It’s just after noon on a Friday, and Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr is in an unfamiliar place as the postseason presses on. He’s not in a hotel room, nor in a coaches meeting. Instead of competing for a sixth straight trip to the NBA Finals, he’s preparing for the draft in San Diego, in a home reserved for his offseasons, as Game 3 of Raptors-Nets plays on a TV in the background.
Last week, the Warriors received the second pick in the NBA draft lottery. It was a rare win for Golden State. Over the past 14 months, the Warriors lost the 2019 Finals, watched Kevin Durant depart for Brooklyn, and stumbled to their worst record since 2002 after injuries to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, stinging the ultra-competitive Kerr.
“The fact that we didn’t make it wasn’t exactly a whole lot of fun this year, but now, at least, we’re moving forward toward the next year,” Kerr said. “We’re just watching and learning and thinking about the draft and free agency and how we can get better.”
Golden State will return the majority of its championship core whenever the 2020-21 season starts, as Thompson and Curry are expected to be healthy and Draymond Green remains under contract. They’ll be joined by Andrew Wiggins, who was acquired in a trade for D’Angelo Russell, plus whatever comes of the no. 2 pick, whether it be a young draftee or a veteran acquired in a trade.
But before he has the chance to write a new chapter, Kerr took time away from watching tape and from his budding podcast career to re-live some of the Warriors’ most memorable postseason moments from the past five years, describing the joy and anguish, and the lessons learned along the way.
The First Postseason
Kerr was nervous the night before Game 1 of the 2015 first-round series against the New Orleans Pelicans. Sure, he’d just overseen a 67-win team, helped mold Stephen Curry into an MVP candidate, and pushed the Warriors from the league’s happy-go-lucky darling to a bona fide contender. Kerr already had playoff experience, winning three rings alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Bulls, and two more under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. As an executive with the Phoenix Suns, he went to two more postseasons. But the matchup against the Pelicans provided a different challenge: his first time coaching a team playing a 12:30 p.m. start.
“I remember there was an uneasy feeling with all of us, coaches and players, that we weren’t quite ready,” Kerr said. “Feeling the jitters is usually a good sign that you’re very excited about it and prepared for it. The first round, you look down on this other court, you see Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, and you kind of go, ‘Man, this is just the first round, and we’re playing these guys?’”
The Warriors calmed Kerr’s nerves early on, taking a 15-point lead at the end of the first quarter, and pushing it to 25 late in the third quarter, before holding on for a win in the final minute.
Kerr had been a fan of Curry’s exploits for some time. While in Phoenix, he tried to trade for Curry on draft night in 2009. But he hadn’t totally embraced the full Curry experience by his first season as his coach. Kerr came from a traditional basketball background, groomed by Lute Olson, Gregg Popovich, and Phil Jackson, and encouraged Curry to take the right shot. Curry’s forte was to make the wrong shot look easy. Seldom do you see a coach’s mind change in real time, but that’s what happened in a matchup against the Clippers in March 2015. Early in the third quarter, Curry caught a pass from teammate Andrew Bogut, dribbled between three defenders, looked off Thompson, and threw up a fadeaway shot with 10 seconds left on the shot clock. Kerr, concerned, got up off the bench, and put both of his hands up as if to say “What are you doing?” Then, as the ball went in, he put his hands over his head and the fans roared like they were in on an inside joke with Curry.
A few weeks later in New Orleans for Game 3, Curry was on the verge of doing something special once more. Trailing by 20 entering the fourth, Curry sparked the beginning of what would become a famous run, helping the Warriors outscore New Orleans 39-19 in the fourth quarter. Still, the Pelicans held a three-point lead with nine seconds to go. Off an inbound pass, Curry retreated to the corner, pump-faked Quincy Pondexter out of position, took a shot, missed said shot, got the ball back, and threw up a prayer before being tackled by Anthony Davis. The shot hit all net, and the Warriors were on their way to overtime and a Game 3 victory.
“When he made it, it was kind of a miracle,” Kerr said. “Except it was Steph. So then, it wasn’t a miracle, it’s sort of expected at that point.”
