The first round of the 2017 NBA playoffs has done little to make anyone doubt the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are on a collision course for an NBA Finals rematch.
Both teams look primed to march right through their respective conferences with little resistance, and the Warriors would appear to be the favorites in that potential championship series.
Stephen Curry is finding his MVP form, Kevin Durant is back, Draymond Green is showing why he's the Defensive Player of the Year — truly, these are good times in Golden State.
Yet the health of Steve Kerr looms over the title picture.
We're used to the NBA playoffs coming down to a key injury. Having that malady strike a coach is unheard of, however.
Kerr missed Games 3 and 4 of the Warriors' first-round series against the Blazers due to continued complications from back surgery in July 2015. He suffers from a cerebrospinal fluid leak that makes even the most mundane tasks impossible, let alone coaching an NBA team.
Golden State is seeking every possible solution to Kerr's pain, and GM Bob Myers believes the problem is fixable. He also acknowledges no one knows when Kerr might be back at full strength.
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The Warriors have time to wait — for now. They won't need Kerr through the Western Conference finals, no matter whom they face.
A Finals matchup against LeBron James is a different story. Forget Tyronn Lue; the King is his own in-game coach, adjusting Cleveland's game plan from one possession to the next as he sees what the defense gives him.
Draymond Green tries to do something similar for Golden State, but as smart as he is, he's not on LeBron's level. Nor is Mike Brown — a fine coach in his own right, to be fair — on the same level as Kerr as a tactician.
While Kerr can get in his own way sometimes (just ask Warriors fans who still have nightmares of Anderson Varejao from last year's Finals), he's the only one who can match LeBron's chess-like approach to the game. Without him, the Dubs have to concede the brainpower matchup in the Finals.
Now, there are degrees to Kerr's health. If he's completely incapacitated, Golden State is in serious trouble against the Cavaliers. On the other hand, the Warriors should roll against Cleveland if Kerr somehow finds a miracle cure in the next month.
Between those two extremes, Kerr could find himself able to watch film and offer his thoughts but not attend practice due to limited mobility. Or maybe he's healthy enough to go to practice in Oakland but not travel to Cleveland. Perhaps he becomes the Warriors' general from afar, trusting his assistants to execute his schemes.
We don't know. No one does, not even Kerr. And that uncertainty is the only question mark for this squad.
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Of course, one might point to Golden State's track record without Kerr as proof the Warriors will be fine. Luke Walton coached them to the best stretch in franchise history. Brown kept the Blazers at bay in the first round. Ron Adams is the best defensive assistant in the NBA. And as long as he's not completely debilitated, Kerr will still have a hand in the overall game plan.
So why worry? The road to an NBA title still goes through Oracle Arena.
With the Cavaliers looking dominant in the East but vulnerable against an equal opponent, there's some truth to that argument. Even if Kerr is sidelined, Las Vegas probably will install the Warriors as favorites in the Finals. They're just too good.
One of the reasons Golden State went out and acquired KD was as insurance in case something went wrong with one of the other key Warriors. Little did they know they were preparing for the worst with their coaching staff.
Yet as talented as the Warriors are for the first 46 minutes of the game, they still have problems in the clutch.
That's typical. The final minutes of a close NBA game generally devolve into isolation-heavy hero-ball. Having two superstars who want the ball in their hands with the game on the line creates issues. You either end up trading possessions or wasting one of your elite scorers as the other dominates the ball.
Going "your turn, my turn" in the heat of battle inevitably leads to frustration. You need an even-keeled head coach on the bench to ensure cooler heads prevail. That balancing of egos is perhaps Kerr's greatest strength as a coach. He knows which buttons to push and when to pull back.
The Cavaliers can't beat Golden State in a straight-up basketball game, but they can get in their heads and beat them psychologically.
And regardless of the Warriors' firepower, each game of the 2017 Finals will go down to the wire. LeBron will make sure of that. The championship will hang in the balance during the waning moments, and we know which team has the answers in the clutch.
Or do we need to replay the 2016 Finals for you?
When LeBron has Green on the verge of detonating, and when Curry and Durant are struggling to make it work, that's when the Warriors will miss Kerr the most — and it's why his prolonged absence would cost Golden State the 2017 NBA title.