Pity poor Steve Kerr. Sure, as an eight-time NBA champion he’s almost out of eligible fingers for his rings. Most men would trade places with him in a second. Other NBA coaches would kill for his roster. But after guiding the Warriors to their third title in four seasons, he is nearing the end of his motivational rope.
“Next year will be even tougher,” Kerr said Friday night, after Golden State had completed a four-game sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. “I may not show up until All-Star break, because they’re not going to listen to me anyway.”
The line got a generous laugh in the interview room, but Kerr wasn’t necessarily joking.
His primary task in the coming season, beginning in November and continuing through all of next spring, won’t be balancing the scoring of Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, or finding the right big man to start against each opponent. It will be convincing his players to give a damn.
Most NBA teams have a preseason that comprises five or six games in early October; a challenging 82-game regular season; and, if they’re among the fortunate 53 percent, a postseason of indeterminate length.
The Warriors have a four- or five-game training camp, followed by an 82-game preseason, followed by a six-week regular season (translated in some languages as “the playoffs”). Their postseason is one best-of-seven series commonly known as the NBA Finals.
Kerr’s challenge, then, is to navigate his team through that massive preseason, and get his players to care about it enough to qualify for their regular season.
It was challenging in 2017-18. The Warriors frequently played this season as if they were hooping at a family reunion. They wanted to knock down some nice shots and impress the cousins, but do it without injuring a child or cramping up from the grilled chicken they ate at the picnic lunch. It didn’t always look like Warriors basketball. Hell, it didn’t always look like basketball.
Let’s recall some of the highlights: The Warriors lost to the Grizzlies (final record: 22-60) in the third game of the season. They lost twice to Sacramento (27-55), on Nov. 27 and again on March 16, both times in Oakland. They were dumped at Utah by 30 points on Jan. 30, and at home to Oklahoma City by 20 points just a week later.
Kerr tried. After the Warriors lost 126-106 at Indiana in the 79th game of the season, with the playoffs coming into sight like a foreboding coastline, the coach called his players’ efforts “pathetic.” They looked up from their phones and shrugged. And they responded with a home loss to the Pelicans in their next game, followed three days after that with a remarkable 40-point loss at Utah to close out the regular season.
Kerr didn’t lash out after that final indignity. He was probably attempting a different psychological tack. It’s also possible he had run out of suitable adjectives. “Deplorable” is too politically charged. “Enough to make me lean over at mid-court and vomit” is too graphic.
When that unsightly 82-game preseason mercifully ended, something terrible happened to Kerr. The Warriors flipped the switch. Even with Stephen Curry out for the first six games, they became a different team. They played defense again. They ran again. They passed to one another again.