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Kerr's golden plan for the Warriors

You can watch the Vine a dozen times and still not be sure whether Russell Westbrook understood Steve Kerr was joking.

"I got a great play for us, guys," Kerr says as he starts to diagram a play on his whiteboard during the 2015 NBA All-Star Game. "So one of you guys gets it, and like throw it to one of the other guys, and then you throw it to someone else and then you shoot. Alright?"

Kerr's delivery is deadpan. Westbrook reaches his arm toward the center of the huddle and says, "Alright" as if to answer Kerr. Only Tim Duncan, who played with Kerr in San Antonio, seems to get it.

"OK," Duncan says with a smile. "Let's go play that Golden State offense."

For a quick minute before the game, Warriors associate head coach Alvin Gentry thought Kerr had seemed a little flustered. "I think the Hawks coaches kind of threw him," Gentry said. "They had a scouting report and all this stuff up on the board in the locker room. Rotations all planned out. And I'm like, 'Steve, this is easy. When James Harden needs to come out of the game, put Kevin Durant in." Kerr nodded. Duh. This is the All-Star Game. Just get everyone in the game and have fun.

Six months ago, after being named head coach at Golden State, Kerr volunteered to coach summer league just to get some experience and now he's leading the Warriors into the playoffs with their first Pacific Division title in 39 years.

Is he some kind of savant? Can this be as effortless and fun as he's made it look this year? Is the rookie head coach of the best team in the NBA really just making stuff up as he's going along?

"I'll be honest, I thought he'd be pretty damn good," Gentry said. "But did I think we'd be this good? I'd be lying if I said that. "


You know the game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon?" Try it with Kerr. Name a Hall of Fame coach in the last 50 years and chances are Kerr has either played for him or crossed paths with him somehow. He played five years for Phil Jackson and won three championships in Chicago. He spent four seasons with Gregg Popovich and won two titles in San Antonio. He played for Lenny Wilkens in Cleveland and Cotton Fitzsimmons in Phoenix along the way. In college at Arizona he went to the Final Four under Lute Olson. As a kid he attended John Wooden's camps at UCLA.

But playing for great coaches doesn't mean you can blend all their insights right away -- or ever. It takes years to know when to push or pull back, how to work the corners or set up your players to perform in the most important moments.

As coach Kerr has been borrowing moves from each of his mentors. He took his new staff on a Popovich-style retreat to Napa Valley before the season began. He splices funny clips into film sessions the way Jackson did. Once, when he wanted to teach the players how to quiet their minds, he held a silent practice. Another time he cancelled practice and had the team play touch football instead.

The echoes are everywhere, and yet it still feels like he's been speaking in his own voice.

"He's a thinker. He thinks in his sleep, when he wakes up, when he crosses the street. It's like, 'Hey, that car is about to hit you!' But he's distracted because he's thinking." Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser

"I feel like a lot of people would try to just copy one of these guys," says assistant coach Luke Walton, who has a keen ear for Phil-speak from his days with Jackson in Los Angeles. "But it's like he takes what he's learned from them and applies it to what works for this group. I honestly think if we had a different group, he'd be a different style coach."

Of course this is still the regular season -- the time of year when you can photobomb reporters doing live shots and email fans to apologize for resting key players. Things are different in the playoffs. To walk in the footsteps of the coaching giants who have influenced him, Kerr will need to contend for titles. Will he have the alchemist's touch Jackson did on championship runs with the Bulls and Lakers? Will he command the huddle in critical moments the way Popovich does?

Kerr admits it's an open question.

"I'm as prepared as I can be," he says. "But that doesn't mean I know what's coming."


He's won titles, hit big shots, performed in the clutch, all that stuff. Now he has to draw up the play for someone else - and trust them to hit it the same way Michael Jordan trusted him in Game 6 of the 1997 Finals.