Golden State wrapped up the series two days later, but Kerr’s angst was just beginning. A week later, Golden State got its first major strategic test against the Memphis Grizzlies. If the Warriors were the future of basketball, Memphis’s Grit and Grind attack, led by point guard Mike Conley and the rugged duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, was its rough present, marked by a methodical scoring offense and a hardy defense. The latter was winning early in the series. Golden State’s main problem was defending Memphis’s front line of Randolph and Gasol, who helped hold Golden State to 41 percent shooting from the field in Game 2. On the plane ride to Memphis before Game 3, longtime assistant coach Ron Adams had a suggestion: Put Andrew Bogut—Golden State’s 7-foot center—on Memphis’s small forward, Tony Allen. Well, more like have him look at Allen—a career 28 percent 3-point shooter—while he helped in the lane on Gasol and Z-Bo. The plan made sense, but Kerr was hesitant.
“I think that’s one of the balances you have to make, especially as a favorite,” Kerr said. “When you’re the coach of a team, you don’t want to appear to be panicking in front of your team and you don’t want to overadjust. Because if you adjust too early to something, your guys may be sitting there thinking, ‘What are you doing? We won 67 games. We lost one game, and now, we’re going to make an adjustment that quick.’”
Memphis pounced on Kerr’s indecision, beating the Warriors 99-89 in Game 3. Disappointed, the players burned off steam over Memphis barbecue, ditching the Westin Beale Street for the Blues City Café. Meanwhile, Kerr was prepping to take Adams up on his offer. In Game 4, the plan worked. Bogut flat out ignored Allen, opting to protect the paint. Allen missed seven of his nine shots, while Randolph and Gasol struggled under the extra pressure. Worse for Memphis, Allen pulled his hamstring and missed Game 5, and the Warriors closed out the series in six games.
“To me, it wasn’t anything special,” Kerr said. “It was really more exactly the kind of chess move that you make in a flash. You just switch some matchups around or you change the starting lineups. You just want to change the look, and that’s what the playoffs are about.”
The Finals Spotlight
Kerr knows all about basketball’s mountaintop, having won at virtually every stop in his career. But his first Finals game on the bench brought a different level of angst for the basketball nomad.
“You’re out there for the first Finals game, it just feels different than every other playoff game. And it’s a different vibe, different look to the court, a different logo, more media, more arena adjustments,” he said. “It’s just a different energy in the air, and it can be overwhelming. It overwhelmed me as a player, my first trip. I was just trying to prepare our guys for it and give them the knowledge that I had. But nothing can replace actually feeling it.”
While his Warriors had gone through the postseason relatively unscathed, their next opponent featured LeBron James, who’d brought the Cleveland Cavaliers back from the bowels of the league for a second time after returning in free agency. Despite early-season dysfunction, he led the Cavs to a 34-10 record to close the season, overcoming a midseason roster overhaul and a season-ending injury to costar Kevin Love to make his fifth straight NBA Finals. Against the Warriors, he dominated, scoring 44 points, adding eight rebounds and six assists in Game 1, nearly beating Golden State by himself. Then, in Game 2, after Kyrie Irving was lost to a broken kneecap, James ruled once more, scoring another 39 points and adding 16 rebounds in an overtime Cleveland win. Another win in Game 3 for the Cavs had Golden State on the brink again.
“I mean, that’s the real challenge is going against somebody who has just been there, whatever it was, the previous four years in a row to the Finals, and a guy who can control the game like that,” Kerr said, referring to James’s four straight Finals appearances with the Miami Heat. “And he showed just how great he was without his two best teammates in that series, to carry them to a 2-1 lead. It’s a pretty tough thing to overcome, a guy like that with that talent and with that kind of experience.”
The Warriors took control of the series in Game 4, winning the final three games and their first title in 40 years on the road, splashing champagne in and around Quicken Loans Arena. But around the league, officials questioned the legitimacy of their title. They beat Cleveland, but Love and Irving were injured. They beat Memphis and Houston, but avoided the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs. Clippers coach Doc Rivers called their title “lucky.” For Kerr, it was par for the course.
