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Despite loss, Warriors are title contenders under coach Steve Kerr

MEMPHIS -- Steve Kerr barreled down the sideline, face flush, arms waving wildly. Mike Conley had just flipped in a fourth quarter layup and Kerr, along with the rest of the Warriors' bench, thought he took too many steps to get there. The outburst drew a technical foul, handing the Grizzlies a critical free throw late in the fourth quarter of an eventual 105-98 Memphis win.

It was a rookie move by a rookie coach. Fortunately for Golden State, it’s one of only a few Kerr has had this season. The Warriors swallowed a loss on Tuesday and saw their 16-game winning streak come to an end, but make no mistake: With Kerr on the sideline and a roster seemingly improving by the day, this Warriors team is a true championship contender.

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A heavily debated question around the NBA is this: Would Golden State be this good without Kerr on the bench? Mark Jackson won 51 games with this group last season. The Warriors were bounced in the first round by the Clippers, but they played the series without Andrew Bogut, the defensive linchpin whose bone-crunching screens on the offensive end gave sharpshooters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson the space needed to get off shots. No question, Jackson was polarizing; Warriors owner Joe Lacob apologized for claiming recently that Jackson was universally disliked within the organization, but there were many who were exhausted by Jackson’s constant politicking. And Jackson’s overreliance on isolation plays contributed to Golden State’s surprisingly inefficient offense last season.

Kerr, predictably, isn’t interested in entertaining that hypothetical.

“I inherited a hell of a team,” Kerr said. Still, Kerr’s imprints are everywhere. Ball movement has been a particular point of emphasis. Practices are built around it. Discussions during timeouts are dominated by it. If a player isn’t moving the ball, Kerr is quick to yank them off the floor. The result: Golden State’s percentage of field goals assisted (62.2 percent) has increased from last season (59.1).

Thompson, in particular, has benefitted from Kerr’s arrival. Already a rising star -- the four-year, $70 million extension Golden State handed him in the offseason is evidence of that -- Kerr has worked to unlock all the facets of Thompson’s game. He has encouraged Thompson, one of the game’s best catch-and-shoot players, to be aggressive off the dribble. Thompson is averaging 5.7 points on drives per game, up from 2.8 last season, and has nearly doubled his number of free throw attempts. Kerr has prodded Thompson to be more of a facilitator, and as a result, Thompson is averaging a career-high 3.5 assists. He has also done it while posting more points (21.7) more efficiently (44.9 percent) than last season.

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“He’s going to get better every year, regardless of who is coaching him,” Kerr said. “He’s a naturally great talent and a hard worker. He’s an incredible shooter [but] he’s a big, strong guy who can handle the ball.”

And has Kerr, a trusted teammate of Michael Jordan in the mid-1990’s, imparted any Jordan secrets on Thompson?

“Never have,” Kerr said, smiling. “I guess I could. Maybe, at some point.”

Kerr is a first-year coach, but his philosophies are familiar, a distinct blend of the coaches he played under. He absorbed the need for constant ball movement from Gregg Popovich, with whom Kerr won two championships in San Antonio. He learned the need to foster a positive atmosphere from Phil Jackson, with whom Kerr won three championships in Chicago. During the offseason, Kerr met with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, marveling at Carroll's ability to have fun, high energy practices and aggressively tapping into the mind of one of the NFL’s best.

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For Kerr, the toughest part of coaching has been not having enough time to do it.

“I had a lot of thoughts coming in, things I wanted to practice every day,” Kerr said. “All of a sudden the season starts, and you have to have a day off, physically, for the guys to rest. The next day you have a game and you have to have a game plan. You go to shootaround and you think, ‘I have five other things I want to get in.’ Late-game three-point defense, miss a free throw on purpose, can we set up a play to try to get a bucket. I’d love to do that every day but we would be there for three hours. You have to find time for everything.”

Ultimately, Kerr will be judged by his success in the playoffs, on his ability to succeed where Jackson failed and where the Warriors, with a $73 million payroll, expect to make a deep run. Kerr does, too. He handpicked Golden State, spurning Phil Jackson and the rebuilding Knicks for a team and a roster built to win now. The 16-game winning streak is over, but Kerr and the Warriors believe more meaningful wins are to come.