You know the story. Phil Jackson drew the play up for Jordan. But as the Bulls left the huddle, Jordan turned to Kerr and said, "They're going to double me. When they do, I'm coming to you." They had grown to respect each other since Kerr gave as good as he got in a 1995 training camp scuffle with Jordan. It's the classic Steve Kerr-is tougher-than-he-looks story. Kerr's sick of it. He bristles when you bring it up.

"It was just a practice fight," he says. "I think the fact I made it in the NBA for 15 years with this body and this ability -- or lack thereof -- should speak for itself."

True. Respect is earned over time, not by throwing a punch. But the story resonates for a reason: If Kerr had been man enough to stand up to the best player of his generation, Jordan knew he would be man enough to take a game-winning shot in the Finals.

The part that often gets lost in the retelling is Jackson's role in settling things down. He was in his office on a conference call when they got into it, but obviously heard about it quickly. He laid into Jordan and told him to apologize to Kerr as soon as possible.

It's a not easy for a coach to know when to yell and when to stay seated and let things play out on their own time. Jackson was notorious for refusing to call timeouts during poor stretches of play, forcing his teams to figure their way out of problems. But when the time came, he knew when to take charge.

"Phil would very sternly with that gravelly voice would really jump on us without yelling," Kerr explains. "But almost like an animal when it flexes its shoulders, he'd get his chest out and the voice would get deep and we'd all go, 'S---, he's serious.'

"He didn't really yell, but he would raise his voice, and get this look, this primal look. It was intimidating."

At some point, a coach has to command his team. The challenge is in knowing how and when to take charge. Wait too long and the team won't respect you. Drive too hard and they'll resist.


There were complicated dynamics when Kerr took over at Golden State. While team ownership felt a coaching change had been needed, and some in the organization had grown weary of Mark Jackson's us-against-the-world style, Kerr knew Jackson was immensely popular with his players.

So he took his time, letting the team breathe a little during training camp and even into the first few weeks of the season. "I allowed them to make a lot of mistakes in the beginning," Kerr says. "I didn't want to come in and be all Bobby Knight, yelling and screaming from day one."

Seven games in, the Warriors were 5-2 but averaging 22 turnovers a night. Entirely too many for a team with championship aspirations. "We were flinging passes around like we were the Harlem Globetrotters," Kerr says. "That was the moment where I just said, 'We can't do this anymore.'"

He took his shot. He lit into them after a loss to the Spurs on Nov. 11. It was a critical moment. Would the players take it from the new guy? Would they rise to the challenge or tune out? Call it his Popovich play. "With Pop ... there's a part of you that's almost fearful of him because he's so tough and he's so passionate. But at the same time you know how much he cares about you," Kerr says. Could he strike the same balance? Would he have the same gravitas?

"They had the confidence," Kerr says. "They had the swagger. The challenge [was] how to add the mindfulness. How do we add - what's the right word? -- the purpose?"


Kerr has this way of coming back to things. You casually mention something in a conversation one day and a few days later he circles back to it with a new take.

"He's a thinker," says Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser, who doubles as one of Kerr's best friends since college. "Before he walks into that locker room, that meeting ... he's thought about everything he's going to say and do for a long time.

"He thinks in his sleep, when he wakes up, when he crosses the street. It's like, 'Hey, that car is about to hit you!' But he's distracted because he's thinking."

The first time we talk, I tell Kerr I'd played softball for Stanford. (His daughter plays volleyball at Cal.) Three days later he wants to know more and I end up telling him how fiddling with my throwing mechanics messed everything up. Instead of throwing, I thought about throwing. Instead of hitting, I thought about hitting.

"Have you ever read the Inner Game of Tennis?" he asks. "I read it every year, a couple of times a year.

"Any time a player knows a coach has his back, and that he's going to allow him to live through his mistakes long enough to learn from them ... he's going to give his all for him. That's something [Steph] and Steve got to really quickly." Dell Curry

"That book is all about connecting your brain with your body. They want to be two separate entities. Your brain wants to control your body. You overthink things and then you can't just play."

