Kerr and Draymond's Relationship Nearly Destroyed Warriors; Now It Fuels Them

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterMay 24, 2018

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr talks with forward Draymond Green (23) during a timeout in the second half of Game 4 of a second-round NBA basketball Western Conference playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies Monday, May 11, 2015, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The greatest NBA team of this era nearly detonated on live television.

There was screaming, profanity, rage, an implied threat—a sense that something terrible, something violent, might unfold. If not at that moment, then eventually. That the star forward and the star coach of the Golden State Warriors might come to blows.

The scene wasn't captured on camera, but the vivid details surfaced almost immediately.

"One of the players went on a profanity-laced tirade," ESPN's Lisa Salters reported that night from Oklahoma City, where she had been stationed outside the visitors' locker room. "I did not hear what precipitated it. But he was yelling so loudly that I could hear everything that he was saying."

It was Feb. 27, 2016, halftime of a nationally televised game between the Warriors and Thunder.

The player was Draymond Green. His words, as relayed by Salters, were pointed. His target was coach Steve Kerr.

"I am not a robot! I know I can play! You have me messed up right now! If you don't want me to shoot, I won't shoot the rest of the game!"

"At one point, people were trying to get him to sit down, from what I could hear," Salters reported that night. "And he was daring people, threatening people: 'Come sit me down!'"

In that moment, the Warriors—defending champions, national darlings, presumed dynasty-in-the-making—appeared positively fragile.

Green was the heartbeat of the locker room. Kerr had just guided the franchise to its first title in 40 years, in part by making Green a full-time starter.

Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson fueled the Warriors' rise with their sharpshooting and showmanship. But Green provided the fire. And Kerr did his best to harness it. If their relationship collapsed, the Warriors surely would, too.

It had often been tense between these two—the brawny 6'7" forward with the penchant for vocal outbursts, pressing defiantly against the meticulous coach with acute control-freak tendencies. Kerr was always trying to tame Green's worst impulses; Green had no desire to be tamed. Both men had tempers.

They had clashed many times before, but never quite like this. Not with Green rising from his seat to charge at Kerr, and Kerr all but inciting it.

"That was by far the worst day of our relationship," Green says, before adding, "That day will end up being the best day we've ever had."

No one threw punches that day in Oklahoma. The Warriors did not collapse.

They pulled together, returned to the NBA Finals that June and fell one win shy of repeating as champions. When Green's volatility hurt them in that series—his flagrant foul triggered a one-game suspension—Kerr rallied to his side.

The Warriors kept pushing forward. They added another star (Kevin Durant) and won another championship. At present, they are tied at two games apiece with the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals. A fourth NBA Finals is in their sights.

Green, fiery as ever, is still the backbone of the Warriors defense. Kerr is still his coach and, Green will tell you, one of his closest friends in the world.

"A guy who I will stay in contact with, no matter what," Green says, "who I'll talk to no matter what, who I'll look to for guidance in certain situations no matter what, who I can always get a solid opinion from, for the rest of my life."

Theirs is a relationship built on trust and empathy, on late-night texts, off-day phone calls and a shared competitive fire. And a whole lot of F-bombs.

That profane locker-room tirade was not an end, but a beginning, a breakthroughthe furnace that forged the friendship.

"We get it," Kerr says. "We understand each other. We know there's going to be an occasional blowup, because we're both extremely competitive. We're more alike than people would ever think."

Of all the ties that bind the Warriors—from Steph to Klay, from Andre Iguodala to Shaun Livingston to Green to Durant—none are perhaps as vital as the bond between the feisty forward and the willful head coach.

Draymond Green and Steve Kerr have each come to influence the other's basketball worldview, although not without an occasional argument.
Draymond Green and Steve Kerr have each come to influence the other's basketball worldview, although not without an occasional argument.FREDERIC J. BROWN/Getty Images

It's the last thing anyone could have expected.

"They have a good relationship," says Draymond's mother, Mary Babers-Green. "So now it's, 'I'm going to go out and make my friend happy.'"

The Western Conference Finals opened last week on a familiar note: the chirp of a referee's whistle. Technical foul, Draymond Green. Sixty-seven seconds had elapsed in Game 1.

Green's infraction: a forearm thrown at Rockets star James Harden as the two tangled for a loose ball. It looked intentional, and it put Green in a familiar spot: one outburst from an ejection.

Fans surely cringed"Here we go again"but Kerr was practically Zen about it. He didn't yank Green to the bench or even overtly react.

Though Green played the first half on edgethrowing hard screens, jawing and gesturing at officialshe stayed on task, played a steady second half and helped secure a 119-106 victory. He finished with nine rebounds, nine assists, five points and the best plus/minus (plus-19) on the team.

