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Thirteen months ago, Steve Kerr had a choice to make. Two job offers sat on the table in front of him: head east to join one of his former coaches and mentors, newly installed president of basketball operations Phil Jackson, in attempting to turn around the New York Knicks, or stay on the West Coast to take over a Golden State Warriors club that had significantly more talent and, coming off consecutive playoff berths and a 51-win season, significantly higher expectations.
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On Tuesday night, Kerr's Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, 105-97, to finish off a 4-2 win in the 2015 NBA Finals and give Golden State its first Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy since 1975. In so doing, Kerr became the first rookie head coach to lead his team to the NBA championship since a young slick Pat Riley pulled off the feat with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982.
It was the 83rd win of the season for the Warriors — a league-leading 67-15 during the regular season, 16-5 during the playoffs. That's the third-highest regular- and postseason win total in NBA history, behind only the 1995-96 and 1996-97 Chicago Bulls ... a pair of teams that just so happened to employ a sharpshooting reserve guard named Steve Kerr.
Maybe there's something to that — something special about this particular 49-year-old basketball lifer, something that's helped propel him to success at the highest levels throughout a basketball journey that's stretched from Arizona through a 15-year playing career during which he hoisted the O'Brien five times to his stints as a television commentator, general manager and even a lowly Yahoo! Sports contributor. Maybe. But Kerr wasn't thinking about himself in the moments after the final buzzer sounded and the Warriors began their celebration at center court of Quicken Loans Arena.
[Warriors' surprising hero: Andre Iguodala named NBA Finals MVP]
What was he thinking about when ABC's Doris Burke approached, microphone in hand?
"The sacrifice that every guy made," he said. "From Andre [Iguodala] and David [Lee] stepping away from the starting lineup to, throughout the playoffs, different guys stepping in and playing, whatever matchup we needed. We just played, and they were all in it just to win. That' s the only thing that mattered. This is an amazing group of guys."
As he focused on the men he'd just led to the promised land, though, Kerr also spared a moment to give thanks to the men who'd led him to the top of the mountain.
"I'm thinking of Lute Olson," said Kerr, giving credit to the legendary coach for whom he played at the University of Arizona from 1983-88. "I'm thinking of Phil Jackson, Lenny Wilkens, Gregg Popovich. I've been blessed to play for the greatest coaches ever, and I've learned a ton from them, and they've all helped me get here."
Kerr employed the lessons he'd learned from each of his Hall of Fame teachers, and from countless other inspirations along the way, when he took over the Warriors last May, less than two weeks after the firing of Mark Jackson. The hard-nosed ex-point guard had led the formerly moribund franchise back to the postseason, but his run-ins with management and ownership led the organization to look for a new voice that could build on the stellar defensive foundation he'd laid while also maximizing the offensive gifts of the remarkable talents on hand — chiefly All-Star point guard Stephen Curry and sharpshooting backcourt partner Klay Thompson.
Kerr made sure to praise Jackson's work in establishing a culture of defensive accountability, elevating the Warriors to the ranks of the NBA's defensive elite and developing the games of young linchpins like Curry, Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. Jackson, part of the ABC/ESPN announce team that called the Warriors' run to the championship, expressed nothing but praise for his replacement and for his former players on Tuesday.
"Well, this is about them. Steve Kerr, this organization, these players. Incredible year," he said. "Sixty-seven wins. The pressure was on them. They responded, and they're champions. It is their moment, they earned it, and they should celebrate."
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What stood out to Jackson about this year's Warriors, he said, was their "great versatility."
"If you're going to win a championship, you have to have guys willing to sacrifice," he said. "Andre Iguodala did that. and because of that, he's the MVP of the Finals. Top to bottom, they sacrificed, they embraced their roles, and because of that, they'll always be remembered."
They sacrificed and embraced, in large part, because Kerr asked them to.
