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Kerr on what makes Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich the best coaches ever

Steve Kerr on Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich

Steve Kerr on Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich

After winning a three-peat with the Bulls, Steve Kerr joined the Spurs and is the only guy from that Bulls roster with a four-peat. I guess that makes him the GOAT, right? After finishing his playing career, Kerr got a chance to learn from another coach. As the GM of the Phoenix Suns, he saw Mike D’Antoni in action. Jackson, Popovich and D’Antoni. Not a bad trio of teachers to prepare you for the head coaching position.

A fine line

Player empowerment has significantly changed the dynamic between coach and player since then. Superstars always got special treatment to a certain extent, but as MJ explained, that status had to be earned. Players these days get handed the keys to the franchise as they walk through the door, and everyone is careful not to possibly, maybe, potentially say or do something to rub them the wrong way. They throw a tantrum for being subbed out. Can you imagine how Luka or Ben Simmons would react to this?

“I wasn’t happy with what I was seeing. Despite our discussions, Michael was leaving Paxson in limbo. Magic often left his man (Paxson) to help other players on defense. He was gambling that Michael wouldn’t give up the ball. Paxson was a strong clutch shooter, and Michael trusted him more than others in tight situations. But with the championship in our sights, Michael was reverting to his old habit of trying to win games by himself. So I called a timeout and gathered the team together. “Who’s open, MJ?” I asked, looking directly into Michaels’ eyes. He didn’t answer. So I asked again, “Who’s open?” “Paxson,” he replied. “Okay, so get him the damn ball.”

Phil Jackson

Coaches today all talk about the difficulty of being in charge. It’s mostly carrot and very rarely stick these days. Here’s how seeing Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich helped Steve Kerr navigate these deadly waters.

“You have to walk a fine line, being a coach in the NBA these days," Kerr said. "This is what Phil was really good at; this is what Gregg Popovich was great at too. People have to know you’re in charge, the players have to feel that, but they have to feel that you’re collaborating with them. It’s more so now than ever. But even back then, Phil and MJ were collaborators. Phil would lead the team with Michael. He would empower people, he would put his foot down when he had to.”

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Kerr pointed out Jackson was an amazing communicator, and that enabled him to be two things at the same time - your boss and your equal. It’s an insane ask, but coaches have to do it. Funny thing is, that’s what working elementary school kids felt like when I was working as an educator. An experienced teacher told me the key is for them to think whatever we needed to do, that it was their idea. Kinda’ sounds like coaching young superstars these days, doesn’t it?

Coaching the Warriors

When the Warriors' brass were debating firing Mark Jackson, the players, particularly Steph Curry, used all leverage they had to save Jackson. Kerr knew that when he took over, and it put him in a difficult position. He had to show respect for the work Jackson had done, and at the same time, sell the players on changing the way they played. Making them feel like a part of that process was key.

“That’s how I try to coach the Warriors," Kerr continued. "It’s a collaboration with Steph and Draymond. Andre Igoudala, who’s back, I seek his advice almost daily. But you can’t appear weak either, you can’t appear like you don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s an interesting balance.”

Every coach bases their style of coaching on their philosophy of basketball. For Steve Kerr, basketball is “a game of improvisation, collaborative improvisation, and then it’s a game of joy.” Kerr believes that the secret to the Warriors’ success comes from finding that mix of structure and freedom that creates joy on the court. The key, from a coach’s perspective, is to embrace some of the mistakes that come from that freedom and improvisation. If you want to play jazz, it won’t always sound as you’d like.

Like all coaches, few things infuriate Kerr as much as turnovers. But, playing an improvisational game means asking the players to take care of the ball but not grilling them every time they turn it over.

It’s beautiful to watch. But you gotta pull back every once in a while. For instance, maybe don’t try a behind-the-back pass in the Finals with the game on the line.

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