After two straight playoff appearances and a 51-win season, the Warriors firing Mark Jackson in the summer of 2014 was, for some, a surprising move. As has been well chronicled in the time since, Jackson’s dismissal was about more than basketball. But beneath the veil of a perennial punchline franchise ascending into the realm of respectability, there were basketball concerns as well.
Namely, Golden State’s offense.
Despite Stephen Curry bursting onto the superstar scene, Jackson’s Warriors never finished better than 12th in offensive rating. It was an offense designed on antiquated and predictable mismatch hunting that relied on extremely tough individual shotmaking. It wasn’t going to get the Warriors where they had talent to go.
Enter Steve Kerr, who immediately turned Golden State’s offense into one of ever-flowing ball of player movement. It was sloppy at the start, all these cuts and anticipatory passes requiring an almost sixth-sense connection between teammates who weren’t going to be on the same page from the jump. Count Draymond Green among those players who weren’t so quick to see the beauty in the beautiful game.
“The offense [under Jackson] was very pick-and-roll dominant,” Green said during a recent appearance on the “Checc’n In” podcast. “Like, we [ran] a lot of pick and rolls for Steph [Curry], pindowns for Klay [Thompson] and kind of seeking out matchups … you know like, ‘Oh, there’s a mismatch, we are going at that mismatch.’ And then obviously, we had plays. Like, [it] wasn’t that we didn’t have plays, but the bulk of our offense was pick and rolls and taking advantage of mismatches.
“When Steve Kerr took over the job, I remember the first training camp, he’s like, ball movement, cut, stop standing and waiting for the ball. I’ll catch the ball at the top of the key, Steph on the wing, and [Kerr is] like, ‘Steph, cut,’ and it’s like, ‘No, dude, I’m supposed to pass the ball to Steph right here.’ And he said, ‘Pass the ball and move. Without the ball, the ball will find the hands of the people that are supposed to get the shots.’
Green concluded: “We all thought he was out of his mind. And then as we started to do it, then you figure it out and [you’re] like, ‘Yo, this is actually pretty incredible.’ Like, it’s ball moving, ball moving. Screen, roll, it’s ball moving, ball moving, ball moving. There goes the mismatch, but nobody’s really standing. And that’s kind of where all this flow offense and all this stuff came.”
Suffice it to say, Kerr’s idea worked. The first year that he took over for Jackson, with virtually the same roster, he turned the Warriors into the league’s No. 2 offense, improved their regular-season win total by 16 games and, oh by the way, led the franchise to its first championship since 1975 — the first of four titles, and six Finals appearances, under Kerr.
To this day, there are frustrations with Kerr taking the ball out of Curry’s hands. I’ll admit, it still gets me worked up now and again. But the brilliance of utilizing Curry in such a fluid on/off ball manner simply can’t be denied. It only works when you have a player such as Curry, a superstar who is more than capable of carrying an offense via the heaviest of pick-and-roll loads, who is willing to give up the ball and trust that it will make its way back to him if he continues to move with energy and integrity.
In turn, that trust that the ball will, indeed, find its way back to Curry only works when you have guys who are capable of operating as passers and screeners in a system that relies almost solely on the entire unit’s collective instincts. Green, more than any other player, is the one who makes this part of Kerr’s vision go. Forget Green’s defense for a second; he’s an incredibly forward-thinking facilitator.
Through pure sense, he always knows where Curry is, which way the defense is leaning, whether a back-cut is about to open up as Curry drags two defenders out beyond the arc off a pin-down screen; Green sees it all before it actually happens, and everyone, not just Curry, is a beneficiary.
Over the years, the Warriors have brought in smart, instinctual, ego-less players who fit this system, while fazing out the ones who just can’t keep up with such fluid, improvisational demands. Now it’s a well-oiled machine. But it wasn’t always that way. Kerr saw how unstoppable a Curry-led offense could be if he wasn’t always the one directly leading it. It was a risk, but the rewards, clearly, were worth it.