He got Iguodala — who had never come off the bench once in a 10-year NBA career that included one All-Star appearance, two All-Defensive Team nods and gold medals in both the 2010 FIBA World Championship and 2012 London Olympics — and Lee, the team's highest-paid player and a two-time All-Star just two years removed from an All-NBA Third Team selection, to accept coming off the bench for the good of the team.
He knew that returning Barnes to the starting lineup would boost the young swingman's confidence and that installing Iguodala as the table-setting leader of the second unit would be the key to giving the Warriors unparalleled depth, allowing them to run opposing reserve groups off the floor. He knew that Green's defensive versatility, his 3-point shooting range and his inimitable, snarling swagger gave the Warriors the capacity to match up against, overwhelm and defeat virtually any opponent.
He knew these things, and he gave it to his veterans straight, and they listened and accepted and trusted, and that set the tone. They stayed ready for him, and when he turned back to them, they rewarded him, with Lee providing a mid-Finals spark that helped the Warriors rediscover their pace and offensive flow, and Iguodala turning in a two-way performance that earned him recognition as the 2015 NBA Finals MVP.
He built a staff of superstar assistant coaches, led by offensive guru Alvin Gentry and defensive mastermind Ron Adams, and empowered them to share ideas. He took bits and pieces of various offenses he'd learned over the years — the spread pick-and-roll that Mike D'Antoni and Gentry had run during their time together with the Phoenix Suns, the triangle principles he learned under Jackson and Tex Winter with the Chicago Bulls, the whirring motion of the beautiful machine Pop's built with the San Antonio Spurs, etc. — and crafted an offense that prioritized ball and player movement, spacing the floor and pushing the tempo.
He utterly unshackled Curry and Thompson, giving them the greenest of all possible green lights to rise and fire from very, very far beyond the arc in the flow of his fast-moving offense. He also entrusted them with the task of balancing their high-volume shooting with the playmaking responsibilities of generating offense within the team concept and getting everybody else involved, too. The frantic pace and freedom led to turnovers early in the season, but when everybody caught up to speed, it made Curry the MVP and Thompson an All-Star starter, and what was left was an offense nearly as dominant and overwhelming as the unit it faced off against every day in practice.
[More Finals coverage: Stephen Curry first player to beat other four All-NBA members in playoffs]
Despite playing at the league's fastest pace, the Warriors ranked second in the NBA in points scored per possession — just a hair behind the Los Angeles Clippers for top honors — while also locking down opponents to the tune of the league's No. 1 defensive efficiency mark. With Curry and Thompson burying opponents under deluges of 3-pointers, that balance at times received short shrift, a point Kerr noted during his postgame news conference on Tuesday.
"I know there's been all this talk this year especially about the 3-point shot and can you win shooting it," Kerr said. "There's a lot of different styles that can work. You have to base it on your own personnel. But I think what was probably overlooked all year long was that what really wins is the combination of great offense and great defense. We had the No. 1 defense in the league. We had the highest scoring team in the league. We were No. 1 in assists. We were No. 1 in field-goal-percentage defense.
"When you get that combination, then you're going to be pretty good," he said. "Whether you're shooting threes or twos, it's about the balance. To win a title, you have to be able to make stops."
Nobody got them more frequently, more consistently or in more timely fashion this season than the Warriors, and that was true from October through mid-June. This was one of the greatest teams in recent NBA history, and it was led by a man who had never coached before at any level, but who had been getting ready for this every day, in every way, for decades.
And on Tuesday, basking in the moment toward which he's been working for his entire basketball life, all he could talk about was his good fortune.
"I was blessed with an unbelievable group of guys in my first year," he told Burke on the court. "I can't believe how lucky I am."
"We were fortunate in a lot of ways this year," he said in starting his presser. "Maybe number one was health. And to win a title, there's obviously a lot of work, but a lot of luck as well, and we had a lot of luck on our side this year. And our guys took advantage of it, and they were fantastic.
"But, man," he added. "What a night."
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