There's a common link to the unprecedented removal of the coaches at the top of both NBA conferences Friday, even though one appeared to be a merciless coup and the other a peaceful transition of duties. Despite the different connotations, these are both about the empowerment of players.
David Blatt's firing in Cleveland was portrayed as the inevitable outcome of his inability to please the real boss of the Cavaliers, LeBron James. Meanwhile, Steve Kerr's improved health that allowed him to reclaim head-coaching duties of the Golden State Warriors from interim Luke Walton was a welcome sight, though it didn't feel particularly necessary, as the players had performed so well under Walton.
Friday's news wasn't a firing for Walton; it was the prelude to an eventual hiring -- the place and time to be determined. That's the latest byproduct of how powerful the Warriors players have become. They have taken over the franchise without it coming off as a sinister, "Game of Thrones"-style maneuver. The Warriors are so revolutionary that they have altered our concept of revolution.
Ironically, if the players had always held this power, neither Kerr nor Walton would be in these positions. The stars didn't want Mark Jackson to go in 2014. They made the playoffs in back-to-back years under him, success unseen with this franchise in more than 20 years, and Stephen Curry and Draymond Green were quite vocal in their support of Jackson amid rumors of his imminent firing. That wasn't enough for the Warriors brass to overlook its own discomfort with Jackson and the belief that the team could do even better. Management won out.
When they brought in Kerr, he was savvy enough to not treat it as a mandate that his voice would carry all authority. His voice sought the players, traveling as far as Florida to meet with Harrison Barnes and even to Australia to talk to Andrew Bogut. That early deferral laid the groundwork for relationships that were mutually beneficial. By the time the trade deadline arrived in February 2015, the Warriors had established themselves as the best team in the league and were noticeably absent from the flurry of transactions that took place on the last day to make deals. General manager Bob Myers gave me his rationale: They earned the right to finish what they started. In half a season, the players had gained influence over transactions, or lack thereof.
After they won the championship, Kerr stepped to the microphone at the parade and rally in Oakland and jokingly took credit for everything from the Splash Brothers' shooting to Green's trash talking. It was easy to see through the sarcasm that he had a deep respect for the players' efforts and their character.
The organization reflected that by giving them the chance to defend what they'd won. The only significant roster alteration last summer was a mutual decision: David Lee traded to Boston to both accommodate his desire for more playing time and the team's desire to take his $15 million salary off the payroll.
After news that Kerr would take a leave of absence at the beginning of this season to recover from back surgery complications, it was the players' response that solidified their power.
Walton was secretly terrified that the team would get off to a mediocre start and he would be blamed for messing up the good thing the Warriors had going. Instead, the opposite happened. The Warriors studied harder and took copious notes under the substitute teacher. They started winning and wouldn't stop, leading the coaches to cede to the players' desire to keep it going. Curry & Co. made it known they wanted their place in history for the best start to a season and had their eyes on the most unassailable mark in team sports, the 1971-72 Lakers' 33-game winning streak. So Walton went with playoff-type rotations instead of strategic rest until the winning finally ended after 25 games.
By the time Kerr returned, the Warriors had a 39-4 record under Walton, even if an arcane piece of NBA accounting means the stellar winning percentage technically belongs to Kerr. (Kerr, being Kerr, said he was expecting 40-3 but would settle for this.) Walton established a new standard for interim coaches.
"Makes me just feel like I really could have done better," said Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel, who had no previous head-coaching experience when he took over for Jim O'Brien in 2011 and finished the season 20-18. "Clearly he set the bar higher than anybody's ever set it. That's a credit to him."
When I pointed out that it helped to have players like Curry, Green and Klay Thompson, Vogel said: "There's plenty of coaches with talent that haven't done what he's done."
Not everyone can get the most out of great players. For all the talented teams Shaquille O'Neal led, he only won championships when he was coached by Phil Jackson and Pat Riley. While it's too early to put Walton in their category, we can at least give him some credit for this remarkable stretch.
"What made Luke so effective running the show for us is, you always hear, 'Man that guy's different as a head coach than he was as an assistant coach,' and it wasn't [that way] with Luke," Green said. "He kept his same demeanor that he always has. Obviously there was a bigger responsibility, and he took that responsibility head-on. He ran the show. He decided everything that needed to be decided. But he was still that guy that we'd gotten to know over the past year and a half."
In a way, Green is saying that the best thing Walton did was do nothing. Stay the same. And that's the best thing the players did. Oh, they've made improvements (in Green's case, he studied film of his pick-and-roll plays to see where he could have made better decisions), but their greatest attribute is maintaining effort and intensity despite the coaching shakeup.
The Warriors players have created a rare culture of self-accountability in the NBA. The easiest thing for players to do is get someone else to pay for their failures. Two of the four coaches in last year's conference finals didn't even last until the All-Star break -- Houston's Kevin McHale's firing preceded Blatt's. The Warriors have flexed to the opposite extreme. They turned their "ex" coach into somebody's next coach without costing their current coach his job. Now that's powerful.