As it stands now, Steve Kerr is the worst coach the Warriors have had over the past three years. This is actually more of a fact than an opinion. Below are the records of the three people who have coached Golden State at some point since 2014-15. You’ll notice that Kerr technically has the lowest winning percentage, smaller sample sizes for Mike Brown and Luke Walton aside.
- Mike Brown: 6-0 (1.000)
- Luke Walton: 39-4 (.907)
- Steve Kerr: 268-49 (.845)
This isn’t to say that I think Brown and Walton are both better coaches than Kerr, because they’re probably not. After all, Kerr guided the Warriors to an NBA title in ’14-’15. That’s something neither Brown nor Walton have done. But I’m bringing this to your attention to make the following point: coaching doesn’t really seem to matter in the NBA.
I’m choosing to make this argument now based on what I’ve seen from Golden State since Brown took over for Kerr, who once again is unfortunately dealing with more back and neck ailments. Nonetheless, the Warriors haven’t missed a beat. Their average margin of victory over their previous six games has been over 15 points. That’s more than their league-leading +11.6 point differential per game in the regular season when Kerr was on the sidelines. And it’s all the more impressive considering that it has come against playoff competition. Sure, Portland and Utah aren’t world-beaters. But it’s still playoff competition regardless.
The reality, though, is that anyone could have easily made the “coaches don’t matter in the NBA” argument before the Warriors continued dominating under their second interim coach in as many years. Look at the league’s other juggernaut, the Cavaliers. Last year Tyronn Lue replaced David Blatt midseason. Cleveland, of course, went on to win the title with Lue at the helm after they fell short the year before with Blatt.
So the difference was coaching, right? I doubt it. This isn’t to take anything away from Lue, but let me defend Blatt. The Cavs came within two games of beating those same Warriors in the 2015 Finals even though they were without Kevin Love and, more importantly, Kyrie Irving. Don’t kid yourself: Lue wouldn’t have been able to lead the Cavs to a title under those same circumstances, either. In addition, Cleveland had the best record in the East before Blatt was fired. Reported chemistry issues aside, it’s not like they were faltering. In fact, the fewest regular season wins the Cavs have had sine LeBron returned ironically came this past year under Lue. Plus, if I wanted to get cheeky, I could mention that the Cavs wouldn’t have come back in last year’s Finals in the first place if Draymond Green hadn’t been suspended for Game 5. But I don’t necessarily buy that argument, so I’m not going to mention it…
Let me throw one more name at you: Doc Rivers. I like Doc, and I’ll always think highly of him because he led my Celtics to a championship. But here’s another fact: In his eight seasons as a head coach before the “Big Three” assembled in Boston, he hadn’t won a single playoff series. Yet after the Celtics acquired two future Hall of Famers to play alongside another future Hall of Famer in Paul Pierce, everyone’s opinions of Rivers changed once he led Boston on a terrific five-year run of success. So is he a great coach? Tough to say. But one thing that is definitely for sure is that, to some extent, he is the product of having extremely talented players around him.
But we all know who the king of having extremely talented players around him is: Phil Jackson. If Lou Gehrig had been around over the past twenty so odd years, he would’ve had to rethink calling himself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. The “Zen Master” coached four Hall of Famers–Jordan, Pippen, Shaq, and (eventually) Kobe–at the peak of their powers. Stocked with that much talent, a majority of NBA coaches past and present would have around 11 titles, too.
Great coaches still exist in the NBA. Gregg Poppovich is certainly one. I’m biased, but I’d like to think Brad Stevens might be another. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Mike D’Antoni credit for turning the Rockets into a contender overnight. But even these three guys have had tons of support. Poppovich lucked into coaching two number one overall picks in David Robinson and Tim Duncan, both of whom became Hall of Famers. Stevens has arguably the league’s best GM, Danny Ainge, to thank for assembling a solid roster. Meanwhile, D’Antoni has James Harden, one of the most dynamic offensive players the league has seen over the last decade. And before that, he had Steve Nash in Phoenix.
It’s difficult in all sports, not just basketball, to isolate whether the coach makes the player or the player makes the coach. But based on how dominant Golden State has been without Kerr this postseason, plus all those other examples I highlighted, it’s clear that in the NBA, in particular, talent prevails almost exclusively.