The greatest show in hoops is on hiatus for the next few days, with the Golden State Warriors awaiting the winner of the opening-round series between the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers.
Next victim up, as they say.
These Warriors – “Steve Kerr’s Warriors” – have every intention and all the conceivable talent to reach a third consecutive NBA Finals next month, most likely against the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, at which point the only major issue confronting the Bay Area franchise should be resolved. That, of course, is the availability of their ailing head coach.
Until Kerr, 51, revealed last week that his health was deteriorating, that the chronic headaches and neck pain he has suffered since undergoing back surgery in July 2015 have intensified, the only obstacle between the Warriors and sweet revenge for their 2016 collapse against the Cavs was the formidable presence of LeBron James.
Or perhaps not. This year’s projected heavyweight finale features LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. Who ya picking? With Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Durant (recovering nicely from a sprained knee), the top-seeded Warriors were foaming at the mouth, their champagne taste a mere Draymond Green slip of the tongue away.
“They’re a championship team,” Portland guard Damian Lillard said after his Trail Blazers were blitzed in a four-game sweep. “They continue to be who they are. They play loose. They play together. They have a great understanding of how to play the game. That’s hard to play against when you add that with the talent they have.”
And with the coach they have, or hope to have again soon. Kerr is to the Warriors what George Martin was to the Beatles. With his wit, his charisma, his subtle maneuvers, he pieces it together and produces some of the most compelling basketball music of a generation.
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is his tutor, and the master. His enduring teams deserves a bow, too. Even after future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan retired, Pop still has his Spurs passing, cutting, rotating, sharing, defending, their moves orchestrated by the intimidating, white-haired conductor on the sidelines.
Why bring this up now? Because a prolonged (or permanent) absence of Kerr is a danger sign that should give the Warriors serious pause. Because while NBA head coaches are paid handsomely, particularly the best of them, they are almost as underappreciated as public school teachers.
Not Kerr – his value is known. But his back is unforgiving. His problems began in a flash, in a routine leap out of his seat during the 2015 championship series. He joked about it later that night, said he felt merely a twinge, unaware of the pain and angst and the medical ordeal that awaited. Surgery repaired the ruptured disc, and another surgery closed a tear in the membrane that was leaking spinal fluid and was causing debilitating headaches and neck pain. When the condition persisted, Kerr missed the first 43 games of last season and relinquished the coaching duties to assistant Luke Walton.
Though still experiencing discomfort, Kerr returned near midseason and led the Warriors to a grueling seven-game rematch with the Cavaliers, then spent the offseason consulting specialists and addressing his health. Painkillers, yoga, medicinal marijuana. Nothing worked. He speaks of having headaches when he wakes up, and when he works out. He tells of having a choice – to endure the pain at home, or endure the pain at work – and of being energized by the presence of the gifted Durant, the quirky JaVale McGee, the firestorm that is Green, and the Curry-Klay Thompson backcourt that threatens to break scoring records on any given night.
But everything changed last week, in a matter of minutes. Kerr, who appeared visibly uncomfortable in recent days, removing his jacket and putting his head in his hands on occasion, stunned reporters Sunday. He announced he was taking another leave of absence.
“I’m hoping for some improvement,” he said. “If I can get some improvement, I’ll get back on the sidelines. But I’m not going to do that unless I know I can help my team.”
In contrast to Walton, who was a young assistant when he took over for Kerr last year, current Warriors interim head coach Mike Brown compiled a 327-216 record in a combined seven seasons with the Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Lakers, including one NBA Finals appearance. But the differences in coaching philosophies is not insignificant. Brown is known for his meticulous preparation, defensive emphasis and methodical offense. But Walton, now with the Lakers, and Kerr are architects of the West Coast offense, adherents to hustle and flow.
“I’m not coming in here to try and reinvent the wheel,” Brown noted. “The wheel already works. We’re just going to try to help these guys out, put them in the best possible position.”
That sounds smart and reasonable and eminently achievable. But this is Kerr’s team, this is the postseason, and this is a uniquely difficult situation. There is no time to experiment or become familiar with your new surroundings. And regardless of what coaches say publicly, how they will to adapt and adjust their approach according to their talent, they invariably revert to who they are and what they really believe.
Barring an upset, the Cavs again await. But this year, the Kerr test – whether he stays or stays away – might be the Warriors biggest challenge.