kerr sideline

Do you really think the coach doesn’t matter in the NBA?

In the wake of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ firing of David Blatt, it’s become a sign of wisdom to question the value of coaching.

The “thinking” is, if a coach can win 30 out of 41 games and get fired, then it doesn’t really matter who the coach is. Adding to fuel to that fire has been the Golden State Warriors’ incredible first half of the season while their coach, Steve Kerr, recuperated from back surgery.

“It doesn’t matter who coaches the Warriors — anyone could just sit on the bench, distribute a few minutes here and there to keep everyone fresh, put in the death lineup, and watch the greatness unfold.”

What a load of crap.

Let’s debunk this on several levels.

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First, let’s forget about basketball. If you’re over 25, you have probably had a couple of jobs in your life. You’ve worked for people who “get it,” and people who don’t. It takes about five minutes to figure out which one you have on your hands.

Sports coaches and managers are no different. They don’t all have the same knowledge of their game, and they especially don’t have the same skill set where dealing with people is concerned. Some people improve those who work under them in any kind of organizational setting, and some make them worse. There are also people who are neutral.

Ever worked for someone you really liked, and then that person left? I’ll bet you can still remember the first meeting when you met the replacement. You hoped the things they said were true, but everything was different from that moment forward. The bottom line is that the boss matters, whether you work for a car dealership, a tech company, or a basketball team.

I could write this exact same column about baseball, with Bruce Bochy as the example. If you watch the San Francisco Giants — at-bat by at-bat, game by game, year by year — you understand how good this guy is. People come from other places and have their best seasons. Homegrown guys get better every year. Everyone knows their role, knows he has their backs, and also knows (see Casey McGhee) that they’re ultimately accountable for their contributions to the championship goal. He’s as steady as a rock, but, as I’ve written here, he’s not afraid to do something radical when the season is on the line.

Bochy matters. Coaches matter. Are there occasional exceptions, such as Barry Switzer for the 1995 Dallas Cowboys? Fine. Let’s not think those are typical or even remotely representative situations, however.

The idea that coaches are largely if not entirely irrelevant is preposterous. The funniest thing is that people use the Warriors’ success as a rationalization for this thinking.

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After the Warriors beat the Spurs, Terence Moore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote this:

Take, for instance, my belief that you can pick anybody out of the Oakland telephone directory, and that person still would lead the Golden State Warriors to the NBA championship this season.

Okay, let’s all understand that Moore is overstating the case to make his point, but it is exactly the Warriors’ recent history which proves his point to be completely wrong.

The Warriors have been so good for the last season-and-a-half that it’s easy to forget they ended the 2013-2014 season in disarray and disappointment.  They lost in seven games to the L.A. Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. Game seven went to L.A., 116-111, with Klay Thompson shut out in the fourth quarter and Steph Curry hitting only three field goals in the second half. The offense was excruciating to watch, often winding up with Curry trying to make something happen as the shot clock wound down.

Harrison Barnes, who had a promising rookie year the season before, was a mess. Festus Ezeli was a project. Draymond Green was just a hard-working backup 4, playing behind David Lee.

The coaching staff under Mark Jackson was the lowest-paid in the league.

Jackson didn’t allow his assistants to talk to the media at all. Two assistants left during the season, one because he was found to be recording conversations in the office on his cell phone, which he admitted to doing because he felt people were talking about him when he wasn’t there.

Teams can’t win with stuff like that going on.

Steve Kerr is, by all accounts, a special human being, not just an excellent coach. This pre-dates his NBA years, by the way. If you read John Feinstein’s book, “A Season Inside,” you get a picture of Kerr at Arizona, going through the trauma of having his father assassinated by terrorists. Kerr had a very unusual upbringing, and developed a persona that combines intelligence and competitiveness with an ability to connect with everybody he comes across.

When Jackson was fired, Stephen Curry was not happy. He’s a pro, so he didn’t throw a tantrum, but Kerr knew he had work to do to get Curry on board. He did that through the connecting skill he has, which many coaches lack. His next job was to convince Andre Iguodala, an All-Star, to come off the bench so he could start Harrison Barnes. Barnes had been a very promising rookie, but when Iguodala arrived in his second year, Jackson benched Barnes, and he regressed to the point that there were rumors he would be traded.

