Say it’s the playoffs, the Warriors are losing and you see Steve Kerr exchanging screamed curses with Draymond Green in high definition. Before you conclude that this is a fractious team, faltering under pressure, know this: It’s actually standard operating procedure and both men wouldn't have it any other way.
"I love Draymond,” Kerr said. “Draymond and I have probably gotten into it three or four times, and every time he apologizes within a minute because he has such a heart of gold.”
Kerr can’t stop praising Green this season. The first-year head coach, who tends to shy from hyperbole, called Green’s defensively ubiquitous play against Minnesota last Saturday, “the greatest four-point performance that I've ever seen in my life.” Kerr calls Green the team’s heartbeat, its vocal leader and a bunch of other sportsy clichés that have the virtue of actually describing the role of Golden State’s utility man.
It wasn’t obvious the relationship would grow this way. Green was a Mark Jackson guy, the epicenter of his support base, wholly immersed in the religious aspects of Jackson’s locker room. This preseason, Green was coming off the bench behind Harrison Barnes, despite ending last season as a starter. Then David Lee hurt his hamstring, and Green wrenched the starting role away like one of his patented, double-fisted steals.
And once you start giving Draymond minutes, it’s difficult to find reasons to stop. He guards four positions, stretches the floor on offense, pushes the ball in transition and moves the ball quickly in the half court. As he’s grown into this expanded role, he’s developed a rapport with his coach that’s unique on the team and illustrative of the intricate dynamics in an NBA workplace.
As Kerr puts it, “Everybody thrives on something different.” Heat-of-the-battle screaming matches work for Green but wouldn't serve as effective communication with other players. Kerr’s learning curve includes understanding his players’ individual personalities to the point of reaching them in different ways.
“It's not to the point where he yells at me and I'm gonna get sensitive and go in the tubes,” Green said. “You know, or if I yell back he's going to get sensitive and sit me down. You know, and we understand each other and it's a great understanding.”
Kerr sets the scene: “Against Houston I got upset. At the end of the half he turned it over with 1.8 seconds, they called a 20 to set up a play. And I was so upset. 'Just get the ball in!' He's like, 'They didn't get open! F--- you!' Andre [Iguodala] holds him back, soon as the buzzer sounds he's all, 'My bad, coach!' And I'm like, 'That's why I love you, Draymond!'"
The warm feelings are mutual. Green, who played for Tom Izzo at Michigan State, said: “Obviously I've known Coach Izzo for so long, and it's kind of heading up the same path where I understand his fire and he understands my fire. If you watch clips everybody thinks Coach Kerr was that nice guy, shot 3s. But he had some fire to him when he played.”
Green wasn’t worried that Kerr would be wary of his ways, since he knew Izzo had talked to the rookie NBA coach, filling him in on Draymond’s animated style. He assumed his new coach would receive the flare-ups as competitive vigor. “I get so caught up in the moment and I love this game," Green said. "And who am I without passion? It's just me, 24/7.”
That passion is sometimes triggered by the occasional gaffe. Professional pride can mean that mistakes are taken hard. “At that moment I'm fired up, probably pissed off at myself more than anybody else,” Green said. “So as pissed as I am at myself, somebody say something, it only compounds it and it's like, damn, I yell back.”
Green doesn’t want such exchanges misinterpreted, though. “You know, sometimes it can be mistaken for an attitude or [as] a cancer, and I'm the furthest thing from that," he said. "It's just truly passion. And [Kerr] understands my passion. And he let me be that passion player that I am.”
Tailoring communication to the specific player isn’t just a principle Kerr practices when talking to Green. It’s also a principle Green practices when talking to teammates. You can see it during the games when Green screams at certain guys and lavishly compliments others (“Great job, Mo!”).
“You know, one thing I learned as a leader is you have to figure your guys out," Green said. "So certain guys, you can't come with that fire 'cause they don't handle it well. And some guys you gotta go, 'Hey, this is what we need to do.'”
Thanks in part to good communication, the Warriors are accomplishing what’s needed.