Steve Kerr's NBA Finals Lineup Gamble a Season-Long Bet That Paid Off Big

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterJune 12, 2015

Bob Donnan/USA Today

CLEVELAND — It's tempting to dwell on Thursday's decision and deception, but that's not when or how coach Steve Kerr and the Warriors won Game 4. They didn't win it by choosing to split apart a starting lineup that had gone 50-7 in the regular season—bumping Andrew Bogut to the bench, moving Draymond Green to center and inserting Andre Iguodala as a starter, something the veteran had been in all 48 postseason appearances prior to this year.

They didn't win it by keeping the switch under wraps, lying to reporters who sniffed something after the shootaround in an effort to keep the Cavaliers from preparing prior to tipoff. And they didn't win it just because Iguodala was exceptional on both ends, though that didn't hurt.

No, they really won it in October.

The Warriors won it with the first of Kerr's many risks since taking their coaching job, a risk much greater than the one he took Thursday, a risk that could have caused him to lose the locker room before the season even started, but one that instead set the stage for the sacrifice, unity, flexibility and versatility that his squad has shown all season.  

That risk started with straight talk.

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"A series of conversations," Kerr said, after a 103-82 victory that evened the NBA Finals at 2-2.

It was inevitable those conversations would be uncomfortable, considering the quality of Iguodala's career, one that had included a relatively recent All-Star appearance (2012) and fresh recognition as an All-NBA defender (2014). He may have been miscast as a No. 1 option in the era after Allen Iverson, but that was his burden for most of five seasons in Philadelphia, prior to being acquired by Denver and then signing with Golden State.

And, even as his offensive role receded some, in his one season with the Nuggets and his first with the Warriors, he was always a part of the opening five. But then came the Warriors' early playoff exit in 2014, one hastened in part by Bogut's injury-related absence. Then came the coaching change, from Mark Jackson to someone with no experience in the position and, yet, an abundance of intuition.

After spending some time with his new team, Kerr realized that, in order to raise the Warriors' ceiling, he needed to reassign some of the responsibilities.

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 11:  Head coach Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks at the pre game press conference before Game Four of the 2015 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers on June 11, 2015 at The Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NO
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

"I didn't make up my mind to bring him off the bench until late in camp," Kerr said. "But we had several discussions about it. I don't think he was thrilled, but he understood my reasoning. I explained what I was thinking, and to his credit, he accepted it immediately. I thought it set a tone for our team from the beginning, a sacrifice."

Kerr's reasoning, back then, for replacing Iguodala with Harrison Barnes? It was manifold. It was intended to recharge Barnes after the gifted forward's lost second season, in which his start total slipped from 81 to 24 and he failed to make even marginal improvement in most areas. It was meant to stabilize the second unit, the way that one of Kerr's mentors, Gregg Popovich, has deployed Manu Ginobili for much of a decade.

But it was also meant to allow Iguodala, as he neared his 31st birthday, to stay fresher throughout this season and even later into his careerthe forward's 26.9-minute average was nearly six fewer than the lowest average of his career and 13 fewer than when he led the NBA in that category as a pogo stick in his prime.

On Thursday, Kerr, Iguodala and the Warriors got plenty of payoff.

Kerr got payoff for pacing Iguodala for the past several months; his 22 points were more than in any game in the 2014-15 regular season or 2015 postseason, and his 37 points over the past two games represent his top two-game stretch. And he's doing that while defending the NBA's most dominant player, LeBron James.

"I mean, he looks great out there," Kerr said, stating the obvious. "He's been our best player through four games."

Iguodala got payoff for showing the proper attitude. He was granted an opportunity to startand play 39 minuteson the biggest stage, when it mattered most, when a loss likely would have doomed the Warriors to an offseason of regret and recrimination.

That attitude trickled down to others, such as former All-Star forward David Lee, who has cited Iguodala as an example for his own sacrifice. Lee, like Iguodala, lost a starting job this season, initially to injury and then permanently to Draymond Green—a second major Kerr risk that was rewarded, as Green developed into a critical cog.

Lee, the team's highest-paid player, was entirely removed from the rotation until coming through with 20 points and nine rebounds in 28 minutes in the past two games.

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 11: David Lee #10 of the Golden State Warriors dunks against LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game Four of the 2015 NBA Finals at The Quicken Loans Arena on June 11, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expres
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

"We kept talking all year about how your time's going to come," Kerr said of Lee. "Stay with it. He believed it and he stayed with it and he's making a big impact. I'm really pleased for those two guys and just the impact that they've made on our team, the unselfishness. It's very important."

"Our team has been really good at just letting it flow, and whoever's night it is, that is that guy's night," Iguodala said.