"I was a bit overzealous, a bit amped up," Green would say afterward. "But I'd rather that any day than coming out flat."

Teammates and coaches echo this sentiment often. There's a balance here, a trade-off of sorts: Without the borderline-out-of-control passion, there is no Draymond. And the Warriors happily accept the deal, for all the benefits it brings—the stifling defense, the brilliant playmaking, the timely rebounds.

It's that unbridled feistiness, combined with a keen basketball intellect, that powered Green's rapid rise from the 35th pick of the 2012 draft to three-time All-Star, three-time All-Defense selection and the 2017 Defensive Player of the Year award.

"He's high-strung," says Hall of Famer Jerry West, the former Warriors consultant who's now working for the Los Angeles Clippers. "That's what drives him. He's just so emotional. The thing that drives him to be better is also the thing that makes him more volatile."

To the casual fan, Green's statistics may appear pedestrian. He's never averaged 20 points or 10 rebounds in a season. His numbers this season: 11 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks.

But he is as indispensable as any of his flashier teammates—the fulcrum of their offense and the backbone of their defense, both of which perennially rank among the league's best. He averages more assists than any Warriors guard, more rebounds than any Warriors big man. He can defend all five positions.

"When he's at his best, we're at our best," Kerr says. "When he's at his worst, we suffer. I've said many times, he's like the heartbeat of the team."

This is the essential understanding that now binds player and coach: Kerr had to learn to loosen his gripto let Draymond roar when he needs to roar, flex when he needs to flex and shoot when he needs to shootto trust him to do the right thing. Green had to learn to harness his own emotions and to trust Kerr's guidance when it was time to intervene.

"There's so many times in life people try to change you," Green says. "And sometimes, although someone may think they're changing you for the better, it could be for the worse. And where [Kerr] helped me was, he didn't try to change me. His whole thing to me was: How do you channel it? How do you channel your aggression, your passion? How do you use it, get it to where it's always working for you, or never against you?

"And that was kind of Steve's thing with me that helped me so much. Because I think if you take my fire away, I may be a decent player because I can really think the game. I'd still have that, but if you take my fire away, I'm not near the guy that I am and the player that I am. And so if he was more so bent on trying to strip that away from me, I'm not where I am today. But he was more focused on, and more dedicated to, trying to help me learn to use it for the better of myself, or the better of the team."

Both player and coach had to cede a little control, which was no small thing. Both Kerr and Green are "feisty people," in the words of Warriors assistant Ron Adams. Both are intensely proud and competitive.

Green credits Kerr for finding a way to incorporate Green's passion into the Warriors' game plan without toning down the energy he needs to feed his game.
Green credits Kerr for finding a way to incorporate Green's passion into the Warriors' game plan without toning down the energy he needs to feed his game.Sean Gardner/Getty Images

And both men welcome, even invite, confrontation. Recall that Kerr, a former Chicago Bulls guard, once got punched by Michael Jordan during a dispute on the practice court.

"Steve is one of the most competitive people I've met," says Bob Myers, the Warriors' general manager and a close friend of Kerr. "He disguises it, but it does come out. Unlike Draymond, where he almost embodies it, and exudes it, Steve's is more under the surface. It's more burning. It's simmering inside."

It's a delicate balance, and perhaps always will be. Green had 15 technical fouls this past regular season, one shy of an automatic suspension. But he reined himself in after getting the 15th on March 9, and he stayed out of harm's way.

"Draymond is a really smart guy," Kerr says. "In both of the last two years, he went right up to the edge on the technicals, but did not get the 16th. So he knows what he's doing."

It's a constant dance. Earlier in this playoff run, Green spent an entire series tangling and jawing with the New Orleans guard Rajon Rondo, another practiced provocateur. Their tensions spiked in Game 3, with Green playing a particularly edgy, sloppy game.

The next day, Kerr and Green had an extended discussion during practiceabout Green's seven turnovers, not the Rondo battles.

"I don't even care about that," Kerr says of the sideshow. "He knows he got out of control. So we've got to find the balance between the frenzy and the poise."

That's the faith Kerr has in Green now. That's the chasm they had to bridge.

Draymond Green was ready to burst. One wrong look, one ill-considered word, and he would have. The whole team sensed it. They knew to steer clear.

It was late February 2017, a year after the blowup in Oklahoma. The Warriors were cruising, with 49 wins in their first 58 games, but Green was in one of his periodic funks"ready to lose my mind," he recallsand playing poorly. "Pissed at the world, pissed at me," Kerr says.

