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WARRIORS COME OUT TO PLAY

Feb. 23, 2015
Feb. 23, 2015

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Feb. 23, 2015

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  • TWO DECADES AGO, LONG BEFORE A REPLACEMENT PLAYER WAS A WELL-KNOWN SABERMETRIC MEASURING STICK, MAJOR LEAGUE CAMPS WERE OVERRUN WITH A DIFFERENT KIND OF FILL -IN: HORDES OF HAS-BEENS AND WANNABES CHASING DREAMS WHILE REAL BIG LEAGUERS WERE ON STRIKE. IT WAS FUNNY, SHAMEFUL—AND FOR ONE PLAYER, TRAGIC

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WARRIORS COME OUT TO PLAY

One-dimensional and one-and-done last postseason, Golden State has morphed into a multifaceted favorite this year. The catalyst? Start with that bony, spiky-haired coach

THE GIANT in the yellow T-shirt lumbers across the concrete floor, advancing on his target.

This is an article from the Feb. 23, 2015 issue Original Layout

It's a Wednesday evening in late January, in the cavernous underbelly of Oracle Arena, minutes before the first-place Warriors are to host the Rockets. Golden State's primary owner, Joe Lacob, has just finished speaking to a bunch of venture capitalists in North Face vests. Straddling a stool in a private room, the 59-year-old held forth on penciling profits and leveraging assets and the general awesomeness of Steph Curry—but now he's headed toward his courtside seat. Before he can get far, however, the giant intercepts him, bellowing, "Thank you, Joe!"

Lacob peers up and recognizes the looming figure of Bill Walton, whose son Luke is a Warriors assistant. "Thank you!" Walton shouts a second time, pumping Lacob's hand. "Thank you for everything you've done!"

Lacob smiles nervously. "It feels weird when people say that," he says. "We haven't accomplished anything yet."

"But you have!" booms Walton, becoming serious. "You've changed everything. You've made people believe again."

For decades, this was a franchise that took and took from its fans while providing little in return. But no one expected change to come this quickly. Five years ago, when Lacob and Peter Guber bought the team for $450 million, Golden State was coming off a stretch of 14 losing seasons in 16 years. The roster was riddled with D-Leaguers. The previous owner, the reclusive Chris Cohan, was loathed by fans, who blamed him for the team's misfortunes. The coach, Don Nelson, in his final melancholy iteration, was already daydreaming about his beachfront home in Maui.

And now? Now, the Warriors are riding a 107-game sellout streak. At points this season, they've had the top-ranked offense and defense. Their core is young and talented, their assistant coaching staff experienced, their owner committed. Their executives earned SportsBusiness Journal's Team of the Year award in 2014.

Which leads to the question that all of the NorthFacers want answered: How, in just five years and without a draft pick higher than No. 6, did Golden State go from a joke franchise to one of the best in all of sports?

The answer is about basketball and business, of course, but ultimately it's about people. It involves a prideful pastor and a reclamation project, a spindly point guard and a versatile power forward, an impatient millionaire and a UCLA walk-on. And, in perhaps the most crucial role this spring, a professor's son with a knack for diplomacy.

AT 49, STEVE KERR still looks more like a YMCA All-Star than an NBA player, all elbows and spiky blond hair. In his years with the Bulls and the Spurs, Kerr was the guy you figured you might be able to take on a good day. Skinny, short, bereft of hops. And yet somehow, magically, he won five titles, earned the trust of Michael Jordan and retired as the game's most accurate three-point shooter.

As a coach, Kerr can give off a similar vibe: The Guy Who Just Got Lucky. He merely inherited a great team, Kerr tells you. Don't talk to me, talk to my assistants—they're the ones doing the real work. This story? Kerr doesn't want it to be about him. Really, he says, there are more relevant things to write about.

Sorry, Steve. Not going to happen. Because there's one major difference between last year's team, which finished 51--31 before losing to the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs, and this year's team, which entered the All-Star break with the best record in the NBA (42--9). And that difference looks a lot like a bony, spiky-haired YMCA All-Star.

