No Experience Needed: How Steve Kerr Became NBA's Hottest Coaching Candidate

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No Experience Needed: How Steve Kerr Became NBA's Hottest Coaching Candidate
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Steve Kerr was roaming Oklahoma City on Tuesday, near the midpoint of the U.S. map—a fitting position for the man who just became the center of the NBA's 2014 coaching pageant.   

Thirteen hundred miles to the northeast, Phil Jackson was lobbying Kerr to coach the New York Knicks. Thirteen hundred miles to the west, the Golden State Warriors were quickly assembling a candidate list, with Kerr's name near the top.

Other teams are making inquiries, making Kerr the most popular target of the offseason, the first domino in the hiring cycle. To borrow a phrase from George Costanza, it's looking like the Spring of Steve.

We should mention here that Kerr, a color commentator for TNT, has never coached at any level.

We should mention, too, that no one seems altogether concerned about that.

That itself is a noteworthy development in NBA coach-hiring annals.

Last summer, the Brooklyn Nets were second-, third- and fourth-guessed for choosing Jason Kidd as their head coach, just weeks after he retired as a player.

Three years ago, the Warriors raised eyebrows by plucking Jackson—with zero bench experience of any kind—from his comfy seat in the commentator booth.

DUANE BURLESON/Associated Press

Fourteen years ago, it was Doc Rivers, jumping from TV analyst to Orlando Magic head coach, who raised the doubts and concerns.

But Kerr? The discussion is focused solely on where he will coach, not whether he can. (Kerr, who was in Oklahoma City to call the Thunder-Clippers series, declined to comment for this story.)

There are a lot of factors in play here—including a universal high regard for Kerr in NBA circles—but the most significant might be this: Experience is no longer considered an absolute prerequisite.

The emerging new view: Find a strong leader with high basketball intelligence and great communication skills, and they will find a way. That model also applies to the Celtics' bold decision last year to hire Butler's Brad Stevens, who did have head coaching experience, but none at the NBA level.

"I think it allows people to look a little broader than they once did," Nets general manager Billy King said. He nevertheless cautioned, "I think each situation is different."

Still, the fact that Kerr has become this year's hottest candidate speaks to how quickly things have changed.

Credit Kidd, Rivers, Mark Jackson and Larry Bird for nudging along that evolution of thought.

Bird guided the Indiana Pacers to the Finals in 2000, just three years after becoming head coach with no prior experience.

That same season, Rivers went from heavily scrutinized rookie coach to Coach of the Year for coaxing a .500 record out of a thoroughly anonymous Magic team. Eight years later, Rivers took the Boston Celtics to the championship, cementing his place among the NBA's elite.

John Minchillo/Associated Press/Associated Press
Jason Kidd struggled early but has led the Nets to the second round of the playoffs in his first season as a coach.

Kidd looked overmatched in the fall, but he recovered quickly, earned two Coach of the Month awards and now has the Nets in the second round of the playoffs.

And Jackson? Well, he was fired Tuesday—apparently for alienating the entire Golden State front office—but he did mold the Warriors into an elite defensive team and preside over their best season in 20 years.

You can fault Jackson for his uninspired playbook. You can make the case that he still has much to learn, as any young coach does. But Jackson has proven himself a capable bench leader, and he probably won't be unemployed for long.

That the Warriors would pursue Kerr, whose resume today is nearly identical to Jackson's in 2011 (player-turned-commentator, no coaching experience) underlines how quickly things have changed.

Then again, some of the Kerr phenomenon is attributable solely to Kerr. He has been analyzing the game on TV for eight of the last 11 years, so his aptitude, insight and sharp mind have been on display for some time. He is immensely personable and well networked among team executives, coaches and players.

Kerr also spent three seasons as general manager of the Phoenix Suns, so he is well versed in team operations. His championship experience as a player—three rings with the Chicago Bulls, two with the San Antonio Spurs—only enhances Kerr's standing as a winner. He has learned from two of the greatest coaches of all time, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich.

So while Kerr is unproven, few doubt that he has the right makeup for the job.

The most difficult decision here is the one Kerr will make. Although multiple teams have reached out to Kerr, NBA sources say he is focused strictly on the Warriors and the Knicks, each with a unique set of pros and cons.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
The chance to reunite with Phil Jackson may entice Steve Kerr to become the Knicks' new coach.

The allure of working for Phil Jackson, Kerr's longtime friend and mentor, is strong, according to associates of both men. Kerr knows he has much to learn, and having Jackson nearby would be a huge comfort. The New York stage is always a draw.

But if Kerr wants to contend immediately, the Warriors offer a much better opportunity—a roster that just won 51 games, and a backcourt tandem (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson) that ranks among the NBA's best. The Warriors are young, talented and brimming with potential.

The Knicks' rotation is aging, flawed and locked in place for another year. They will have cap room in 2015, but their franchise star, Carmelo Anthony, could leave as a free agent this summer. (Kerr has never been a big fan of Anthony's game, in any case.) The specter of James Dolan, the meddling, ham-handed Knicks owner, always looms as a concern.

Then again, the Eastern Conference is so weak that the Knicks could jump back into playoff contention with just a few tweaks. The West, by contrast, is stacked with great teams, and the Warriors' expectations are so high that they just fired a coach who won 98 games the last two years.

There are personal considerations in play, as well. All three of Kerr's children are in California—a daughter attending Cal and two sons in San Diego (one in high school, one in college), where the family lives. When Kerr left the Suns in 2010, it was largely because he felt he was missing too much time with his family.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

With two kids in college, Kerr has said he is now ready to return to the NBA grind. But he strongly prefers to stay close to home, according to sources.

Wherever he ends up, Kerr will present the next fascinating case study, the next test of how much experience matters on the bench. Twelve years ago, George Karl, then coaching the Milwaukee Bucks, bemoaned the quick elevation of Rivers and made the case that coaches are better off working their way up, after spending time as an assistant. It is a belief still held by most in the coaching profession.

"Steve Kerr, I think, is a very good basketball guy," Karl, who is now working as an ESPN commentator, said in a telephone interview.

"Very good. Very talented brain. Very good instincts. A championship pedigree. But every young player, and I really feel every young coach, has a growing-up period. Some guys will do it in a year. Some guys will take two."

Karl added, "I think Steve knows enough about an 82-game season that he understands it. But living it is totally different than understanding it. And New York, the heat in the kitchen is way higher."

Everyone in the NBA who knows Kerr—which is to say, most of the NBA—views him as engaging, intelligent, affable and a skilled communicator. As a TV analyst, he ranks among the best.

A great coach? We don't know yet. Kerr doesn't know yet. But we're going to find out pretty soon.

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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