"I didn't feel like we were playing the right way, the right brand of basketball," Green says. "I didn't feel like he was saying enough about us not playing the right brand of basketball. I was just all over the place, ready to lose it."

Tensions peaked during a rout of the Brooklyn Nets. Kerr played Green just 23 minutes, and benched him for the final 10:25.

"He was bitching at me," Kerr recalls. "He was pissed about whatever was going on in the game. I don't even remember. I was pissed at him. And it just felt like, you know what, let's not talk here for the rest of the game."

When reporters asked about it afterward, Kerr tersely replied, "It just wasn't his night." The normally chatty Green declined to speak to the media at all. Nor did they speak to each other for another 24 hours.

In expressing how much he cares for Green in a three-page letter a year ago, Kerr convinced Green he understood him as a player and as a person.
In expressing how much he cares for Green in a three-page letter a year ago, Kerr convinced Green he understood him as a player and as a person.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The next night, with the Warriors in Philadelphia to open a five-game trip, Kerr handed Green an envelope.

"A three-page letter," Green says. "Handed it to me, and said, 'Hey, I just want you to read this when you get a chance.'"

(The details of this tale are comically in dispute: As Green recalls it, the letter was handwritten. Kerr says it was typed and printed out. Green says Kerr gave it to him on the plane. Kerr says it was in the gym. Green says he held onto the letter for three or four days before reading it. Kerr says it was only a day.)

When Green opened the letter, he read only the first couple of lines. It said, in effect: I love you and respect you. I know you're hurting. We need to talk.

"I didn't read another sentence," Green says. "I stopped. Threw the letter away. … That first sentence told me everything that I needed to knowhe get it. He get it, he get me, I'm good. Whatever anger, or whatever it was that was built up in me is gone. He get it!"

That moment, Green says, was "when I finally realized that he truly knows me."

To truly know Green is to understand that his mood will sometimes turn dark and brooding. That he needs his space. That the slightest provocation might make him combust.

A direct conversation might not have been possible. This much, Kerr knew.

"I wanted him to understand that I understood that it's a difficult time of the year," Kerr says. "He knows how much I love him and how much I respect him. That was probably the first line. And then it was probably basketball stuff: Here's where you can make an impact. Here's how powerful you are to our team. As you go, the team goes. Something like that. But it's always gotta come from the heart, it's always gotta be more on a personal level than a basketball level."

The next part, both men remember vividly: Green played his tail off against the 76ers.

"Opening tip, he denied somebody," Kerr recalls. "Gets a rebound. Throws an outlet, runs the floor, gets a tip-in or something. I remember turning to the coaching staff, like, 'Draymond's back. He's back.'"

It happens to everyone in Green's orbit, eventually. A breaking point, where nerves grow raw, words turn sharp and communication breaks down. The relationship falters.

Tom Izzo cannot recall his specific low point as Green's coach at Michigan State, saying instead, "There were many."

"He was younger then, so he was crazier," Izzo chuckles. "And I was crazier."

In the locker room, Green was the loudest voice, even as a freshman. In huddles, he would chew out teammates who blew a play. When he missed a shot in practice, "He'd kick the ball all over," Izzo recalls.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said that Green's intelligence and effort made it impossible not to love him, despite their occasional confrontations.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said that Green's intelligence and effort made it impossible not to love him, despite their occasional confrontations.John Dixon/Associated Press/Associated Press

"He always thought he was better than everybody else, and he always thought he knew more than everybody else," which wasn't far from the truth, Izzo says. "He's got maybe the highest basketball IQ that I've ever coached, by far."

Izzo adds: "He actually made my job easier. You kind of fall in love with the guy."

But they had to grind through the rough patches first, a common experience for those closest to Green. No one cracks that tough exterior without a fight.

So, that blowout with Kerr in OKC? Normal. No different, Green says, than what he went through with Izzo, with whom he remains close.

"Some of the best relationships that I have in my life all started that way," Green says. "Like, literally, some of the people I am closest to all had that moment. And those are really the people I trust most.

"Like, No. 1, that person isn't a pushover," he says. "I'd rather not deal with someone that's a pushover. Because I know in life, sometimes you need to be told no. Sometimes you need to be told you're wrong. And someone that's just going to agree with me on everything I say or do, never tell me I'm wrong, they're not good for my life. They're usually there to get something out of you that they want. And when you kind of see that (strength) out of somebody, you know it's not about what they want. Because if it was about what they want, you wouldn't be there. That means a lot to me."

The list of people who have broken through and truly earned Green's trust is short. The list of those who read him well, he says, is even shorter: His mom, Izzo and Kerr.