Kerr had always planned on coaching, but it wasn't until two years ago, when he was calling games for TNT, that he began preparing in earnest. That summer he attended a sports leadership conference at the Aspen Institute in Colorado and ran into Jeff Van Gundy, whose work he admired. Van Gundy told Kerr what he tells all aspiring coaches: Write down everything. Everything you've learned, everything you want to do, everything you'd change. It'll organize your thoughts. Develop your philosophy.

So Kerr created a Word file on his laptop. Some days he added a few notes, other days he filled pages. During four years of college and 15 seasons in the NBA, Kerr had played for Lute Olson, Lenny Wilkens, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich; his teammates had included Mark Price, Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Tim Duncan. There was a lot to draw on. He jotted down offensive sets and defensive philosophies, but also minutiae like a policy for families traveling on the road.

Kerr began collecting plays too, pausing the flat-screen in his San Diego home whenever he saw an action he liked—a backdoor lob off an inbounds or a particularly potent flare screen. Then he'd shoot an email to Kelly Peters, a coach at Torrey Pines High (and now a Warriors advance scout) who pulled the footage and compiled it using iMovie. Week by week, Kerr's file—named ATOs, for After Timeouts—grew.

By the spring of 2014 that video library had swelled to more than 50 plays and the Word file had grown into a detailed Power Point presentation. Kerr loved broadcasting, just as he'd enjoyed playing. But friends believed that coaching was, in the words of Bruce Fraser, a Golden State assistant who's been close to Kerr since the two played together at Arizona, "his calling." With two of Kerr's three children already in college, it was time.

The plan was simple and seemingly foolproof: Kerr would follow his mentor, Phil Jackson, to New York. But then the Warriors, coming off a second straight playoff appearance, did something completely unexpected: They fired Mark Jackson.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins, the dean of Bay Area sportswriters, saw the axing as a "risky gamble," calling Lacob "meddling" and "pathetic." "I don't buy this notion that, with a new coach, these same Warriors reach the NBA Finals next year," wrote Jenkins. "Zero chance of that."

Lacob conducted a high-powered coaching search and, last May, offered the job to Kerr who, after consulting with Popovich, broke Phil Jackson's heart. In the end, the Warriors offered a better roster, greater proximity to Kerr's family and a stronger organizational structure. Expectations were simultaneously high and low. You'd better win at least 51 games ... but we doubt you'll do much better.

To find success, Kerr knew he needed buy-in. He began with the most important man in the franchise.

OF THE 15 players on Golden State's roster, it is strange to think that 26-year-old point guard Steph Curry is now the longest-tenured. And still, he has seen so much already: A glimpse of Nellieball. A lost season under Keith Smart. So many ankle braces.

Curry didn't hit his stride until 2012--13, one year after the Warriors hired Mark Jackson. As a point guard, Jackson had catered to his team's star, setting up Patrick Ewing and Reggie Miller. As a coach, he did the same. He encouraged Curry to run endless pick-and-rolls, to launch off-balance shots. The rest of the Warriors? Often their job was to set screens for Steph. Or feed Steph. Or guard the opponent's point guard while Jackson hid Curry on one of the worst offensive players. That strategy worked in at least one important respect: Curry improved. He was allowed to make mistakes, and his confidence grew. He became an All-Star.

And Golden State evolved as a team. A pastor at a non-denominational church in Reseda, Calif., Jackson had a knack for fostering an us-against-them mentality. To this day, the Warriors still exit each huddle yelling, "Just us!", a unifying chant that began in the Jackson era.

Jackson was the right man at the right time. In many respects, though, he was the wrong man for the long run.

GOLDEN STATE GM Bob Myers looks younger than his 39 years. Tall and lanky, with a thatch of dark hair and big eyes, he has both the physical presence of a former athlete—he walked on at UCLA—and the social acumen of an agent, which he was for 14 years.

From the beginning, Myers and Lacob followed a plan that revolved around a few key tenets. First, they valued length, size and versatility, believing that traditional positions were irrelevant. Second, contrary to recent trends, they believed that big men still mattered. Third, they held that organizations flourished when stocked with high-character people. Their motto became Size, then character. They had an advantage already; in Curry they had their own tiny Duncan. "It's like having a CEO that exhibits the highest character," says Myers. "Everybody else falls in line."