“It doesn’t matter. I think as long as I’ve been around the league, I’m used to all that,” Kerr said. “I mean, every single year, people get hurt, things happen, it really is a marathon. The NBA playoffs are a marathon. It’s a two-month trip. Stuff happens and none of that matters, you still get the trophy, you get the rings, and who cares what anybody says. We’ve had bad breaks other years, and everything in between. So, none of it matters. You just, you play the hand you’re dealt and you go try to win.”
The Rise and Fall
The Warriors bottled much of the frustration and took it out on the league the following season, winning their first 24 games. Because of perceived disrespect combined with roster familiarity, Kerr said he anticipated an historic season.
“If there was a year that that was going to happen, that was the year for it to happen because we had the same team coming back,” he said. “So we had a good groove right from the beginning. Obviously, 24-and-oh right out of the gates. And that team was just a machine, and the guys were engaged. More than anything, it was just really tough for me, on a personal level, not to be there. But the team didn’t skip a beat.”
Botched offseason back surgery had forced Kerr to give the reins to lead assistant Luke Walton to begin the season. Kerr would sit in on meetings and attend home practices but didn’t travel or sit on the bench for home games. The strange circumstances could have caused a conundrum: How do you go from leading a team to taking a back seat?
“It is what it is,” Kerr said. “You don’t really think about it in those terms. You’re just part of a staff, and you share ideas and just decide on what the best way to go is. And Luke and I were really good friends, really close and share the same vision.”
Kerr returned in January 2016, and the Warriors didn’t miss a beat, winning 33 of their final 38 games. In the postseason, they continued their dominance, winning their first two series in five games each. But basketball’s greatest regular-season team met its match in the Western Conference finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. With Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Steven Adams on the front line, the Thunder could easily switch defensively to cause problems for Golden State’s motion offense.
“It was just their length and their athleticism across the board was really tough to deal with,” Kerr said. “They had us in a box. We just couldn’t break free. We were struggling to score. We lost in [games] 3 and 4 by big margins, and we were really, really almost dead in the water.”
Nonetheless, Kerr said his team wasn’t worried despite the season being on the brink.
“Being down 3-1, having home court, I’ve seen it. You know, when it happens, it’s generally the team that has home court that comes back and wins the series,” Kerr said. “It’s very rare that you, down 3-1 without home court, that a team wins the series.”
Kerr’s words proved right, with some help. They blew out the Thunder in Game 5, and in Game 6, Thompson came alive, scoring 41 points on the road, helping Golden State save its historic season. In Game 7, the Warriors completed the comeback, winning 96-88 at Oracle Arena and setting up a Finals rematch against LeBron and the Cavs.
If the Warriors were fatigued heading into the 2016 NBA Finals, they didn’t show it, winning games 1 and 2 easily. But after going up 3-1 themselves, Draymond Green got suspended and Irving and James produced Herculean efforts to stun the champs. The more questions Kerr gets about this series, the more his voice starts to trail off.
“We won the first two at home and got our split on the road. So, we were right where we needed to be,” he said. “And we just couldn’t close it and I got to give them credit. They were just amazing. You know, those last three games ... and Kyrie in particular was just stunningly good.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s heartbreaking. But that’s sports,” he added. “That’s kind of the reason we play is ... it’s a competition.”
The KD Experience
The Finals loss was followed by a quick reprieve: On July 4, 2016, Durant announced that he planned to join the Warriors, tilting the balance of power to the Bay Area in a way that had never been seen in professional sports. Kerr was floored.
“I would say Kevin is ... when you factor in everything, size, speed, athleticism, I think he’s the most talented basketball player I’ve ever seen in my life,” Kerr said.
The team jelled immediately, winning 67 games—a number that seems too low in hindsight. Durant averaged 25 points, careful not to take the shine away from Curry, who averaged 25 points of his own. Defensively, the Warriors had the top unit in the league, led by Green, who won his first Defensive Player of the Year award. In the postseason, they treated the Blazers, Jazz, Spurs, and Cavs like junior varsity teams, posting a 16-1 record and capturing the 2016-17 title, cementing themselves as one of the best teams ever.