The fact that Kerr and Iguodala both went to Arizona helped, but there was another factor that has gone mostly unreported until this year. When Kerr was hired, he made sure he could hire any assistants he wanted, without a budget. He did this because his experience in Phoenix told him it was necessary in order to win. One of the assistants he hired was Luke Walton, who had played with Iguodala for one year at Arizona. Walton helped Iguodala trust Kerr enough to agree to lead what became the best second unit in the NBA last year. In the NBA finals, it was Walton who brought the idea to Kerr to start Iguodala against the Cavaliers, and Andre was named the MVP of the Finals. This year they didn’t even have to have a discussion — Iguodala went back to the bench.

How many other coaches would have 1) had the idea to bring a player like that off the bench, and 2) been able to get the player to buy in? A handful at best.

How many would have the courage to 1) change the rotation in the NBA Finals and 2) give credit to Walton and special assistant Nick U’Ren, who actually had the idea and brought it to Walton? A smaller handful.

People use Walton’s success as the interim coach as more “proof” that anybody could coach this team. There are multiple holes in that argument.

1) Walton has been very clear from the beginning that he and the other coaches were executing Kerr’s vision, developed last year and refined this year with Kerr’s input behind the scenes.

2) Walton is also a unique cat with a unique story. Part of NBA royalty, he followed his dad around when he was with the Celtics near the end of his career. Luke got to experience how great basketball players talk about, prepare for, and live the game.

3) While technically a novice coach, Walton had the benefit of participating in coaching meetings with Phil Jackson’s Laker staff when recovering from a back injury a few years ago. That means he shared two coaches with Kerr (Jackson and Arizona’s Lute Olson), which made his transition to being Kerr’s lead assistant that much easier this year.

Here’s my last comment about how special Steve Kerr is among coaches, and it’s interesting, because it’s an area in which he is diametrically opposed to Gregg Popovich, one of his favorite people on the planet.

When Steve Kerr talks in a press conference, he actually says stuff. I mean he really says things that are relevant, informative, and add value to my enjoyment of following his team. Most coaches, including Popovich, avoid this like the plague. Mark Jackson was terrible at this, constantly positioning, triangulating, making some mysterious case for himself and pointing out “enemies” all over the place.

I thought it was just me that enjoyed him, but last year I was listening to none other than John Madden, doing his daily radio show on KCBS in San Francisco. The host asked him about the Warriors, and Madden said, “You know, I really like that Steve Kerr. Whenever I hear him talk, I feel like I learn something.”

If you’d like to learn something from Steve Kerr, here’s the link to all of his pre-game and post-game press conferences, as well as other Warriors’ audio.

Good, and even great coaching, can’t overcome a lack of talent. In that way all of sports are the same. However, many great players never win a championship, and I think most of them would lament not only the lack of a supporting cast of players, but more so the lack of special coaching that brings the best out of the talent that’s available.

I remember one time talking to Sonny Jurgensen about playing for Vince Lombardi, which he did for only one year. He said it was “like the sun came out.” Lombardi’s passing offense was so sophisticated (bet you didn’t know that, did you?) that Jurgensen had open receivers all over the place. He had his best year by far, and the Redskins were .500 for the first time in his career.  Tell him the coach doesn’t matter. Tell the 2015 San Francisco 49ers and Michigan Wolverines football teams — in relationship to Jim Harbaugh — that the coach doesn’t matter.

Basketball is the same as the other sports. Players have more power because there are only five on the court and 12 on the team, but they still need a coach that can put them in a position to succeed, and those guys are not interchangeable.

Tyronn Lue may or may not be the guy who can bring a championship to Cleveland. He already is changing the way the Cavs play, and they’re doing things David Blatt wanted them to do and couldn’t get them to do. It was clear to David Griffin that Blatt was not going to get that trophy, so he needed to do something, and Lue was his best option. It’s BECAUSE coaching makes a difference, not the opposite.

The transition — and transformation — of the Golden State Warriors into a transcendent team shows what the right man (Kerr) can do to unlock all sorts of talents, and what the wrong man (Jackson) can do to keep them hidden in a box.

Coaching requires talent… but talent requires coaching to an even greater degree.

John Cannon

About John Cannon

John Cannon is a former radio and television sportscaster. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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