OAKLAND, Calif. — Unsure of both who his team will face next and how long he'll remain the Golden State Warriors' acting head coach, Mike Brown spoke with certitude about a number of topics for nearly 16 minutes Wednesday—the longest media availability anyone could remember he or Steve Kerr, his hospitalized boss, giving the local press corps this season.
Just a few feet off the team's practice court, where Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant went around the arc with alternating shots, Brown held court on no shortage of subjects, from the maturation of LeBron James (whom he coached to the 2007 NBA Finals) to Draymond Green's rapport with referees to the self-sustaining momentum that winning alone can sometimes facilitate.
And, of course, Brown made sure to come back time and again to Kerr, whom he credits at every chance afforded to him. "I still have a role to do, and Steve's the head coach," Brown said when asked about any conflict in the duality of his current situation, "so I'm going to keep doing it and that's not going to change for me."
Kerr hired Brown last summer to be his lineups guru, the person in charge of mixing and matching rotations and minutes so the team would operate at peak efficiency. But Brown's arrival in Oakland also served as a hedge against any possible repeat of last season, when Kerr missed the first 43 games due to complications from his offseason back surgery debacle that caused a fluid leak in his spine.
Assistant coach Luke Walton (with all of one year of professional coaching to his name) stepped in, went 39-4 in Kerr's stead and the Warriors largely recovered to win a record 73 games and advance to the playoffs' farthest possible endpoint.
But this scenario, with Kerr once again on the mend, is different. Even with Walton in the first chair, Kerr was a constant and familiar face around the team practice facility and inside Oracle Arena on game nights, when he would watch games (alongside general manager Bob Myers) in a room just a few dozen feet off the court. There was pregame assistance, even the occasional halftime consult.
Now Kerr's countenance is nowhere to be found. His last appearance was a media availability in Portland before Game 3 of the Warriors' first-round series; the team has been left in Brown's hands since.
And after the Game 4 clincher in Salt Lake City, Brown said Kerr's support through this situation has been unwavering. "He always ends every conversation with, ‘Mike, you’re there, and I’m not there. You’ve got to make decisions about which direction you want to go with the team,’” he said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better, because he’s a great sounding board.”
But he's now recovering from a procedure done at Duke Medical Center last week to—hopefully once and for all—fix the leak that has caused his chronic and unyielding pain.
That development, awkwardly disclosed by team owner Joe Lacob in a radio interview with Bloomberg News, is important for a couple of reasons.
First is that Kerr has, especially in recent months, become an outspoken critic of back surgery in general. He's voiced his insistence that no one, regardless of circumstances, should ever go under the knife to fix a back injury. "It should be the last resort," Kerr said on Bill Simmons' podcast earlier this season. "You got to rely on Mother Nature and just rehab." That Kerr felt this procedure necessary means there really were no other feasible options for relieving the pain that has haunted him for 20 months.
Second is that there's now no reasonable assumption that Kerr will return to coach in these playoffs. Sure, anything is possible, but this has been a quality-of-life issue for Kerr for a long time now. This goes beyond basketball, especially for someone who is only 51 and could reasonably hope to coach another two decades or so should his body cooperate.
Basketball has dictated Kerr's path from an early age, but he has the chance now to finally get healthy again and live many more years free of pain. He owes it to himself to try.
But in basketball terms, it means that should this squad get through the conference finals for a chance to avenge last June's collapse against the Cleveland Cavaliers, it will almost certainly be coached by Brown, a newcomer to Golden State but a man with years of bench experience to lean on as the games get tougher.
That could be critical when you consider that the Warriors are still a relatively new phenomenon in today's NBA. This is their third straight conference finals appearance, yet that has come after a 39-year absence. And while this is Golden State's fifth consecutive time in the playoffs, that streak was preceded by an era in which it missed the postseason in 17 out of 18 years, the second-worst stretch of futility in league history.
In essence, the Warriors are still learning to be comfortable with the kind of ruthless tenacity that the Michael Jordan-era Bulls came to exemplify. With Chicago, every late-stage postseason series (including several featuring Kerr) felt like a fait accompli.
For as much as critics are quick to cite "Warriors fatigue," this organization is still in its infancy as a powerhouse.
Remember, these Warriors were proven vulnerable last June, so they will need every bit of savvy and know-how they can muster to once again reach the top.
Enter Brown, who has already had a tangible effect on how the Warriors win. There aren't many nits to pick when you're posting the No. 2 offense and No. 1 defense in the playoffs thus far, with an astronomical 17.4 net rating to boot. But it's a slightly different version of Golden State basketball we're seeing now, like a director's cut with a few extra scenes seamlessly spliced in. (After all, Brown did work his way up as a video assistant who could work multiple VHS decks with finesse.)
Overall, the offense is humming along under Brown at a higher efficiency rating (115.5 to 113.2) than in the regular season. The Warriors' efficiency in both the transition game (1.21 points per possession to 1.07 in the playoffs) and on isos (0.94 to 0.8) has decreased by significant margins, but their pick-and-roll scoring, from either the ball-handler or roll man, has been a revelation.
Let's look at the Warriors' points per possession on pick-and-rolls, as well as their Effective Field Goal percentage, which accounts for threes being worth one more than two-point shots:
|Regular season||Playoffs (25% Kerr/75% Brown)|
|PnR ball handler (% of plays)||10.9%||14.3%|
|PnR ball handler (PPP)||0.88||0.99|
|PnR ball handler (eFG%)||50.1%||53.8%|
|PnR roll man (% of plays)||4%||3.5%|
|PnR roll man (PPP)||0.94||1.27|
|PnR roll man (eFG%)||48.8%||63%|
It's a staggering difference, which is likely also reflected in the uptick seen in the Warriors' success rate on pull-up threes. Golden State shot 32.7 percent in the regular season; in the six games with Brown at the helm, they're making 39.6 percent. The biggest contributors? Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, who've made 18 of 41 (44 percent) such shots over the past six games after shooting just 35.2 percent in the regular season.
What's perhaps truly remarkable is that even with Green making 17-of-33 catch-and-shoot threes (51.5 percent) since Brown took over, the Warriors' overall percentage on such shots (37.5 percent) has actually dipped as compared to the regular season (40.6 percent).
It all adds up to more freelancing and pick-and-roll wizardry, less of the meticulous, timing-contingent motion offense Kerr installed back in training camp of 2014. Maybe it looked simple, but the Warriors have quietly adapted under Brown's leadership and remade themselves on the fly.
In other words, the Warriors team that may reach its third straight NBA Finals will be a different machine than even the one that won 67 games this past regular season. We can see where the Warriors' play has differed, even if slightly, from how it was under Kerr.
This is nothing new for the Warriors, who had to change their style when Curry went down not once but twice with injuries during their last postseason run. This may not be quite as radical a transformation as, say, swapping the two-time MVP for Shaun Livingston, but it's a credit to the system Kerr installed—as well as the ethos of coachability he helped establish—that Brown can step in (as Walton did a year ago) and succeed even while allowing a number of changes to take root.
It's a situation Brown has been ready for since he came here, and he's quick to credit his boss for laying the groundwork.
"Steve is really good at trying to keep everybody engaged throughout the course of the year," Brown said, "and when you get to a point like we are now, you can see that it pays off."
Erik Malinowski covers the Warriors for B/R. His book, Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History, will be published in October. Follow him on Twitter: @erikmal.