And so Warriors management keeps getting payoff for the biggest decision it made in the past year: the decision to change coaches. Maybe Jackson has the same conversation with Iguodala in October. Maybe he keeps Green at the forefront while keeping Lee connected. Maybe he makes the same move that Kerr did this Thursday in June, if the Warriors had gotten that far.

It's impossible to know. But we know what Kerr has done. He's done the hardest thing for coaches to do. He's gotten enough of the team to buy in that it doesn't blink when he does something that otherwise might appear panicky and might even crater the team's confidence in itself and in him.

He's also skilled enough with the media, after years as a TNT analyst, to know how to keep changes concealed.

"I mean, I lied," Kerr said after the game, smiling. "I figure I have two press conferences on the day of the game, so I'm asked a lot of strategic questions. So my options were tell the truthand I was asked both at shootaround and before the gameso if I tell the truth, it's the equivalent of me knocking on David Blatt's door and saying, 'Hey, this is what we're going to do.'

"Or I could evade the question, which would start this Twitter phenomenon: 'Who is going to start for the Warriors?' Or I could lie. So I lied. Sorry. But I don't think they hand you the trophy based on morality. They give it to you based on the win."

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 11: Andre Iguodala #9 of the Golden State Warriors shoots against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Four of the 2015 NBA Finals on June 11, 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

The question, of course, was whether the move would contribute to a victory or lead to another lossone that would shake the Warriors too much for them to recover. NBA coaches commonly refer to lineup adjustments as a "game of chicken," with the implication that you show more strength through stability, by sticking with your core group rather than constantly or even occasionally tweaking.

As one coach recently told Bleacher Report, "When the better team feels it must make a major adjustment, it might no longer be the better team."

And, while Erik Spoelstra's promotion of Mike Miller in 2013 and Gregg Popovich's insertion of Boris Diaw in 2014 both proved beneficial in the back-to-back NBA Finals between the Heat and Spurs, there are plenty of examples of coaches overreaching with disastrous results.

One occurred in 2007, when Mavericks coach Avery Johnsonlike Kerr, coming off a 67-15 seasonstarted Game 1 of the playoffs with forward Devean George instead of center Erick Dampier to match up with the smaller, quicker, eighth-seeded Warriors, who had given Dallas trouble in the regular season. The Mavericks seemed shaken. They lost Game 1 and, even after Johnson went back to a bigger lineup, lost the series in six games.

"You're just as likely to fall on your keister as you are to come across something," former NBA player Shane Battier told Bleacher Report last year.

Kerr couldn't afford to fall on his keister, not down 2-1 in the series.

Early, it appeared that might be so, as the Cavaliers crashed the glass and made runs at the rim, with Bogut on the Golden State bench. It was 7-0 Cleveland after 129 seconds and the first timeout.

And while it was Stephen Curry who stopped the streak with a step-back three-pointer, it was Iguodala who largely sustained the Warriors through the rest of the quarter. He played all 12 minutes, scored nine points, got out on the break and did a much better job of disrupting James' rhythm on the other end than Barnes had in the first quarter of the previous three games.

"We've got a lot of players in this league that can score the ball in bunches," Iguodala said. "You know, [there's] like 10 or 15 guys in this league. I've had a chance to guard all of them. I've been doing it for a long time. The thing that makes [James] dynamic is he's probably one of the smartest and best passers out of all the scorers. ... But the foundation is the same."

Thursday, James' numbers were down: 7-of-22 from the field, 20 points.

"He's one of the X-factors, and he came to play," James said.

James doesn't believe any one man can stop himand noted the Warriors doubled him a bit more than they'd done throughout the seriesbut there are defenders he respects more than most, and Iguodala has always appeared to be one. That's because James respects intellect and effort, and Iguodala offers both.

"He's one of the smartest players I've ever been around," Kerr said. "The guy is brilliant at both ends. He sees the game. If he wants to coach someday, he'd be a great coach. Although he says he would be too impatient, so I don't know if he's got the patience. But he's got a great basketball mind."

He was smart enough Thursday in the way he approached his assignments on both endsplaying the angles against James on defense, exploiting the Timofey Mozgov mismatch on the perimeter on offensethat he made Kerr look smart.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Smart for ditching a lineup that had played 813 minutes in the regular season and was a plus-329.

Smart for using a lineup that had played only 102 minutes in the regular season and was a plus-42.

"Coach Kerr did a great job of mixing the lineup up," James said. "They have so many different interchangeable players where he can kind of decide how he wants to go with his lineups in that nature, and to start [Iguodala] tonight gave them that boost."

That's the thing about coaching adjustments. They're only as good as the players who execute them.

But it's true that coaches can help those players be better, not just by what's done in a single day, with a single decision, but what's done over the course of an entire season.

And that season has come down to one indisputable truth...

The Finals are tied.

All statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.

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