OAKLAND, Calif. — Whenever the Golden State Warriors’ championship run ends, it will be relatively easy to look back and rank their core players among the greatest at their respective positions who have ever played in the NBA.
The ambiguity is going to center around where to place Steve Kerr in the pantheon of all-time coaches, a debate that will be complicated by the presumption that once this window closes, so will his body of work.
Kerr almost certainly isn’t going to win as many titles as Red Auerbach, he’s not going to grind through different iterations of his roster like Gregg Popovich and he probably won’t have a second run of dominance like Phil Jackson did with the Lakers.
But with all the headwinds facing the Warriors right now, winning this title may be enough to put Kerr on the same tier as the best who’ve ever done it.
Let’s set the stage for how you can make that case.
The NBA Finals are tied at one game apiece headed into Wednesday’s Game 3 at Oracle Arena (9 p.m. ET, ABC), a situation that would overwhelmingly favor the Warriors in a conventional year. But at the moment, this feels like anything but a conventional spot for a team that has won three of the last four titles.
Kevin Durant hasn’t played since May 8 because of a calf injury and won’t return Wednesday. Who really knows if he will at all. Forward Kevon Looney, whose contributions have been crucial throughout the playoffs, suffered an injury early in Game 2 that will effectively take him out for the rest of the Finals. Klay Thompson is officially listed as questionable but said he expects to play after suffering a hamstring injury in the Warriors’ improbable win Sunday night.
“We all just understand the moment, and we’re very locked in and focused on adapting to the circumstances that are thrown at us right now,” guard Stephen Curry said. “We’ve been through a lot, had a lot of different experiences. This is just adding to that book.”
These are the Warriors, not the Little Sisters of the Poor, so nobody’s going to pity their misfortune. As long as they’ve got Curry and Draymond Green and Thompson healthy enough to be on the court, they’re going to have a chance against the Toronto Raptors.
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To get the Warriors over the finish line, however, Kerr is going to have to pull a lot of levers you’d never want to pull in an NBA Finals. In fact, he already had a couple “break glass in case of emergency” moments Sunday just to avoid an 0-2 hole and will have to do it over and over again to compensate for how short-handed the Warriors are.
“I think the way we look at it is it’s a challenge, and we accept the challenge and embrace it as both a team and a staff,” Kerr said. “Obviously, we’re mostly just feeling sorry for the players who can’t be out there, because that’s what they work for. But when it happens, we feel like, all right, we have got to do our jobs and we have to figure out the combinations that will make sense. We just do it, and it’s part of the job.”
But there’s nothing particularly novel about that for coaches, especially in a league like the NBA where one key player going down has a cascading effect on minutes, rotations, how you guard a pick-and-roll and a variety of other issues.
The difference with Kerr, it seems, is that his adjustments actually work. And they work because players who should be uncomfortable in the situations they’ve been thrown into seem to play with complete clarity and confidence no matter how high the stakes have gotten.
That’s giving DeMarcus Cousins a surprise Game 2 start and getting 28 effective minutes out of him when his conditioning won’t allow him to play at anything more than a lumbering pace after returning from a torn quadriceps.
That’s dusting the moth balls off Andrew Bogut and trusting him in key minutes to preserve the lead late in the third and early in the fourth quarter and being rewarded with three key layups.
That’s getting nine points from Quinn Cook when he’s gone long stretches in the playoffs without being on the court.
“I think Steve does a great job with making sure guys are confident, giving guys confidence numerous times in the regular season,” Bogut said. “At times we get criticized for resting guys randomly in the regular season, and a part of that is getting that guy rest but a part of it is the mental game of Steve making sure that 12th guy, 13th guy is going to get in the rotation and get some minutes and feel good about himself.
“We have guys who have played all around in the world and the NBA and been in bad situations, been in good situations, so when guys get their opportunity to play they take it.”
Ironically, Kerr has won NBA coach of the year just once, and it came in 2016 when the Warriors went 73-9 in the regular season and blew a 3-1 series lead in the Finals to Cleveland. That was also the year Kerr missed the first 43 games of the season while Luke Walton coached them to 39 wins.
In other words, it has been possible to acknowledge that Kerr has been a terrific coach for this franchise while at the same time questioning how essential he’s really been. When you have a team this good, maybe the dominance is going to manifest itself no matter who’s steering the ship.
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It seems unlikely that Kerr would spend the next 15 or 20 years chasing wins to catch up with Jackson and Popovich or that he’d go somewhere else and solidify his place among the all-time greats by winning a championship with another franchise.
But that will all become unnecessary if he can maneuver Golden State to three more wins and one more title under the most extreme circumstances imaginable. Then it will finally be time to give him the credit.
“There’s a certain amount of luck involved with this, and we know that. We have been on both sides of that,” he said. “I think you have to be fearless, too, which our team is. You can’t worry about anything. You just go out there and play and compete and let it fly and whatever happens, happens.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken