Why the Warriors are willing to risk their title chase on Steve Kerr's return

The Vertical
Yahoo Sports

OAKLAND, Calif. – In the hours upon hours of conversations between general manager Bob Myers and Steve Kerr, the discussions constantly circled back to this question for the debilitated coach: What were the risks to the Golden State Warriors’ championship chase?

Kerr didn’t want to become a gratuitous drama to these Warriors, or worse: Kerr didn’t want to be less than himself upon his return to these NBA Finals and somehow fail his franchise. The agony of a recurring spinal cord leak had sent him away, and a hurdle to his return had been the uncertainty of his staying power. Kerr couldn’t bear to come back – only to feel worse again, and leave these Warriors back with top assistant coach Mike Brown.

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In a quiet corridor of Oracle Arena on Sunday night, Myers nodded his head toward the Warriors locker room. “When Steve and I discussed it, I told him, ‘They support you trying, too,’ ” Myers told The Vertical. “Everybody supports you trying, too. We understand there’s a risk of trying, but it’s a risk worth taking, too. And if it hadn’t have gone well, we’d pick ourselves up and move on.

“In my opinion, the bigger risk would’ve been him saying that he was ready, me believing that he was ready and then denying him. That would’ve been wrong all the way around.”

Kerr considers himself the luckiest man in the history of the NBA, hitching himself to Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan for five championships as a role player, and Steph Curry’s Warriors for another as coach. This is a players’ game and Golden State has the most staggering collection of talent the sports’ witnessed in a long, long time. Golden State crushed Cleveland 132-113 in Game 2 on Sunday night, the Warriors moving to 14-0 in these playoffs.

Steve Kerr (left) had missed the Warriors’ previous 11 playoff games before returning for Game 2 of the NBA Finals. (AP)
Steve Kerr (left) had missed the Warriors’ previous 11 playoff games before returning for Game 2 of the NBA Finals. (AP)

“For Steve, it’s been arduous,” Myers told The Vertical. “It’s been a tightrope. ‘I want to be out there, but I don’t want my ego to be the reason. I want it to be because it’s the best for the team. But if I feel good enough to coach, should I try?’

“What he’s gone through – it’s so hard to pin down. But you can see improvement. But sometimes it’s nuanced. It’s not clear. It isn’t, ‘I was sick and now I’m better.’ It’s degrees of better. We were hoping that he could get back to the baseline of [health] when he was coaching this season. And to know that if he came back, he could stay back. Don’t come back for one game, come back for the whole series.

“So we discussed that, and he said, ‘I’m not going to come back unless I think I can make it the whole way.’ ”

Kerr has no greater ally within the organization than Myers, who is fiercely loyal to him. Together, they’re a franchise face of humility within an NBA that has become increasingly parts frustrated, jealous and strangely accusatory over what the Warriors have constructed. Myers and Kerr are careful to deliver a self-deprecating and unpresumptuous front. For a franchise that is threatening to become untouchable on the floor, the GM and coach work to make sure these Warriors never seem insufferable off it.

When everyone walked past Myers on Sunday night, congratulating him on the series, he swiftly told each of them: We were up 2-0 a year ago to them, and how did that turn out? Nevertheless, something did change on Sunday night for Golden State. Kerr was back, and they became whole again.

“Listen, I am happy for him,” Myers said. “I’m happy for the outcome tonight. But I think mostly, I am happy that he got to do this. This is the pinnacle of a coach’s career. To have to sit on the sideline in these moments is excruciating.”

Kerr was the perfect choice to coach these Warriors three years ago, and he’s more right for the job now. The challenges for Golden State would always be far more daunting internally than externally. Only a confluence of wayward egos and agendas could’ve threatened an implosion here. The arrival of Kevin Durant made these Warriors historic championship favorites, and targets on par with LeBron James’ arrival with the Miami Heat.

Steve Kerr intends to coach the Warriors for the remainder of the NBA Finals. (AP)
Steve Kerr intends to coach the Warriors for the remainder of the NBA Finals. (AP)

Kerr has existed within the most scrutinized teams in NBA history, playing shooting guard with Jordan when the Bulls were winning 72 games and all hell was breaking loose. He has a great ability to see the small problems before they become gathering storms – and then something worse. He can challenge Draymond Green and throw his arm around him; he can make Klay Thompson feel important when the shots are going somewhere else.

“He has this calmness amongst all the chaos to find out what matters and what doesn’t,” Myers told The Vertical. “That’s a hard thing in our jobs: What do we focus our attention on, and what do we let go of.

“It’s not easy. There are a ton of things that are put on your plate, and you can’t digest all of it. You have to decide: I’m going to move this off, but I’ve got to deal with this one. He has a unique ability to not only spot them, but then communicate them. He’s an elite communicator. He can not only identify what to focus his attention on, but then he can convey it. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever met at doing those two things.”

To watch Kerr walk through the corridor on his way out of Oracle Arena on Sunday night, to see his son Nick with him, was to think back nearly two weeks to San Antonio and marvel over how far Kerr had come. After the Warriors swept the Spurs in the Western Conference finals, Kerr walked over to the Spurs’ locker room to visit with his old coach, GM and teammates.

He moved slowly, unsurely, every step something of a struggle. Eventually, he was standing in a corridor with Manu Ginobili, who had been his teammate in the early 2000s. Kerr told Ginobili a story about something that stayed with him, about the aftermath of the championship parade in 2003. Ginobili had told Kerr that he hoped he wouldn’t retire, would play one more season with him. That always stayed with Kerr, and he told that to Ginobili on a night that could have turned out to be the final game of a Hall of Fame career.

For Kerr, that walk over to the Spurs’ locker room to see Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford and Ginobili was a side trip into what’s been a blessed basketball life, a reminder of the preciousness of these championship seasons, how they stay within your soul forever.

This is why Bob Myers and Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, why all these Warriors, wanted Kerr back so badly. Maybe they’re too talented to need him to win the NBA championship, but they desperately wanted him. “There was a pall over everything without him,” Myers said, and now it is gone. Steve Kerr is back, and, yes, the Warriors are whole again. Does that change before Game 3? Does he feel better, or worse? No one knows, least of all Kerr. Yet that was always a risk the rest of these Warriors were willing to take on his behalf, because he’s earned the right to close this season, this championship, and nothing ever felt right without him here.

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