Kerr and Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll are both big fans of the book, and Carroll had Kerr up for a visit to Seahawks training camp last summer after he took the Golden State job.

He loved the way Seattle played fast and loose. He loved that they were right on the edge all the time, about to fall off, but mindful enough to know where the last inch of real estate was.

"Fast and loose and disciplined," he says.

When he arrived with the Warriors, achieving that balance - particularly in Curry's game - was job one. The team was loose and Curry had a flair for the game that reminded Kerr of Steve Nash, but he was too careless with the ball.

"What you don't want for the discipline to affect the swagger," Kerr says. What makes players like Curry and Nash so great is their fearlessness. When they're rolling, it's like watching someone weaving in and out of traffic, driving 90 miles an hour, and knowing that they're never going to hit anything. There's a control to it. As if they see things with some third eye that others don't. That's the mindfulness Kerr had to help Curry find.

"When we were with [Steve] Nash in Phoenix, we used to call it organized chaos," Gentry says. "We wanted it chaotic. But we wanted a discipline and a system they could fall back on within that chaos."


That all sounds great. Put the system in, turn 'em loose. But talent is a fickle flame. It can burn on fear and pride and anger for a while. But trust is what sustains it. To play on the edge, you've gotta know someone's waiting for you at the bottom when you go over the cliff. To dial back your instincts in the service of someone else's system, you have to believe in them.

Before the season began, Kerr got on planes to see people: Andrew Bogut in Melbourne, Harrison Barnes in Miami. He played golf with Curry and his father, Dell, at Pebble Beach.

"He asked me what he needed to know about Steph," Dell says. "And I told him, 'Coach him, challenge him ... he'll use what you tell him as motivation.'"

Kerr took Dell's advice. He challenged Steph to be a better defensive player, to cut down on his turnovers, to facilitate as well as he scores. Curry ate it up. He loved that Kerr saw him as a complete player, and not just a great shooter like his dad. He wanted to prove him right.

"You get typecast and put into a box," Steph Curry says. "People just think that's all you do. I had a different vision. I knew I could work on the other parts of my game and be more than that."

Kerr saw in Curry what Popovich had seen in Tim Duncan - a young star he could grow with. If he could reach him, if he could earn his trust, they could build a culture together, maybe even a dynasty.

"Any time a player knows a coach has his back, and that he's going to allow him to live through his mistakes long enough to learn from them .... he's going to give his all for him," Dell Curry said. "That's something he and Steve got to really quickly."


Curry may have been the Warriors' best player, but earning his trust was just the start of Kerr's challenge. To really win over the team, Kerr needed veteran Andre Iguodala.

Iggy can be salty at times. He says things to make people uncomfortable, that you're not sure how to interpret. In December after a Warriors shootaround, I ask him what the biggest difference is between Kerr and Mark Jackson. "One's black and one's white," he says, maybe kidding maybe not.

Jackson led the Warriors to 98 wins and back-to-back playoff appearances in the last two seasons and then was fired against the very public wishes of the team's core of talented young black players, including Iguodala. "Mark and I had a bond on a personal level," he says. "He was somebody to call during the summer or during the season, like, 'Come on, let's hang out.' That rarely happens in the NBA. Most coaches are just about keeping the job, wins and losses. I didn't take that for granted."

Kerr respected the relationships Jackson had built, and understood the optics at work in being the "white coach" who replaced him and would now get credit for the team's performance. He came to Iguodala one-on-one. It was important to let him speak and be heard.

"Andre is a cynic," Kerr says. "He wants to see through the bulls--- and know what's really there. But I liked that. How intelligent he was and that he was questioning everything. You should, right? You shouldn't automatically buy in to something just because."

When I come back to Iguodala in February and ask again about the differences between Jackson and Kerr, it sounds as though he and his new coach were building a connection. "I think he just tried to go about the job in a respectful manner, and that goes a long way," Andre says.

