PORTLAND, Ore. — Even as the defending champions and prohibitive favorites to repeat, the Golden State Warriors have not been immune to burnout.
An uncharacteristic 4-3 stretch over the past two weeks, including blowout losses to the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder, make quite clear that they're just as ready for the All-Star break as everybody else.
That's why Warriors coach Steve Kerr decided to freshen things up this week by taking a back seat and allowing his players to take over the clipboard in Monday's 129-83 blowout win over the Phoenix Suns.
As with anything relating to the Warriors, Monday's coaching experiment garnered much attention on social media. Suns players Jared Dudley and Troy Daniels took exception to what they saw as disrespect on the part of Golden State. But the Warriors saw immense value in the idea.
"Everybody just loves to hate on the Warriors," Kevin Durant told Bleacher Report at Wednesday morning's shootaround in preparation for their game against the Portland Trail Blazers. "Whatever we do, they don't want to just say they hate us, so they're going to make excuses up on why they don't like us or why it was disrespectful. That's what rubbed me the wrong way, because who gives a s--t? Who cares? The product was on the court, the coach was humble enough, and he doesn't have an ego to think he has to do everything on his own. And we know as players that we can't survive without a great coaching staff. It was an amazing exercise, I thought."
Kerr didn't explicitly tell the players to coach themselves, but the play-calling responsibilities, at least for one night, fell on the ones running the plays.
"He didn't say 'We're coaching,'" Durant said. "He just said, 'In timeouts, if you guys want to run some plays, we're gonna give you the freedom. We'll call it Players Only; you guys see how the game is going and figure it out and call what you need to call.'"
This close to the All-Star break, against a bottom-feeder like Phoenix, it can be hard for a team as good as the Warriors to stay engaged. Kerr's coaching gambit did its job as a motivational tactic on a night when they needed to create an edge.
"Every game varies," Warriors guard Shaun Livingston told Bleacher Report. "You might be able to get up for a team like Cleveland, where you don't have to say much. The motivation's already kind of there. But a game like the other night, it may be harder to get up for that game. And then depending on the score, you might need to say something. I think the fact that we had the coaching opportunity as players, I think that was motivation enough."
It also gave the players an opportunity to see themselves, and each other, in a different light.
"Basketball is a collaborative effort," Durant said. "You don't have one guy controlling everything. You don't have one voice. That's what you've got veterans for, to help the coaches get to us in a different way because we're younger. [David West] can talk to us a little differently than Coach Kerr can. But he is the coach and we listen to him, so it's different voices throughout the whole season. I thought it was an incredible idea by Coach Kerr. Just to kind of give us the power and let us figure things out on our own."
One of the advantages of this Warriors team's continuity is the level of trust that has been built up between the players and the coaching staff. Kerr's decision to let the players call plays on Monday drew headlines, but it wasn't as radical a departure from their regular approach as it seemed. Kerr and his staff have always listened to player feedback and taken suggestions.
"They want to hear our feedback on what we see out there," Livingston said. "I think Coach said it the best. It's the players' jobs to kind of police themselves. Coach's job is to put us in the position to succeed, give us a nudge here or there. Motivate us to get up sometimes. It's kind of like a marriage in a way."
As the night developed in Phoenix, different players' coaching styles emerged. Most players pointed to West and Andre Iguodala as the two best coaches on the team. Livingston was content to be an assistant, while Draymond Green, unsurprisingly, was more vocal.
"We scored on just about every ATO (after timeout)," Durant said. "All the guys drew up some great plays and showed their IQ for the game and their level of knowledge as a player and also seeing it on the outside, from the bench."
Durant himself took a back seat when it came to play-calling.
"I didn't draw up a play," Durant said. "I'm not that nice. I'm not really good at focusing on multiple things when I play. So I just listen to D-West, Draymond and Andre, and just try to do my job as best as I can. For me, I know I'm not mentally in it for me to draw up a play and then go out on the court and play my game, so I just try to focus on my game. Once I get older in the league, I can probably do that. But it's hard enough to just go play. It was amazing that my teammates did such a great job of helping Coach Kerr with that. You still heard his voice throughout the game, helping out with stuff, but for the most part, he gave the clipboard to the guys. It was fun. It was different."
The exercise opens up all sorts of hypothetical questions. How does a teammate, who doesn't have Kerr's cache, try to coach an MVP candidate like Durant or Stephen Curry? How would one fire up Green, the ultimate instigator? Would Green try to get under teammates' skin? Part of why the Warriors were able to pull off this stunt so successfully is because even the stars have bought into the team concept.
"It's not about getting under anyone's skin," Green told Bleacher Report. "When you're playing with someone, you don't want to get under their skin. We're a pretty self-motivated team. We're a championship team; we know what it takes to be a championship team. Everyone's always coming after us. It's not really a tough task to motivate guys; we're already so motivated."