Steve Kerr is one of the smartest, nicest, and genuinely good person and coach in the league. Just last year, I’d have very little issue positing that he was the best mind in the entire NBA. Unlocking the trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, Kerr pushed this team from the capped-out Mark Jackson Golden State Warriors into a champion and one of the greatest units of all time. Behind a defense that got even better with a switching scheme and an offense that maximized everyone’s ability, Kerr transformed into a superstar himself.
Now coming off the greatest choke job in NBA history and another late-game defeat to the Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s a good enough time to bring up the issues the Warriors have had simmering under the beautiful surface all season: crunchtime offense. Forget rim protection, defensive rebounding, and depth. All of those are remedied by either Kevin Durant or simply the massive talent edge they own on opponents, even the Cavs.
It is important to note, however, that despite the fatal flaws the Warriors have, they were still up 14 with 8 minutes left in the game after outplaying the Cavs the entire way through. But there’s a reason why all sports term the last 5 minutes crunchtime and in those 5 minutes, the KD-infused Warriors were soundly outplayed in almost a mirror image of what happened last June. With Kyrie Irving, of all people, stealing passes and the entire GSW small ball lineup muffled and milling around the perimeter clueless, it exposed the lack of a Cavs-specific game plan.
With a great mind comes great responsibility, is what people tend to say on the Internet, I think. The Cavs are taking the tunnel vision route with their gameplan. They have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and are willing to put their entire playbook in their hands without worrying about depth. Come the postseason, depth just doesn’t matter as much and they know it. There’s no cute or beautiful way to run their offense. They try to switch Steph onto the ballhandler and proceed to isolation the Warriors to death while Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love crash the boards. Simple, myopic, GSW-specific, yet wildly effective.
The Warriors system, on the other hand, caters to everyone, while trying to beat all teams in the world. They don’t care who they play, their offensive system is a one-size-fits-all scheme they are unwilling to change against even the greatest player in the world. It makes sense not only in theory but in practice on the court. Because the Warriors are running a system that predicates itself on movement and flow, it allows the bench to thrive and maximize their lesser talents as a whole. One doesn’t want to imagine Ian Clark running repeated isolations or Andre Iguoala stuck with PNRs with Kevon Looney game after game. The ball movement and intricate system allows everyone to play well at any given moment.
There’s only one issue with the larger picture view: it tends to feel more like a fit a square peg into a round hole when up against LeBron James. Specifically, keeping Curry off the ball allows players like Richard Jefferson and Tristan Thompson to shove him around and relegate him to JJ Redick duties. While Draymond is great, he isn’t the attacker the Warriors need up top when the pace slows and the Cavs have a set defense. The Warriors relied on Durant isos, a new wrinkle, but even that failed. With Curry and Klay simply running in place not creating anything open and Green forced to abandon the motion offense, the Warriors are relegated to what looks like simple isolation offense without a semblance of a PNR.
Like how Mark Jackson was able to pull and extract as much as possible, for him, as a coach for the Warriors, this iteration of the title squad is starting to reach what appears to be a capped ceiling. That’s probably a little too harsh, and blame, if even necessary, should fall on both Kerr for not putting the ball in Steph’s hands and Steph for not going out of his way to get it in the first place. These are easy fixes, but perhaps difficult to install given the structure and slight philosophical change it requires. Even going back to last year, with Steph’s iso theatrics, Kerr was seen on the sideline bemoaning the type of offense he felt was unsustainable.
The Warriors have Kevin Durant now. There is nothing more sustainable than a Steph/KD pick-and-pop or a Steph/Dray PNR with Klay and KD spacing the edges. There isn’t a wholesale structural change needed. It isn’t that deep. But the Cavs are recognizing mismatches and exposing them relentlessly. The Warriors are seeing the mismatches and deciding to go with ego-sized approach of applying a mass fix for all. And they are still playing the Cavs to a standstill.
Now let’s imagine what happens when they figure out how to maximize the greatest three-point shooter of all time to go along the greatest scorer of his generation. Be it ego, pride, or aggression, it’s on Steve Kerr and Stephen Curry to figure out what’s best not against everyone else but just LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.