Iguodala, a former All-Star and a 2012 gold medalist with Team USA, is coming off the bench now. Kerr convinced him the team needed his playmaking on the second unit, and that Barnes was still at a stage in his career where being in the starting lineup just might be the confidence boost to help settle him.

The move to the bench has been rough on Iguodala's statistics. He's averaging career lows in scoring, rebounding and minutes, but you don't hear a peep out of him.

"He's a smart person and he appreciates good basketball, the way it's supposed to be played," says Walton. "That's what we're trying to do here and I think he sees that."


Kerr is currently leading the best team in the NBA. The Warriors have the most efficient offense and the most efficient defense in the league, something no team has managed since Jackson's 72-win Chicago Bulls in 1996.

In some ways, he is making things up on the fly. He's pulling plays out of a video database he started filing to in his days as a broadcaster. He's asking Gentry for advice on offense. He's leaning on defensive guru Ron Adams.

In other ways, Kerr has been preparing to coach this team for the last 25 years. He may have zig-zagged his way into it, but this has always been what he wanted to do. Fraser remembers Kerr calling him after his rookie season in the NBA, asking if there might be a graduate assistant job on Olson's staff coming open -- Kerr hadn't played much as a rookie.

At the end of a 15-year career he went into broadcasting so he could be around while his kids were in school. Later, he worked in the Suns front office because owner Robert Sarver asked if he would. Both jobs were challenging and interesting. But they weren't what he wanted. He wasn't close enough. He missed the camaraderie of the locker room. The process, the sweat, the tears. He tried to learn as much as he could. Every broadcast meeting became a chance to research and study other coaches. He took notes, he filed away smart ideas and plays.

"Once he finished in Phoenix, he said to me, 'That was great and I really enjoyed parts of that, but it made me realize I want to be a coach. That's what my calling is,'" Fraser says.


Nothing taught him more about the importance of building trust within an organization than the years he spent with Mike D'Antoni near the end of the small-ball era in Phoenix.

Early on, maybe 10-15 games into the 2007-08 season, Kerr came into D'Antoni's office after a loss and asked if there were a better way to use Amare Stoudemire offensively. Play through him in the post, maybe. Get him some easy baskets, play inside out, give the defense a different look to worry about.

In a different moment, D'Antoni might have wanted to talk about it, might even have enjoyed the philosophical debate. But he was frustrated after a loss, and not yet sure of Kerr's motives in his new role as the Suns general manager. The conversation did not go well.

"I think the circumstances, the pressure of trying to win, and prove that small ball could win ... I was probably hypersentive about it," D'Antoni says now. "It wasn't Steve's fault ... We got stale and he was looking for ways to get unstale. It happens. Sometimes when you're under a lot of pressure, things like that happen."

Kerr realized he'd gone too far on the drive home. He came to apologize the next day. They both said everything was fine. But the trust was different after that.

A few months later, when Kerr approached D'Antoni about trading for Shaquille O'Neal, communication was strained. They both were intrigued by the trade, but each had reservations that they never really talked through. Did they actually want to make such a huge change to a team that had been so close so many times? Kerr had been close enough to the Suns to know how much bad luck - the Joe Johnson injury in 2005, the Raja Bell injury in 2006, the Stoudemire and Boris Diaw suspensions in 2007 -- had played a part in Phoenix' playoff failures. Should they stay the course or make the move? Were they on the same page?

They made the trade for O'Neal and lost in the first round of the playoffs. By June, D'Antoni had left to coach the Knicks.

"Looking back on it," D'Antoni says. "I think we should've stayed the course and just tweaked things. But that's not what happened. We changed course."

Kerr learned from the experience, too. "It's actually a shame. It's a real shame that we didn't connect and work well together because he's a really good-hearted guy," Kerr says of D'Antoni. "I feel like I work well with people in general and it should have worked. But it didn't because of circumstances, because of my inexperience... there was a lot of stuff. If I had more experience I probably would have been able to pull it off."