Leandro Barbosa: From Warriors X-factor player to invaluable coach

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Barbosa embodies perfect combo of joy, focus as Warriors coach originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- As Steve Kerr sat in a folding chair near the scorer's table Monday during Warriors practice at FedExForum, one day before their Game 2 showdown with the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference semifinals, he watched Juan Toscano-Anderson talk trash and direct traffic, Jonathan Kuminga hit two straight 3-pointers -- the first which was a result of a shooter's roll and the second swishing through the net -- and Chris Chiozza called game with a 3-pointer at the buzzer during a scrimmage conducted by assistant coach Jama Mahlalela the morning after Golden State opened the second round with a win on the road.

There was another familiar face running up and down the floor pointing to where players should get in position on offense while playing physical defense on rookie Moses Moody and others. This speedster hasn't suited up for the Warriors since the 2015-16 season, though he still is getting buckets in a different league and looks the part of an NBA player. At 39 years old, Leandro Barbosa is both the Warriors' secret weapon and an invaluable resource for veterans and youngsters alike.

With Gary Payton II fracturing his left elbow and being out for the next three-to-five weeks as a result of Dillon Brooks' dirty hit from behind just three minutes into the Warriors' Game 2 loss Tuesday night, the Warriors probably could use the former fan-favorite's services on the court again, too.

"It's huge, because days like today you got the eight or nine guys who played big minutes last night and are getting their recovery and rest," Kerr said Monday in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Bay Area. "These guys need their rhythm, talking about the players who didn't play a lot. You have to have multiple coaches who are capable of running down the floor, and LB isn't only capable, he can still play in the league.

"It's a great asset."

Following two seasons as a Warrior and winning one championship, Barbosa finished his NBA career as a member of the Phoenix Suns in the 2016-17 season, 13 years after his tenure in the league began as a 21-year-old in the desert. The Brazilian then went back to his home country to play professionally, first for Franca Basquetebol Clube and then Minas Storm Basquete.

Basketball is in Barbosa's blood, and he jumped to the BIG3 last year, averaging 21.1 points per game for the Ball Hogs, second to only Joe Johnson, and led the league with 4.3 assists per game. He's set to be back on the team this upcoming season, and will be their new captain for a team coached by Warriors Hall of Famer Rick Barry.

Barbosa first joined the Warriors' staff in September of 2020 as a player-mentor coach, but it was clear he still could ball. Throughout the past few years, injuries have piled up for the Warriors and Kerr and Co. had to be tempted to try and convince Barbosa to don their team colors as a player once again. In reality, this was more than just a daydream behind closed doors.

Kerr admitted that there were conversations within the Warriors to make it happen, though seeing Barbosa be a Warriors player for a second stint just never came to fruition.

"The last couple years there were a couple times where I thought a 10-day for LB would make some sense," Kerr said. "I think we considered it a couple of times, but it just didn't quite happen."

While watching a scrimmage full of young players finding their role in the league, Kerr still is awed by the speed of the Brazilian Blur and knows Barbosa's Basketball IQ is just as high as anyone else's. He says "nobody would bat an eye" if Barbosa stepped back on an NBA court for one game again. The concern if he attempted a comeback is how his body would hold up over time.

An 82-game season is a lot for most players to handle, let alone someone with 14 NBA seasons to his name, plus playing professionally in Brazil and representing his country in two different Olympics and multiple FIBA tournaments.

Barbosa and Kerr first teamed up in Phoenix when Kerr was the general manager of the Suns and Barbosa was making more than just a name for himself, winning Sixth Man of the Year the season before Kerr joined the front office. He then coached him for two seasons with the Warriors, and though he doesn't remember the exact time of their first conversation of Barbosa eventually having a role on the coaching staff, the message was clear: Let's get you on the staff, see how you like it and if it's something you like, everybody here thinks you'd be great at it.

In the meantime, Barbosa could start on the player development side of things and play with and against his old teammates and new members of the Warriors. Scanning your eyes along a Warriors practice, you can see Barbosa hustling during a scrimmage, working with players at the free throw line and even getting his own shots up. Before games, he's out on the court early with Moody and Kuminga, he bumps Andrew Wiggins on the block and even guards Steph Curry during his famed pregame workout.

He isn't Kerr's only former player who now has a role on the Warriors' coaching staff or front office, too. Former center Zaza Pachulia joined as a front office consultant in the summer of 2019 and in September of 2020, the Warriors named former point guard Shaun Livingston as their director of players affairs and engagement.

Continuity, chemistry and synergy are core foundations to Kerr in building a championship roster. It isn't just about the players. Kerr believes that extends throughout an organization to win in the present and sustain it for the future.

"I think the continuity that we have with our culture is important," Kerr said. "That means the more guys you have who have been part of the culture, the more guys you have around who understand it, understand what it's all about -- if you can keep them in the organization, then you maintain that continuity.

"Now a guy like Zaza can mentor a guy like James Wiseman. LB can pull aside a Jordan Poole and talk to him about my tendencies as a coach. 'Hey, when I was playing, this is what happened to me, this is what you need to be aware of.' I think continuity is huge, especially in today's game because teams just change so much. They change coaches, they change rosters.

"Building continuity within your entire organization I think is a really powerful dynamic."

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If there's one responsibility that sticks out most to Kerr in Barbosa's position as a coach, it's his rapport with the players. He's both all smiles and no-nonsense. That same role and that same dynamic also were there when Barbosa played under Kerr. Every team has disgruntled players, that's natural. The NBA is a long, stressful season with players both trying to fight to stay in the league and looking to have as big of a payday as possible.

That's where Barbosa came in, first as a player and now as a coach. His play was incredibly important for the Warriors in them winning one ring and reaching the Finals in his other season with Golden State, but his voice carried just as much weight and he always was able to talk sense into discouraged teammates.

To Kerr, it all comes down to one word with Barbosa. The same word that has been front and center since he took over for Mark Jackson and became the Warriors' new head coach ahead of the 2014-15 season, before going to five straight finals.

Joy.

It's Kerr's cornerstone value of the Warriors on and off the court, with people both big and small. Curry embodies it as a superstar, Barbosa embodied it as a role player and the Warriors have fed off it in his new position. He loves countless aspects of life and he loves all parts of basketball.

"He's a joyful person who I love to be around, and I think all our players and coaches feel the same way," Kerr said.

The perfect combination of inward and outward happiness, along with laser focus. That's Leandro Barbosa, and that's who the Warriors strive to be in bringing home another title this season and many more as the years pass by.

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