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Steve Kerr's Absence: The True Test Of A Leader

How can an NBA head coach be both essential and unnecessary? Steve Kerr's absence during the NBA playoffs has presented a challenging, but revealing question.

Instead of a suit, Steve Kerr wore a baggy gray sweatshirt, the kind your dad might throw on to clean the garage. Rather than stand, he sat off to the side of the room, an observer in his own realm. Still, he was back at a Warriors game on Sunday for the first time in weeks, watching the opener of the Western Conference finals from the Golden State locker room and briefly addressing the players at halftime, a man unable to stalk the sideline but willing to settle for proximity. It’s now been almost a month since Kerr left to deal with ongoing complications from 2015 back surgery and, while team officials are optimistic he will coach again at some point, he remains out indefinitely.

One element of his absence is worth dwelling on, though. Here is a man who owns one of the highest winning percentages in league history, who has been named NBA Coach of the Year, and who has become so popular that there is a movement—increasingly less facetious—for him to run for office. In theory, the Warriors should be lost without him. And yet, they literally have not lost without him. Without Kerr, Golden State finished off Portland, swept Utah, and, most recently, pulled out Sunday’s 113-111 comeback win over the Spurs.

Which means that over the span of two seasons, and a pair of interim coaches—first Luke Walton and now Mike Brown—Golden State is now 46-4 without Kerr.

How are we supposed to make sense of this? How can a coach be both essential and unnecessary?

Let us investigate the possible theories and clues, starting with …

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1. The Obvious Reason(s)

Also known as Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Klay Thompson. “Everyone who gets into coaching in the NBA knows it’s all about the talent,” Kerr told me recently. And, indeed, the Warriors are deep, cohesive, and possess an almost-telepathic chemistry, especially on defense, where five players often move as one, performing an intricate dance of switches and rotations on each play. There is some truth to the idea that you could take someone from the local YMCA noon run, install him or her as Warriors coach, and the team still might win the title (so long as our noon baller knew well enough to stay the hell out of the way). As such, Golden State represents the closest thing the NBA has to a self-driving car.

Then again, at the risk of taking the automotive analogy too far, someone has to design and maintain the car. Which leads us to the idea that…

2. Kerr Possesses Some Super Secret Coaching Sauce

Ten years ago, he coached a team almost as mighty as Golden State. It rarely lost, despite holding practices at the local LA Fitness, starting no one over 6’3", and suiting up only six players, seven if they could grab someone at the last minute.

These were the San Diego Wildcats, starring Nick Kerr and his seventh grade buddies. Steve sprung the boys from last period every afternoon for “independent PE” (AKA practice). In addition to two-on-two drills, Kerr delighted in installing a few old favorites, including “Blind Pig” from the Bulls’ triangle offense (the big man comes to the high post, with the option for a “blind” backdoor pass to a cutter).

Kerr’s demeanor with the Wildcats, he told me, was “basically the same as now,” which seems unlikely considering the difference between 12-year-olds and NBA players. But Nick, who is now 24 and has shadowed the Warriors the last two postseasons, provides the same assessment. “Honestly, he was exactly like today,” Nick says. “Pretty relaxed, didn’t really yell.” Nick thinks for a moment. “Well, one time we came out really flat and weren’t trying very hard and he slammed his clipboard and it broke so, yeah, that wasn’t the first clipboard he broke in the Finals last year.

The seventh graders remain Kerr’s only coaching experience prior to the Warriors. Which suggests that perhaps he’s just a natural. Indeed, Mike Brown describes Steve possessing “this aura of success” in which “everything he touches turns to gold,” as if Kerr were the pied piper of the W's. It makes sense. Five rings as a player and one as a coach. Retired as the NBA leader in three-point percentage. Killed it as a TNT analyst.

Normally, a man this successful would be easy—maybe even fun—to dislike. Getting to play with MJand coach Steph? And yet…

3. Pretty Much Everyone Loves Steve

Coaches like him. Players like him. The media would clone him if possible, so that he might run every press conference for every team in every sport, reliably dispensing anecdotes and one-liners and big-picture context. When I ask his peers if they’ve ever met someone who doesn’t like Kerr, they profess to be stumped, though Ron Adams, the Warriors’ philosophically-inclined assistant, says, “But wouldn’t it be interesting to find someone who did?” Tom Tolbert, the former Warriors forward and Kerr’s teammate at Arizona, is less ruminative. He just cracks up. “C’mon, is it possible not to like Steve?”