In March 2012 the Warriors traded guard Monta Ellis, their most popular player but a redundancy next to Curry, to the Bucks for center Andrew Bogut, an elite defensive center. They drafted one long positionless wing after another—Klay Thompson (6'7"), Harrison Barnes (6'8"), Draymond Green (6'7")—and hit on a surprising number of them. They acquired Andre Iguodala (6'6") from the Nuggets while unloading the bloated salary of Andris Biedrins.

By last spring Lacob's five-year plan was ahead of schedule. Golden State had the talent and the mind-set. There was just one more move to make.

DURING KERR'S three-hour interview last May, many things impressed Golden State's decision makers. The Power Point presentation, which by then ran 16 pages (beginning with a section titled "Why I'm ready to be a head coach" and followed by proposals for a team dietician, yoga instructor, sleep specialist), was one of them. The meticulous plan Kerr had for each Warrior was another. But what sealed it, at least for Lacob, was Kerr's list of potential assistants. At the top, along with David Blatt (now the Cavaliers' coach), were Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams, two of the NBA's top strategists. Here was a man who wouldn't feel threatened by those around him.

This, in the end, had been a large part of Jackson's undoing. Upon joining Golden State he'd instituted a rule forbidding assistant coaches from talking to the press. Even so, assistant Mike Malone received credit for the team's improved defense, angering Jackson (who declined to comment for this story). Within the team, Jackson pitted players against one another to gain loyalty. "He'd say, 'You're my guy, and so-and-so is a clown,' " recalls one insider. "Then he'd say the same thing to the other player, only reversed."

When Jackson became frustrated with Malone's growing profile he gave the defense to someone he could trust, Darren Erman, a low-level assistant who had no experience running an NBA defense. That Erman's D thrived was fortuitous.

Last spring, things got downright strange. In March, Jackson reassigned Brian Scalabrine, a well-liked assistant, to Golden State's D-League affiliate; in April, Erman was fired for violating team policy. (Jackson cited "disrespect" in Scalabrine's demotion; Erman was reported to have secretly recorded team meetings.) Players became wary of publicly crediting assistants, lest they incur Jackson's wrath. Meanwhile, the Warriors were heading into the postseason with a total of 15 years of coaching experience.

While Jackson excelled as a leader, he was not interested in the minutiae of coaching, according to sources familiar with the situation. He so rarely watched film that the video team eventually stopped loading clips onto his laptop. Meanwhile, his relationship with the front office grew more strained. After Jackson's departure, Lacob would tell a group of venture capitalists, "You can't have 200 people in the organization not like you."

There were other concerns. For one, Jackson emphasized his faith. "It's fine to be religious," says one Warriors insider, "but it's a different thing to bring it to your work." When Jason Collins announced his homosexuality in April 2013, Jackson told reporters, "I know Jason Collins; I know his family and am certainly praying for them." This seemed particularly tone-deaf considering that COO Rick Welts, the first high-ranking sports executive to come out, worked in the same building. Welts says he and Jackson had "a nice conversation, like grown-ups," adding, "He knew how I felt, I knew how he felt. I'm sure he thought it was an opportunity to educate me, and I thought it was an opportunity to educate him."

When the Warriors hired Kerr, they hoped he would bring stability.

HARRISON BARNES was shocked when Kerr called him last May and said he wanted to meet him wherever he was. (He happened to be in Miami.) Says Barnes, "It would've been easy for him to fly and meet Steph and just call everybody else."

A talented 22-year-old forward, Barnes was coming off a miserable season. As the leader of the second unit, he was expected to score, often out of isolation sets. It hadn't worked. Kerr showed Barnes his iso stats and said, "I don't think you were used last year in a way that was best for you. But if you buy into what we're saying, you have a chance to be successful."

Over the weeks that followed, Kerr met with a number of other players, even flying to Australia to see Bogut. He gave them all the same message: Here is what I'm hoping to do, here's why, and here's how. The players, some of whom had been conspicuously silent when Kerr got hired, appreciated the no-b.s. approach. "I think he was destined to be a coach," says Thompson. "He's got a real good way of dealing with people."

