If you tuned in for the Golden State Warriors’ first game without Kevin Durant on Thursday night, you saw a team ignoring its most potent weapon at the expense of coach Steve Kerr’s system. Rather than have Curry run countless pick-and-rolls with Draymond Green, which is easily the Warriors’ single most effective set, Kerr fell back on the triangle-based, hybrid, motion offense he holds dear.
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Only when the game was on the line did Golden State finally switch gears — and by then, it was too late for Curry to get red-hot. And while the rest of the Warriors did Kerr no favors, there’s little doubt his stubborn insistence on off-ball offense sank Golden State on Thursday.
Short of a radical change over the next four weeks, we should probably get used to such sub-optimal play from the once-and-future champions. Way back in 2014, Kerr explained how he envisioned the triangle unleashing Curry’s full potential (via Real GM):
Kerr said Curry was the key to the offense in lessening his responsibility as a ballhandler and decision-maker.
“That’s the biggest change we made,” Kerr said, “was just getting the ball out of Steph’s hands and having him run off screens. … I wanted to make the game easier for him and I wanted to utilize his tremendous skills to leverage openings for other guys, and to compromise the defense by having to chase Steph around and having to pay so much attention to him.”
The theory makes sense, hypothetically. When the Warriors strike the right balance between Curry attacking as the primary ballhandler and wreaking havoc off the ball, they’re practically unstoppable. Prior to Kevin Durant’s arrival, Kerr did a fantastic job of keeping opponents guessing by interweaving those two different approaches, like a poker player randomizing his play to stay unreadable.
And the triangle can work. No, really, I promise! It just takes time for every single play to develop, and if anything goes wrong, you’re doomed unless you have one of the game’s very best post scorers, like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Durant would seem to fit that bill, but MJ and Kobe never had to play with another ball-dominant, flame-throwing guard. It’s an apples to oranges comparison, and Kerr keeps insisting all fruit is the same.
The problem is how far Golden State has shifted away from the pick-and-roll in favor of those triangle-based motion principles. If this is really a “hybrid” system, as Kerr claims, shouldn’t it incorporate a healthy dose of modern pick-and-roll-based basketball?
Even if the idea was to keep Durant involved on offense instead of standing in the corner during the pick-and-roll, he’s on the sideline now. Trying to maintain that same approach with the likes of Patrick McCaw and Matt Barnes in KD’s place is simply bad coaching.
Yet there’s no reason Golden State has to keep up this facade moving forward. Kerr is smart enough to change things up once he realizes things aren’t working — and that transition is a lot easier when your basketball reputation doesn’t depend on your one and only system.
Kerr has an ego just like anyone else, sure, but he’s no Phil Jackson.