The Golden State Warriors are 26-5 with a 10.2 point differential, their best start in team history. Las Vegas has them at 3-to-1 odds to win the Western Conference, unthinkably favorable just a couple of months ago.
Stephen Curry is having a fantastic season, scoring more efficiently than ever, boasting a career-best 26.92 PER and leading the league in real plus-minus and total plus-minus. Las Vegas has him as the current MVP favorite.
Steve Kerr is making a strong case for coach of the year. Andrew Bogut has missed the past 11 games but the team has kept it rolling, continuing to pace the league.
Things are great, better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Time to celebrate, right? Nope. Right now it’s time to fret over failure.
After a recent victory over Minnesota in which Curry and Klay Thompson didn’t even check in during the fourth quarter, Kerr seemed frustrated: “Let’s get rid of those bad habits now and not have to sit here in May and wonder, ‘Gosh if I hadn’t just made seven careless plays, or if we hadn’t made seven careless plays, if we had boxed out that last play. You see it all the time in playoff games. I talk to my former coaches and without going into detail it eats them up in the playoffs. There’s one play, it’s a simple play, but that one play can cost a playoff game, a series, a championship.”
Kerr may be a rookie, but he’s clearly a coach. Only coaches celebrate victory by mulling the dyspeptic effects of possible defeat months from now. And amid all the winning, praise and hype, Kerr is concerned. It first seeped out after the Warriors lost to Memphis in mid-December, ending their 16-game winning streak.
“In the end, you know, I love this team. They’re competitive. They defend. They pull for each other,” he said. “But come playoff time you have to execute offensively.”
The Warriors have a reputation as an offensively explosive team, and there’s truth to that. They run a fast-paced, freewheeling style, and with that comes mistakes. But Kerr identifies mistakes as the team’s Achilles' heel. Look at some of Kerr's comments after the Wolves game -- again, a blowout win for the team with the NBA's best record:
“We had our complete brain freezes that were inexplicable, that somehow we’re going to have to get over if we want to go where we want to go. We cannot make some of the plays we made tonight. I don’t know what it is.”
“You just can’t completely lose focus and throw the ball where nobody is or maybe a guy with a different colored jersey is. I was dumbfounded by some of the stuff that I saw.”
“The one-hand silly stuff, I don’t know if that’s showmanship or whatever, but that’s not going to get us very far in the playoffs. I know that.”
It’s not hard to figure out the source of the “one-hand silly stuff.” That’s Curry, who, unlike earlier in the season, no longer gets a pass for errant passes. In the news conference Kerr also noted a specific Curry mistake, saying, “Steph threw a full-court, looping pass that could have been stolen by any one of three different Timberwolves. Bizarre, just bizarre.”
Just recently, Kerr would not have been so bold in criticizing a superstar who’s played brilliantly for him this season. In the beginning, he wanted to avoid such harsh criticisms. His initial emphasis was to, “Build trust, build a relationship before you try to make any changes. Acknowledge how good these guys have been the last couple years.”
That last part about acknowledging the good is important. The Warriors were indeed good under Mark Jackson, and new bosses cause resentment when they sweep in with insults over the way things were. Coaches sometimes indict the past rather than seek to build upon it. In doing so, they accidentally attack people whose pride doesn’t just exist in the present. The new coach has to survey the scene, appreciate the scene and then get instructive.
Kerr’s initial approach with Curry was laissez-faire because he wanted to develop a rapport prior to instruction. He preaches fitting communication style to player. You can’t speak to Draymond Green the way you would to Justin Holiday and so forth. Kerr also talks a lot about relating to guys who never know when they’ll get their number called. He had that role on a variety of teams, after all.
Handling a superstar is different. They shoulder a heavier burden and carry a similarly heftier power within the organization. Complicating matters, this particular superstar saw his coach fired against his wishes. Perhaps the process of coaching Curry isn't treacherous because he’s such an amiable person, but it is fraught.
“I wanted to let him go during camp and in the early part of the season. I didn't want to put any reins on him,” Kerr said. “Then after we lost a couple early, we sat down and talked about turnovers and decision making, and I think it was easier to do that after seven games than it would have been first day of camp. I didn't want to come in and act like the know-it-all, but it was a lot easier after we'd lost a couple games to just say, 'Hey, look at this, look at this pass, or watch a little tape. See if you just make the simple pass here, watch what happens.’ Show more tape. So there's already some experience behind the message, and some videotape we can show.”
Curry is open to the messages. He burns to get better and, by many accounts, he places trust in those who seek to make him better. “I played golf with Steph and Dell [Curry] at Pebble Beach in July,” Kerr recalled. “And Dell told me, 'You know, Steph wants to be coached. He wants to be challenged. So if you think you can make him better, just tell him that. And he will accept every challenge.'"
"Yeah, I'm not sensitive,” Curry said Friday after playing perhaps his best game of the season in a win over the Raptors. “I try to be coachable, try to take what he's saying, and obviously you pretty much know what [Kerr] is trying to get across. For him to be able to get on everybody in this locker room means a lot whether it's me or any of the starters.”
Curry has a grasp on what Kerr’s trying to communicate because he’s not exactly oblivious to his occasional mistakes. After games he explains specific possessions with ease -- where everyone was, what the defense did, what he could have done better. He plays with a gunslinger’s style, but it’s underpinned with a high-level perception of strategy, and what sounds like total recall. Some of his instinctive plays result in giveaways, though. Kerr’s mission is to help Curry curb those habits. From Kerr’s comments you can intuit that he perceives this mission as the difference between playing and vacationing in June.
I mention something about Gregg Popovich yelling at Tim Duncan, and Curry responds, "I'm sure that's where [Kerr] got it from. Nobody can be sensitive in this locker room. He can’t play favorites or turn a blind eye to what I'm doing."
Kerr also can’t turn a blind eye to his own mistakes as he grows into his new job. At the start of the season, Golden State’s offense was a beautiful mess. The movement was wonderful, the shots flew in, but the turnover rate was massive. He’s since pared down the offense and the turnovers he frets over have dropped in frequency.
“We were trying to do too much, overanxious to run all those different sets," Curry said. "We didn't really know where the reads were. It got kind of chaotic, but everything kind of slowed down since.”
The Warriors are now building upon a simpler base of instructions, layering counters on top of the things they've perfected.
Given how well Curry and the Warriors are performing, it’s difficult to see flaws in either the star player or the coach's performance. And yet, there’s an urgency in Oakland over fixing what’s wrong right now. In his pursuit of perfection, Kerr is confronting fallibility.
For the first time in decades, the Warriors can’t be content with being simply good. Taking the next step means obsessing over errors as the victories pile up. The hope is that obsession is the bridge between where the Warriors have been and where they seek to be.