“It was more just a level of basketball that I’m not sure had ever been reached before,” Kerr said.
But cracks began to show in the golden dynasty the next season, most notably when Green and Durant butted heads in the waning moments of a loss to the Clippers. As the season wore on, Durant became more distant, and, by the end, he felt like he wasn’t one of the guys. “As time went on, I started to realize I’m just different from the rest of the guys,” Durant told the Wall Street Journal in September. “It’s not a bad thing. Just my circumstances and how I came up in the league. And on top of that, the media always looked at it like KD and the Warriors. So it’s like nobody could get a full acceptance of me there.”
Despite the strained relationship, the Warriors finished the 2018-19 season first in the West, winning 57 games. By the postseason, Durant was playing some of the best ball of his career, averaging 35 points, five rebounds, and five assists, helping Golden State beat the Clippers in six games in the Western Conference first-round series. But then Durant strained his calf in Game 5 of the conference semifinals against the Rockets, forcing him to watch the series-clinching Game 6 victory, led by the homegrown Curry, Thompson, and Green, from his San Francisco high-rise. Durant finally received clearance to return for Game 6 of the Finals against the Raptors, and scored 11 points in 11 minutes in the first quarter. But midway through the second quarter, Durant sized up his old teammate Ibaka, planted on his left calf, and fell to the ground. By the end of the evening, he walked out of Scotiabank Arena in a boot with a torn Achilles tendon.
“Devastating, especially because we felt like we had checked all the boxes with him injury-wise, and we’re talking to specialists, and him going through rehab,” Kerr said. “We thought the plan was sound. And then, it’s a good reminder that you just never know. Health is not a math equation—you think you can get everything right, and you just don’t know. So, that was devastating to see him go down, and for it to be a year-long injury ... for him to come back, and try to come back and try to give us everything he had showed his commitment to us and to the team. And then, I just felt horrible for Kevin. It didn’t work out.”
On the first day of free agency, Durant confirmed Green’s early-season suspicions and bolted to the Brooklyn Nets, joining friends Irving and DeAndre Jordan. Still, Kerr says he valued his time with Durant.
“He was very coachable. He was a sponge, especially the first year, he wanted to learn a new style,” he said. “I think he really enjoyed playing the way we played, and he was really easy to coach. When a star makes it easy, for a coach to do his job, he just allows everything to click. And so, that first year, I think one of the reasons we were so dominant was because we had that dynamic across the board between Steph, Klay, Draymond, Kevin, we had it all lined up and everybody was on board and clicking, and it was a smooth ride.”
Kerr went further, saying that he expects Durant—who still hasn’t returned to the Bay Area since the Finals—to receive a warm welcome when he travels to play the Warriors next season.
“When he comes back, assuming we have fans again and Brooklyn comes to San Francisco, if he doesn’t get a long standing ovation, then we will have already forgotten all the joy he brought us,” Kerr said. “I fully expect an incredible reception from our fans and our organization, probably have his number retired someday and well-deserved.”
Back in San Diego, Kerr has reason to be hopeful again. Last month, Thompson’s knee was cleared for full contact, and he’s even worked out with Curry over the summer, according to a source. Wiggins, who the Warriors acquired in February, showed signs of growth over the last month of the season and is seen as a young complementary piece in the interim. Even the team’s younger prospects, Jordan Poole and Eric Paschall, have displayed promise. Adding to the intrigue, the team has a $17 million trade exception to help upgrade the roster in free agency. Even in a down year, the Warriors can be hopeful about what’s to come.
“I’m proud to have been a part of it in the past. Obviously, it’s going to be different now,” Kerr said. “The reason I’m very hopeful going forward is we got Steph, we’ve got Draymond and Klay. The core of the team that went to the Finals five times, won three years, healthy and coming back, and you got Andrew to that mix. And young guys, the second pick of the draft coming up, we got a chance to be good again. So, it’s exciting.”
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the Warriors went 15-1 en route to the 2017-18 title; they went 16-1 en route to the 2016-17 title.