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  • Théo Salaun

Getting It Done Without Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr’s debilitating back and neck pain returned and he might have to sit out the rest of this year’s playoffs. The Warriors were fine without him during their sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers but will need to adjust for later, more demanding rounds. Portland was an eighth seed for a reason and, especially considering their loss of Jusuf Nurkic to a non-displaced right leg fibular fracture, future foes should not be expected to fall so easily. While it will be hard to match the charisma of a man who could successfully joke about Michael Jordan, Golden State’s uniquely experienced coaching staff and composed players should be able to persevere. Kerr is vital to the team’s preparation and, in-game, their tempo and relationship with referees. The Warriors will need to lean on the defensive focus and leadership experience of their coaches Ron Adams and Mike Brown as well as their more vocal veterans Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala if the trophy is to be wrested back from Cleveland.

Kerr suffered a cerebrospinal fluid leak during a 2015 surgery on a ruptured spinal disc and those symptoms of back and neck discomfort have suddenly, inexplicably returned. Fortunately, Golden State’s “Strength in Numbers” mantra holds true as defensive guru Ron Adams, deeply experienced interim Head Coach Mike Brown, and the uniquely composed Warriors players should be able to fill the void. In 2015 the Warriors showed just how committed they are to utilizing the organization’s decentralized basketball IQ: interim head coach Luke Walton guided the team to a 39-4 start during Kerr’s rehabilitation and in the Finals one of Kerr’s assistants, Nick U’Ren, was credited with the idea to replace Andrew Bogut in the starting lineup with Andre Iguodala. The decision effectively brought the Larry O’Brien trophy to the Bay Area and helped institute Golden State’s patented small-ball, death-ball lineup. Just as the 2015 Warriors leaned on their staff’s depth to win a championship, this year’s group will need to step up if Kerr’s discomfort is prolonged. The depth and professionalism of the team’s staff and players, as well as Kerr’s limited involvement, should mean that Golden State is well-prepared for each game. And while the team’s more underspoken pieces — Ron Adams, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson — should be able to push the squad’s preparation, it will be up to Mike Brown and the team’s more vocal players and veterans — Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala — to maintain the team’s balance of on-court intensity and composure.

The path to a championship starts with the Utah Jazz, followed by either the Houston Rockets or San Antonio Spurs, and finally the Cleveland Cavaliers. With Steve Kerr at Stanford’s medical center, Ron Adams should exert more influence over the team’s preparation as their longest-tenured and most influential coach. Ron, a coach since 1969 (in the NBA since 1992), has a history of instituting stingy defenses and earning the trust of his players. The coach, known by some as “the Professor,” has been described as an underspoken Gregg Popovich and by Tom Thibodeau as “one of the top five coaches in the league. Period.” Ron worked as Thibodeau’s assistant with the Bulls from 2010 to 2013 and is considered the impetus of that team’s stifling defense (top five in defensive rating each year, holding opponents to about 90 points per game during that span). Prior, Ron was credited with pushing the Oklahoma City Thunder’s roster (complete with defensive stalwarts Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green) to a top 10 finish in defensive rating. A big reason for that OKC success? Rising star Kevin Durant bought in. That same Kevin Durant who told Bay Area reporters in July that “Ron Adams is the only reason I came here.” He might not motivationally break clipboards or argue with refs during games, but we can be sure that the Warriors will go into each game well-prepared and focused defensively under Ron’s guidance.

Steve Kerr has long been poised, charismatic, and the fire under Golden State’s ass. While Mike Brown’s coaching record has been spotty, the man has been doing it since 1996, has reached the NBA Finals a few times, and was crowned Coach of the Year in 2009. He might not be able to meet the standard set by Kerr, and he may have even had his job threatened by Warriors GM Bob Myers at half-time against the Blazers, but considering the wealth of his experience (especially with the man the Warriors seek to usurp: LeBron James), Mike is an ideal interim head coach with a persistent defensive emphasis. Having coached an ‘07 Cavaliers team with Boobie Gibson and Larry Hughes to a finish with the fourth-highest defensive rating and having spent three years under Gregg Popovich with the Spurs, you can be sure that, at the very least, the Warriors will maintain defensive team intensity each game. With the heavy tasks of calling timeouts, running plays, changing matchups, and managing the referees, it’s fortunate that Mike should have some help with team focus and tempo from his veteran leaders.

The Warriors added seven new players this summer (Zaza Pachulia, Javale McGee, Kevin Durant, Patrick McCaw, David West, Matt Barnes, Damian Jones) and one new coach (Mike Brown). The guys have spent a year together so chemistry should not be much of an issue, but the responsibility of speaking up and leading will be left to some of the team’s longer-tenured pieces: specifically, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green. As Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Shaun Livingston are all generally underspoken — we should expect them and maybe a couple reputable additions (Kevin Durant, David West) to amplify a little so that it's not just Dray and ‘Dre keeping the squad locked in. Draymond is a deserving candidate for Defensive Player of the Year and Andre is one of the decade’s best defenders so the theme recurs: sans Steve Kerr, the Dubs should look to set their tone defensively.

“I was able to manage the pain and the discomfort over the past year and a half, but suddenly things got a lot worse and I don’t know why.” As Steve Kerr told reporters, the cause of his increased ailment is uncertain. An uncertain cause typically engenders an uncertain solution and while Golden State is confident in Kerr’s return, this uncertainty has been echoed by Bob Myers: “Some things that confront people don't have solutions. There is a solution here. We just need to discover it, and we will. I'm confident we will.” Steve’s balance of competitive fire and lightheartedness is rare and will be sorely missed along with his sense for on-court personalities (both referee and player), defensive pressure, and offensive spacing. He should be able to, and has continued to, communicate with the team as they prepare for each game, but certain adjustments should emerge as the playoffs develop devoid of the team’s suited leader. The Warriors should buckle down defensively under the insistence of their notable defensive leaders and rise to the challenge of in-game management so that the relatively new roster isn’t derailed by any sparks of failure. New teams typically face chemistry issues and this team is no exception. Without Steve Kerr helping to manage composure the team’s biggest challenge should be their poise when confronted with frustrating officiating and opponents. It should get easier each game and the Dubs should be able to gain momentum against an inexperienced Jazz team before facing their final two obstacles in Texas and Ohio.

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