Kerr reached out to Izzo shortly after taking the Warriors job in 2014 to seek his advice and insights. ("He's an incredible guy, but he's different," Izzo recalls telling Kerr.) They still speak regularly. They spoke that day in Philadelphia. They spoke after Green's infamous suspension in the 2016 Finals.

"Like, he still talks to my college coach, often," Green says, with wonderment. "Like, no one does that! Nobody does that in the NBA! … And that right there alone just shows how dedicated he was to helping me still continue to be me. So many people would have just been like, 'Ah, I can't figure that out.' But he went in depth to someone who figured it out. 'Coach Izzo figured it out, so let me find out.'"

Early on, Green says, he was convinced Izzo didn't like him. "And the same exact thing with Steve." What the coaches considered normal criticism, Green took as an affront, an attack, an attempt to change him. And so he resisted and rebelled and lashed out until he was convinced their intentions were pure.

"There were times early, he was mad at [Kerr], just like he was mad at me," Izzo says.

Kerr has turned to Izzo often for advice on how to connect with Green.
Kerr has turned to Izzo often for advice on how to connect with Green.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

In Izzo, Kerr found a Draymond Green Sherpa: the man who could guide him through Green's unique emotional and intellectual landscape.

"Steve can reel him in a little bit, but then he lets him go, too," Izzo says. "He knows that his passion and emotion is part of what makes him, too. Boy, that takes a lot of courage as a coach."

The worst day in Draymond Green and Steve Kerr's relationship ended with an exhilarating overtime victory: Warriors 121, Thunder 118.

Green had channeled his fury to the tune of 14 rebounds, 14 assists and six steals—the quintessential Draymond stat line. He helped secure the win with a key block and offensive rebound down the stretch.

But Green's mood was still foul, and he left the arena that day believing his days as a Warrior were numbered. He feared the relationship had been fractured, that the Warriors would choose Kerr over him. That he'd be traded.

"One hundred percent," Green tells B/R. "Especially with the success that he was having as a coach. Like, you just don't get rid of that."

The theme seemed to gain traction later that year, when ESPN published a piece titled "Golden State's Draymond Green Problem," detailing a wide variety of concerns about the temperamental star forward, and implying he might destroy the team from within. The story came four months after the Warriors lost the championship to the Cavaliers, a series marred by Green's Game 5 suspension.

"This my guy," Green said of Kerr at the Warriors' 2015 championship parade, per ESPN.com. "From the start of training camp, he hated me. That's no lie. He probably still hates me. That's no lie. But we going to keep winning these championships—and that's no lie."

If outsiders wondered whether the Warriors might cut their losses and send Green away, his teammates never did.

"Nobody is replicating what he's doing," Livingston says. "I understand there's a peace that might come (with trading Green). But there's a peace of mind that comes with winning, too. You know what I'm saying? We walk the line."

In his lowest moments, Green expressed his fears of being traded to both his mother and Izzo. "We all thought Dray would have been traded" after the Oklahoma incident, Babers-Green says.

Though Warriors teammates and coaches acknowledge Green can be disruptive, they all agree his overall affect on the team, including on its ability to win, is worth any headaches that arise.
Though Warriors teammates and coaches acknowledge Green can be disruptive, they all agree his overall affect on the team, including on its ability to win, is worth any headaches that arise.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

But team officials, including Myers and Kerr, say that was never even a discussion.

"This guy is the best at what he does in the entire league," Kerr says. "At that point, he had already helped us win a title, and he's in the prime of his career. Like, what are we talking about? The 'Draymond problem' wasn't really that big of a problem. It was just: Can we help him channel his emotion and his energy in the right direction?'"

In fact, by that point, Kerr and Green were already moving firmly into the friend zone.

Days after the Oklahoma blowup in 2016, the two sat in the stands together while the team practiced on the court below. It was awkward initially"I didn't want him to say a word to me," Green saysbut Kerr broke the ice with a heartfelt entreaty.

"He just said, 'Draymond, I love your passion, and I love that you will speak up. Our team really needs your fire. And I love when we have our back-and-forths. But I literally can't feel like me and you are gonna really fight.' And I said, 'You know what, coach? I agree. And I love the fact that I can go at you, and you can go back at me.'"

Kerr said he needed to feel that Green was coachable. Green said he wantedneededto be coached.

"From that point on," Green says, "he was more interested in learning me. Because you can't coach everybody the same, just like you can't lead everybody the same."

The conversation never really ended. They text periodically, even during the season, though they see each other nearly every day. Sometimes, it's Kerr just checking in ("We haven't talked in a while. Stop by my room"). Sometimes, it's Green, alerting Kerr to a highlight play in another game ("Holy s--t, did you just see what Philly did?").