This may have something to do with Kerr's upbringing, which is well chronicled. When Kerr was 18 and a freshman at Arizona, his father, Malcolm, was the president at American University of Beirut. On Jan. 18, 1984, as the elder Kerr headed to work, he was shot twice in the head and killed. Three years later, as a Wildcats senior, Kerr became a central character in John Feinstein's A Season Inside, which paints a portrait of a scarred yet uncommonly mature young man. At an age when most people were still forming an identity, Kerr already knew exactly who he was.

Now, as a coach, he wanted to be both firm and fair. And that meant making tough decisions. After two weeks of his first training camp, Kerr knew that for Barnes to fulfill his potential, he needed to start, so he could play off Curry and Thompson. And that meant telling Andre Iguodala, a former All-Star, that he was going to the bench.

Iguodala was skeptical at first. "But it's important not to dismiss things immediately," he says. Kerr had made some valid points. The second unit, so ineffective in 2013--14, needed Iguodala's leadership and playmaking. And Iguodala appreciated Kerr's directness. "I agreed with his larger vision," he says. Plus, he adds, "I've been in this league 11 years, and I want my professionalism to stand out." He accepted the demotion gracefully.

"Who is going to complain now?" Kerr asks.

Then, in late October, Kerr got lucky: 6'9" David Lee strained his left hamstring. A two-time All-Star, Lee is a gifted playmaker and finisher. He's also a subpar defender who lacks the range to be a stretch four. Even so, Kerr claims he had no plans to bench the veteran before the injury. "If David Lee doesn't get hurt, he's still starting, for sure," says Kerr.

But Lee did get hurt, allowing Kerr to start Green—a move that assistants had pleaded with Jackson to make a year earlier. A 6'6" forward-slash-maniac, Green is one of the few humans who can guard both Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. "Each possession is a battle, and you never want to lose a battle," says Green, who leads the league in defensive rating (96.3) and defensive win shares (3.6). "If somebody scores on me, it really bothers me."

This delights Adams, Kerr's defensive coordinator, who runs a "shell" protection scheme predicated on length, anticipation, and the ability to think and act decisively. Players switch almost every pick-and-roll, taking advantage of all their interchangeable parts, and everyone is accountable. In particular, Adams pushed Curry to play hard on every possession. Steph embraced the challenge. He has improved from an average to above-average defender, leading the league in steals (110) while ranking eighth (tied, at 99.7) in defensive rating.

But then the Warriors' defense was already potent when Kerr arrived. It's on the other side of the ball that he has had the largest impact.

MANY FIRST-TIME coaches begin their careers by mimicking a mentor—think Erik Spoelstra in Miami or Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta. Kerr has the advantage not only of multiple Hall of Fame mentors but also a respected offensive sidekick in Gentry, whom he hired last June. Together they created what Gentry calls a "melting pot" offense. Watch the Warriors and you'll see the high-post feeds of Phil Jackson's triangle offense, the drag screens and sideline tilts favored by Mike D'Antoni's Suns (where Kerr served as GM from 2007--08 to '09--10), the low-post splits from Jerry Sloan's old Jazz handbook and, most prominently, the motion offense and loop series of Popovich's Spurs. The result: a system in which the only sin is standing still.

Initial results were mixed. There were moments of gorgeous passing and cutting, but also turnovers. Lots of turnovers. For a coach like Kerr, who believes that moving the ball, limiting mistakes and defending are the keys to basketball, it was painful to watch. "I had so many ideas in my head," Kerr admits. "I put in too much."

So he simplified the offense, from more than 20 plays to a core of four or five sequences, enforcing key concepts. And it worked. The Warriors, one year after finishing last in the league in passes per game (245.8), are now 11th (313.6). They lead the NBA in both assists (1,389, tied with the Hawks) and hockey assists (8.1 per game), and they've cut their early-season turnover rate by a third (from 22.1 to 14.6). In previous years, Curry and Thompson often launched difficult jumpers, and Thompson rarely ran off screens. This year Thompson's improvement is due in large part to the evolution of his game, but he and Curry are also getting easier shots. "No one knew how good Klay really was last year," says one opposing coach, "because Mark never ran any plays for him." Which, in retrospect, may help explain why Golden State chose not to trade Thompson for Kevin Love.

