CHICAGO – Sometimes the basketball congnoscenti will mock the Phil Jackson coaching tree as a withered oak in winter, assistants like Jim Cleamons, Kurt Rambis and most recently Brian Shaw with short head coaching tenures.
This while organizations wait years to reach deep into the organizations of Gregg Popovich or Pat Riley. Still, when Bulls managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf some years ago asked Jackson to recommend a head coaching candidate, Jackson didn’t hesitate. “Steve Kerr,” Jackson answered quickly.
Kerr, without any coaching experience, was Jackson’s first choice when Jackson became Knicks president last year. But Kerr opted to remain closer to home, where his son still is in high school in southern California. The head coaching job opened with the seventh-place Golden State Warriors, who last season qualified for the playoffs on the last weekend of the regular season.
But this season, the Warriors are completing one of the greatest seasons in NBA history, ranking among the top 20 winning seasons of all time as they may have the league MVP in Stephen Curry, the Defensive Player of the Year in Draymond Green and the Coach of the Year in Kerr.
Kerr doesn’t chant Native American incantations, occasionally practice without a basketball in a dark room and convene yoga and Zen meditation sessions like Jackson did with his champion Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.
But in many of the most important respects — knowledge of the game, belief in a system of play, open communication with players and a sense of humor and fairness — Kerr is the next Phil Jackson.
And he’s well on his way with the favorite to win the NBA title, his Warriors.
The Warriors as favorites wasn’t a popular choice before the season started last fall, a rookie coach replacing a successful predecessor who brought the team to the 50-win level in Mark Jackson, uncertain health from regulars like Andrew Bogut and duplication at forward positions with former All-Stars like David Lee and Andre Iguodala.
But Kerr in a shockingly seamless makeover changed the lineup featuring reserve Green at power forward, taking advantage of Green’s versatility to develop a versatile switching defense that was No. 1 in defensive efficiency.
Iguodala and Lee willingly accepted bench roles, and Bogut’s minutes were reduced to enable him to enter the playoff season healthy.
With Bogut and Green playing together, the Warriors, long a joke for a lack of defense, became an elite crew along with one of the most exciting backcourts in NBA history, the likely MVP-to-be in Curry and Klay Thompson, the latter also so explosive he had a 37-point quarter earlier in the season.
They became the “Splash Brothers” for the way their jumpers splashed into the net like going into the ocean.
Both Curry and Thompson openly decried Jackson’s dismissal last season. But Jackson had alienated management as well as many players with tactics that favored some over others, veterans like Bogut almost giddy to see Jackson gone.
Kerr took no joy in Jackson’s dismissal and constantly credited the former coach for getting the Warriors in position were they could take the so -called next step under Kerr.
It was not unlike when Phil Jackson took over a Bulls team in 1989 that went to the conference finals for the first time in 14 years.
It was called the failure to go from Step B (Doug Collins like Mark Jackson did the Step A to Step B) to Step C, which is where Kerr is now.
It doesn’t mean Kerr has to win a championship with the Warriors this season, though they are favorites to get out of the tough Western Conference along with the defending champion San Antonio Spurs.
Phil Jackson didn’t win his first season with the Bulls in 1989-90. But the Bulls took a step farther, to the seventh game of the conference finals before finally getting over the proverbial hump in 1990-91 with their first NBA championship.
Jackson did so in developing a symbiotic relationship with his MVP star in Michael Jordan, as Kerr, one of the top 3-point percentage shooters in league history, is doing with Curry, already regarded by many as one of the best shooters ever in the game.
As a result, the Warriors with a player and fan friendly fast game also are the league’s top offensive team this season with a top 10 all-time margin of victory.
Kerr coaches much like Jackson in many ways.
Kerr doesn’t stand and scream and roam the sidelines all game, like most NBA coaches. He sits pensively, as Jackson did, entrusting the players.
Jackson was known for calling few timeouts so players could become accustomed to playing through difficulties. But it also showed the inherent trust in them that is a factor with Kerr.
Kerr, like Jackson, maintains an open relationship with players, the “secret” success to great coaching being less the plays you draw up but the relationships you maintain. Jackson always understood that and would seem to treat his players like a congregation, his parents both ministers.
Kerr’s father was a university professor, and he teaches as well as coaches, another of the principal elements to success as a coach. Players want a system of play to fall back on in tough times, and they also want to be able to get better.
So before the season started, Kerr visited every play to explain his role and what he could do to both help himself and the team, which has gone a long way toward enabling the sacrifice of veterans being willing to come off the bench.
Kerr employs that with some of Gregg Popovich’s best plans to rest players for the long haul sprinkled in. Perhaps there’s been no great test yet since the Warriors have had no major setbacks and led the league from the start. That will, no doubt, come in the playoffs. How Kerr and his team handle them will define his legacy.
But if the Jackson tree doesn’t have many branches, it does have a firm base.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”
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