"There's a basketball junkie connection," Kerr says, though their conversations often veer far from basketball.

"He needs to know how I feel. I need to know how he feels," Kerr says. "But now we know that. So we can get through any disappointment, any obstacle. We can get right through it with a quick conversation."

They've influenced each other in strange and unexpected ways.

A reflective Green will casually talk about the importance of not "emotionally hijacking" the teaman expression he adopted from Kerr. He credits Kerr for helping him find that balance.

The effect on Kerr is just as profound. He's learned to better tailor his approach to each player, recognizing what Curry needs from him is fundamentally different from what Durant needs, or Iguodala needs, or Green needs.

"I don't know if I really understood that concept that well my first year," Kerr says.

Kerr and the Warriors have come to understand that Green sometimes needs to antagonize opponents or opposing coaches to motivate him to play with an abandon that drives the Warriors on both ends of the court.
Kerr and the Warriors have come to understand that Green sometimes needs to antagonize opponents or opposing coaches to motivate him to play with an abandon that drives the Warriors on both ends of the court.Ben Margot/Associated Press

He's even recalibrated some essential beliefs about the game. Those so-called "bad" shots that Green sometimes takes that used to make Kerr wince? The profane outbursts after a big shot? They have a value.

"Part of what makes Draymond who he is," Kerr explains, "is when he makes that three-pointer, he needs to look at the other coach and say, 'F--k you! You better start f--king guarding me, motherf--ker!' He needs to say that, because that fuels him, and then his defense is better."

And to get Green's best efforts on defensehis calling cardhe needs some freedom on offense. He needs to shoot, and to shoot his mouth off.

The failure to understand that, Kerr says, is what sparked the blowup that night in Oklahoma.

Kerr had lit into Green for taking a shot, rather than executing a simple dribble-handoff with Curry"the right play."

"But I wasn't taking into account the 'f--k you' part," Kerr says. "Like Draymond, to perform at his highest level, needs to make some plays. He needs to take some threes. He needs to take some chances. And so I have to live with some of his mistakes."

Maybe the clash was inevitable. Green was still young and evolvinga second-round pick who'd found instant stardom in the Warriors' championship run the prior year. Kerr was in just his second year as a coach.

Everyone had an inflated feeling of self-importance"that we're the champs," Livingston says.

That season also began with Luke Walton as the acting head coach, with Kerr sidelined by back issues. Under Walton, the Warriors played a little looser, a little freer, Livingston says. So it was an adjustment when Kerr returned in late January, and perhaps no coincidence that the clash in Oklahoma came just weeks later.

"It had been festering with him for a while," Livingston says. "We could see it, we could feel it."

And when Kerr snapped at Green, Green simply snapped.

"He just stood up, ready to charge him," Livingston says. "Steve started it, because Steve lost it. Well, Draymond started it because of what he said. And then Steve obviously reacted and pissed him off. And he should have been pissed off."

"Looking back, it was funny," Livingston says. "Maybe it was funny because it didn't come to blows."

There are still arguments, of course. Kerr and Green still yell and curse at each other occasionally, though much less often.

"Sometimes you need conflict," Kerr says.

Today, Green is a little steadier because of Kerr's influence. And Kerr is a little looser because of Green's influence. Even Kerr's old-school sense of basketball decorum has evolved, in deference to his outspoken star forward.

Case in point: When rookie Jordan Bell threw a lob-dunk to himself in the final minutes of a blowout victory in October, Kerr's first reaction was to cringe. It violated the game's unwritten code. But Green convinced him there was nothing wrong with it at allthat a young player like Bell needs those moments to make his mark. Just as Green needs to shoot those threes and stare down the opposing coach. Just as Curry needs to do those shoulder shimmies after a big shot.

"Draymond's made a big impact on me," Kerr says. "Because I've watched him go from second-round pick, tweener, 'What position does he play?' to All-Star. And he's done it with intellect, versatility and bravado. Without that bravado, Draymond isn't Draymond. So who am I to tell somebody, 'Hey, don't! Tone it back!' When maybe toning it up is what might help you become great."

The comments are relayed to Green, who was hearing the sentiment for the first time.

"It's amazing to know that someone thinks that of you, especially your coach, who's meant so much to the game of basketball," he says. "I mean, I'm kind of lost for words, because that means a lot to me. Steve Kerr, my relationship with coach, it means a lot. And to know that he kind of thinks that of me and views me like that, it really means a lot."

Then, for a moment, the mouth that roars goes silent.


Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and BR Mag. He also hosts the Full 48 podcast, available on Apple Podcasts. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.