.
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