So far Kerr's players welcome his approach. Curry appreciates that Kerr didn't "try to come in and be the hero and reinvent the wheel," adding, "He's very mature for a first-time coach, to be able to have an awareness of the bigger goals, not just having the best record."

Green agrees. "He doesn't let us settle for mediocrity in anything."

ONE PLACE that Kerr certainly does not abide mediocrity: on the stair-climber. After almost every practice, he engages in a one-man assault upon the hulking black machine in the corner of the Warriors' practice facility, after which he does pushups and planks. Unless, as on one recent afternoon, he is challenged.

"Coach Kerr," beckons Curry, "you want some today?"

Kerr dismounts and prepares for battle. Though he was an 86.4% free throw shooter, he knows the odds are against him. He and Curry play a game to 10, shooting two free throws at a time, where each make is worth one point but a swish is worth two. And, as you might imagine, Steph does a lot of swishing. Kerr says that the two have battled 11 times, during which he has made roughly 84 out of 85 free throws—and won only once. "Steph swishes them all."

What is coaching if not a power-balancing act? Here is Kerr, one of the best shooters in NBA history—and a famously competitive man—willing to lose repeatedly to his star. That takes a certain innate confidence that carries over to other areas. At the end of timeouts he often asks his players if they're seeing anything he isn't. Earlier this year, guard Leandro Barbosa suggested a late-game play. Kerr used it.

Kerr is a believer in process and preparation. He asks his video staff to load the previous five games of every opponent onto his laptop. Last July he visited Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and was impressed with how Carroll used music to energize practices. Now the Warriors do the same thing.

Other times, Kerr's moves are diplomatic. From Day One, he has made a point of consistently praising Mark Jackson, which built good will with his players. Similarly, he downplays his impact on the team at every turn. "Usually winning breeds arrogance, but he's a rare guy," says Van Gundy, who also applauds the work Jackson did for Golden State. "Very few people I've known in coaching would have this humility with this success."

That Kerr is also comfortable with the media doesn't come as a surprise. As a former broadcaster (and sports columnist for his high school paper), he understands the power of narrative. Take the famous story of how he and Jordan got into a fistfight after practice, oft-cited as proof of Kerr's fire and toughness. "Let's be honest," he says. "If we were losing right now, the narrative would be, This is a guy that got beat up by Michael Jordan. We just tailor the facts to however the story is going."

After a few warmups, Kerr bricks his first two free throws. Curry bricks one of his first set. Eventually both men begin making their shots and, as usual, Curry wins on yet another moonball swish, after which he runs off in celebration, returning only to pantomime a golfer's handshake. For a moment, though, it was interesting to see the two of them, disgusted with themselves and trying not to show it.

Two men bent on winning, united by a momentary failure.

"I don't buy this notion that, with a new coach, these same Warriors reach the NBA Finals," wrote one skeptical columnist. "Zero chance of that."
Iguodala, the 11th-year veteran, accepted his demotion gracefully and the second unit benefited. "Who is going to complain now?" Kerr asks.
PHOTOPhotograph by Greg Nelson For Sports IllustratedTHE RIGHT STEPH Curry's scoring average may be down a hair from last season, but the point guard is taking smarter, higher-percentage shots, with fans awarding him more 2015 All-Star votes than any other player.PHOTOGARRETT ELLWOOD/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESKERR-PLUNK The Warriors' new leader has curried favor with his star by showing humility—but he's also drawing up plays for Thompson (right), and that's been a boon.PHOTOGREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above]PHOTOXANDER TIELEMANS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above]PHOTOXANDER TIELEMANS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDGOLDEN AGE It took Iguodala's demotion (far left) and Green's (near left) promotion-through-injury, but the Warriors have their best All-Star-break record ever.PHOTOBARRY GOSSAGE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]ILLUSTRATION