Barber: Steve Kerr taking Zen approach to Warriors’ season

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OAKLAND - DeMarcus Cousins is still getting to know his current team, and someone asked him Monday about the culture he has encountered with the Golden State Warriors.

“It’s pretty relaxed and laid back,” Cousins said. “I mean, from top to bottom, it’s just a group of guys having fun and enjoying the game of basketball. I don’t even think they really approach it as a job.”

Cousins sounded almost surprised. At most gyms in the NBA, basketball is a business first and a game second. That has never entirely been the case under coach Steve Kerr, who has tried to inject small doses of humanity into the Warriors’ preparations. And it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case this year.

Monday was Media Day for the Warriors, and the message in downtown Oakland, at least from the higher-ups, seemed to be that even more than in previous seasons, the two-time defending champions would be oriented more toward the process than the ultimate goal.

“The idea is to really focus on how lucky we are to be here together in this era, this time and place,” Kerr said.

He spoke of the final season at Oracle Arena, and the fact that free agency could dramatically shake up the roster in a year.

“There’s no doubt that if we get back to the Finals and it’s another nine-month haul, there’s gonna be some bumps in the road and it’s not gonna be easy,” Kerr said. “But I do think there should be a slightly different theme this year. We are playing with some house money. We’ve won three of the last four championships. Our place in the history of the league is pretty secure. I don’t think our guys should feel a ton of pressure.”

Bob Myers, the Warriors’ youthful general manager, echoed the sentiment.

“I think we’re gonna try to move off of that narrative, as far as how hard this all is,” Myers said. “And it is hard – and rare for us to try and do it again. … But we’re gonna try and enjoy it. I know that sounds simple, but the goal is gonna be to enjoy this journey this year. All of it. The highs, the lows, the in-between.”

If these words sounded familiar — especially when accompanied by the sound of dribbling basketballs; just beyond the curtain to the side of the interview podium, various Warriors were subjecting themselves to publicity shoots — it’s not by chance. Kerr is a protégé of Phil Jackson, the legendary coach who managed to put “Zen” and “basketball” in the same sentence, with a straight face.

Kerr and Jackson recently sat down with an editor from the California Sunday Magazine. And during the course of that interview, the editor asked Kerr which motivational strategies have worked for him in Oakland.

Kerr’s response: “Well, I can tell you that one that did not work for me was when I blasted the team publicly last season. I was very forgiving all season long for the reasons Phil mentioned. It’s a long year, and players were tired, and they had shown some vulnerability. We were near the end of the season. We had four or five really bad games in a row, where I felt our effort was basically nonexistent. I was really worried, because the playoffs were coming up, and I let them have it, both in the locker room and then with the press later on, right after the game in Indiana. And that didn’t work. Our players were not happy. My assistant coaches came to me, and they said, ‘You got to pull that one back.’ ”

And he did pull it back. When asked about his frustration with the team at the next available media session, Kerr softened his tone. You probably remember all of it. His lecture followed a 126-106 loss to the Pacers on April 5. There were three regular-season games remaining at the time, and the Warriors’ efforts did not improve much over the course of the week.

But when the playoffs began on April 14, the Warriors flipped the proverbial switch and found another couple of gears. Later, they survived the brink of elimination against Houston in the Western Conference finals, and swept the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals to earn another banner.

My guess is that Kerr got tired of hearing his own voice. All season long, he cautioned against complacency. And still his brilliant team looked ragged at times. After a while, Kerr was like the preacher standing on the milk crate at a busy intersection, shaking his finger and going on about repentance and doomsday as the world goes about its business.

In short, the Warriors stopped listening to Kerr, at least on that theme. He recognizes that, and he recognizes two other things. One, that’s not the boss he wants to be. And two, the Warriors can win it all even if they sleep-walk through portions of the regular season.

So welcome to the Japanese rock garden that is the Warriors’ 2018-19 campaign. Kerr, one of the fieriest people in the business, is determined to go Phil Jackson this time. Can you smell the burning sage?

This seems like an odd strategy, doesn’t it? The Warriors’ locker room is more solid than most, but it’s still full of strong personalities. And this remains a cutthroat league, one in which every single team is gunning for Golden State. Can Kerr really afford to be the cool dad who lets the kids sleep late and fall behind in homework because it’s a good way to impart “life lessons?”

I’d be skeptical if it weren’t for one mitigating factor. That factor strode to the microphone at about 12:08 p.m. It was Draymond Green.

Apprised of Kerr’s and Myers’ comments, Green said, “I definitely don’t approach it like we’re playing with house money. We do have three championships, they’re all in the past. It’s about approaching each year with that same goal and that same mentality. The moment you get to the point where you’re like, ‘Ah, man, we’re just playing with house money, we already got it,’ you’re done. And none of us are ready for this run to come to an end.”

What makes more sense than a coach constantly riding his championship athletes to play harder, and with more consistency? Players doing the riding. Steve Kerr tried to be the bad cop last year, but it went against his character. This year you’ll see more of Kerr as the good cop. Frequently, it’s Draymond Green who will be the bad cop. Not many players can carry that off. Green is an exception.

During Cousins’ turn at the podium, someone asked the rehabbing All-Star center what he thinks of the Warriors’ locker room.

“I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun, actually,” he said. “Of course, you know Draymond’s gonna be yelling, we all know that.”

We do know that. But remember that part of the reason he’s yelling is so Kerr doesn’t have to. Better that the Warriors should get sick of hearing the power forward’s voice than the coach’s.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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