Steve Kerr's decision to coach Warriors over Knicks makes basic basketball sense
After agreeing to a five-year, $25 million contract with the Golden State Warriors, Steve Kerr has staked a claim as the NBA's most well-liked and least-known head coach. Those in and around the league are obviously familiar with Kerr as a player, general manager and broadcaster. Some know him well as a person, too, and those who do largely respect his basketball acumen. Yet no one -- not Joe Lacob, Bob Myers or Kerr himself -- can claim to know much at all about Steve Kerr, the coach.
Kerr accepted the first coaching job of his basketball life on Wednesday night by signing with the Warriors. Kerr won't merely be a rookie head coach taking his first steps into a larger world, he'll be a rookie coach altogether. Kerr arrives at Golden State without any coaching experience, having never served as an assistant or in a player development role of any kind. Yet Kerr was held in such high esteem as to be fancied by two of the highest-profile franchises in the league. On one coast were the Warriors -- an exciting, talented team with ample room for growth. On the other were the Knicks -- a storied franchise now shepherded by Phil Jackson, Kerr's friend and former coach.
Kerr's choice, while surprising, makes plenty of basketball sense. A lot goes into an arrangement like this one, from personal relationships to job security to the sheer weight of financial compensation. Those factors and more were Kerr's to parse for himself. Yet when it came to choosing which of these two rosters he would rather coach, I see no reasonable argument in New York's favor.
Even if we suppose that the Knicks are able to retain Carmelo Anthony (who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer if he so chooses), Kerr would still be in charge of a rebuilding effort with a flawed star on a bulky contract at its center. Anthony's game, artful though it might be in some respects, doesn't easily lend itself to a contender. He's shown that he can carry an offense to a top-10 regular season mark, though his style of play does not augment the contributions of other star-caliber players.
That's because Anthony is, in so many ways, a riddle -- talented and productive enough offensively to warrant his stature as a star, though difficult to build around in a way that should make a new coach like Kerr nervous. So many other coaches have tried and failed to make Anthony a more complete player, but even after 10 NBA seasons Melo's defense remains a problem. That wouldn't be such a glaring issue if the rest of the Knicks roster could make up for Anthony's deficiencies, though the most attractive quality of this current supporting cast is its expiring contacts. In a year's time the cap-clogging deals of Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani will all expire, clearing the decks of a limited roster. Beyond that lies relative uncertainty, with or without Anthony as an anchor.
From the top of the roster down the Warriors' job is far preferable. Stephen Curry is the younger (and frankly, better) of the superstars in play and an established favorite of Kerr's. On his own Curry gives the Warriors momentum, through which Kerr could motor his way around the first year learning curve. Curry's spectacular shooting is fit for any system. His passing, too, begs for an even larger playmaking role than he was afforded under Mark Jackson. He is the type to make his teammates better just by stepping on the floor, which is in itself an incredible luxury for a coach who will have to feel his way through lineup decisions and the like. If a player like Anthony introduces difficult questions, one like Curry provides a wide range of answers.
The differences throughout the rest of the roster are even more profound. Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green are enviable defensive assets who, frankly, could make any coach look good. Klay Thompson and David Lee are valuable in unlocking the Warriors' full offensive potential; there's really no reason why a team this well-stocked with passers and shooters should slum it by scoring at a rate just slightly better than the league average, yet Golden State did just that under Jackson this season. There will be lofty expectations after Jackson's tumultuous exit and the 51-win season that preceded it, though Kerr could bring about genuine offensive improvement for a team that has the obvious capacity to do better.
Before any talk of how Kerr might move the Warriors forward, though, he must first prove that he can return them to their baseline. Jackson wore his tactical flaws on his sleeve; it was easy to see the error in his all-bench lineups or mismatch-chasing post-ups, to say nothing of the macro-level missteps of his coaching work. But ultimately, Jackson coached this team to solid execution. Their effort and focus were not matters of debate, which is more than can be said of many other rosters. Reaching that square-one point -- and building an actionable trust with his players -- will be Kerr's first test as a coach, and in time he will be held to Jackson's standard. Consider it the burden of a roster well-built; while the Knicks job offered the chance to learn under Jackson and come along slowly with lower stakes, Kerr's decision to step into the better basketball situation brings certain hardships. May he handle those hardships more ably and cordially than his predecessor.