Afraid of Death: Kerr is playing with fire

Jun 8, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr looks on from the sidelines during the second quarter in game three of the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 8, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr looks on from the sidelines during the second quarter in game three of the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

Warriors’ head coach Steve Kerr is playing with fire as he’s made some very questionable coaching decisions in these NBA Finals.

On paper, it doesn’t seem logical to criticize anything Steve Kerr has done thus far.

In his first season as the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, he created a well-oiled machine that set franchise records across the board en route to bringing the first championship to the team in 40 years. He helped unleash Stephen Curry, who would explode and win his first MVP award, and Draymond Green, who turned a lot of heads as the center (literally) of the Warriors’ incredible small lineup. He finished second in Coach of the Year voting to Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer.

In his second, Kerr persevered and was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year as the Warriors finished the season with the greatest record in league history. The team was absolutely dominant on both ends of the floor in unconventional and, potentially, revolutionary ways. Curry followed up his MVP with another, this time as the league’s first unanimous selection. Green and Klay Thompson were named All-Stars.

It’s relevant to note, however, that Kerr missed half of the season recovering from back surgery and it was Luke Walton who patrolled the sidelines until late January.

Kerr’s system, a hybrid of some of the greatest coaches’ philosophies, has brought out the most out of his players, both individually and collectively. He’s enjoying unprecedented success as Golden State’s leader. He took all of the raw ingredients he inherited from Mark Jackson and switched up the recipe, cooking up something the league hasn’t seen before.

Despite all this, Kerr has come under fire in these playoffs as the Warriors are competing for a second straight NBA title.

He’s shown that he’s one of the best coaches in the entire league. There’s no taking that away from him. Kerr’s one of the smartest figures in basketball, absorbing everything from his playing career, applying it to his stint as the Phoenix Suns’ General Manager, and showcasing it as one of the best broadcasters in the sport. He’s blended Lute Olsen and Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich beautifully, creating an offense that would make Steve Nash jealous and a defense that would make Dennis Rodman proud.

Throughout the playoffs, the Warriors have had to deal with different challenges. From Curry’s injuries to Green’s potential suspensions, there’s been a lot of adversity for a team looking to repeat as champions. Perhaps no obstacle has been as consistent or difficult as Steve Kerr’s own coaching decisions.

Billy Donovan, a rookie coach who inherited top talent, looked to be a bad hire in the regular season. Nothing had really changed for the Oklahoma City Thunder as their offense still heavily relied on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to make things happen in iso situations. OKC struggled to execute down the stretch and repeatedly gave away fourth quarter leads.

Then he beat Popovich in the second round and raised a few eyebrows. In his first Western Conference Finals appearance, Donovan turned into a chess master, staying several moves ahead of the Coach of the Year. He trotted out lineups not seen in the playoffs until that series and exposed every single Golden State weakness. He made the seemingly infallible look weak, the supernatural became human.

And Kerr had no answer.

Well, that’s not completely fair to him. He had answers. They were just the wrong ones and the Warriors fell down 3-1 in what would have gone down in history as one of the biggest choke jobs the NBA has seen. He insisted on resting his stars, leaning on full bench units. And when Donovan, who rode his two horses and Steven Adams, had his team making moves, Kerr thought the best way to counter would be with Anderson Varejao.

Some jaw-dropping performances from Thompson and big plays from Curry helped the Warriors mount an incredible comeback, winning four straight and the Western Conference championship. Wining cures everything, clearing up most concerns, but there was something there. There were too many decisions that made you scratch your head and ask: were those actually good moves or were they bad ones that worked out?

The Warriors currently lead the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals 2-1, after dropping the third game in the series by 30 points.

After Golden State completely controlled LeBron James and co. in the first two contests in Oracle Arena, it’s understandable why Kerr wouldn’t make a change. Why tinker with the lineups and rotations that helped you build a two game lead? Their Game 3 loss now puts the pressure on Kerr to respond. Tyronn Lue made what could be a series-changing adjustment by going small and starting James as a power forward. Now Kerr has to counter it.

The solutions and adjustments don’t seem to be that difficult to find. All Kerr really has to do is look back at what has gotten the team to this point. He can go back and watch the tape of when last year’s Finals turned around for the Warriors.

First of all, he needs to get Curry going.

While he’s maximized his players abilities, for the most part, it also has looked like he’s held them back at points. For example, Green had been shooting the ball well until Kerr returned when, presumably, he told his All-Star power forward to stop taking those, ultimately shaking his confidence.

The same seems to be going on with Curry who hasn’t even looked like an NBA starter at times throughout these Finals, let alone the unanimous MVP. Part of that is on Curry himself, whose decision-making has been quite awful. Perhaps he’s still being slowed down by injuries. But he’s also not being put in positions to succeed. Kerr has used Curry as a J.J. Redick-type player, simply playing off ball, tiring himself out running around screens and through contact across the lane.

He needs to put the ball in his best player’s hands. He needs to simplify the offense and let his stars make plays. Instead of getting cute with his pin downs and non-Curry plays, he needs to allow the best player in basketball go to work against poor defenders. The Warriors should live or die with Curry taking shots, not with him standing in a corner as a distraction.

Next, Kerr needs to play the best five-man unit in basketball.

Over the last couple of seasons, the Warriors have engaged in plenty of knife fights with other teams trying to knock them off. Then, in the middle of it, they pull out a rocket launcher. That rocket launcher is their “Death Lineup” of Curry/Thompson/Andre Iguodala/Harrison Barnes/Green. It was the best lineup in basketball this past season, working nearly every single time. Deficits turned to double digit leads in the blink of an eye when those five stepped on the court.

That unit, the Warriors’ best counter to Cleveland’s small lineup, has played just 12 minutes through three games in this series despite Andrew Bogut being their worst player in this series. Kerr has allowed Cleveland to successfully go small against the best small-ball team anyone has seen. It’s inexplicable. The Warriors’ best chance at slowing down the greatest player of his generation is Iguodala, who is left on the bench until the King gets into a rhythm and Golden State is in trouble.

Kerr let Durant get hot several times before bringing his best perimeter defender in. He put off making the switch until he had no choice. And it worked.

The Bay Area Sports Guy wrote a wonderful piece about trusting Kerr and his decisions, suggesting that perhaps there’s a method to his madness. And the logic makes sense. There isn’t any real reason to doubt a guy who’s never lost a playoff series in his career.

But I’ll disagree with the BASG because it’s pretty clear that Kerr has been out coached and he’s playing with fire. He’s gambled throughout the postseason, running with questionable lineups and rotations while reducing the most explosive offensive player of the last ten years to a shooter’s role.

I’m no coach, but, on a basic level, the adjustments look pretty clear unless there’s something Kerr and the Warriors aren’t talking about. Perhaps he makes what I think are good decisions and the Warriors crash and burn. Maybe he continues to do what he’s doing and the Warriors are champions once again. I mean, it got them a 2-0 lead after all. Kerr seems to be stubborn, refusing to give into what looks like the obvious answers for the sake of executing his offense.

Steve Kerr is playing with fire by not playing his best players and playing them to their strengths against LeBron James on the biggest stage.