Photo: John G. Mabanglo, AP
Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, center, reaches for the ball between Golden State Warriors center Andrew Bogut, left, and forward Draymond Green during the first half of Game 2 of basketball’s NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, June 2, 2016. (John G, Mabanglo, European Pressphoto Agency via AP, Pool)
The blueprint for the Warriors’ offense probably dates back to 1670, when Dutch scientist Anton van Leeuwenhoek made a crude microscope and took man’s first peek at living bacteria. He called what he saw “cavorting wee beasties.”
That was bacteria’s small lineup, with the relentless rhythm and flow that is the essence of life, just as Steve Kerr’s rhythm-and-flow offense is the essence of the Warriors’ life.
This won’t be a deep treatise, but to truly understand the Warriors, you must know a bit of how and why the Golden State beasties cavort so effectively.
Kerr was hired two years ago, largely on the basis of his offensive philosophy, which fit the radical change that general manager Bob Myers, owner Joe Lacob, adviser Jerry West and the crew were desperately seeking.
Kerr announced he would install a new offense that would, among other things, get easier shots for Stephen Curry.
So far, so good. For Curry, two MVP trophies, a scoring title and a single-season three-point record twice broken. For the Warriors, one NBA championship and three wins away from another.
Something seems to be working.
Photo: Scott Strazzante, The Chronicle
Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry drives against Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving and Channing frtyein 1st quarter of Game 1 of NBA Finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, June 2, 2016.
A gratifying feeling
Here’s Shaun Livingston, describing the effect of the Warriors’ offense on opponents:
“You see it on their faces when we start to score and when it starts to become overwhelming, when we’re hitting and rolling on all cylinders. It’s just a crushing feeling when you take somebody’s will away, to where they don’t really think they can win, they’re not competing at the same level. That’s kind of a gratifying feeling.”
Fun fact about Kerr’s offense: It doesn’t have a name. Modesty, apparently, prevents him from slapping a name on it, even when reminded that he didn’t wait for his children to achieve lasting greatness before naming them.
Another fun fact about Kerr’s offense: It isn’t Kerr’s offense.
“I don’t think I’ve made up anything that we do,” Kerr said in an interview with The Chronicle. “I’ve stolen from everybody, but most coaches would tell you the same thing.”
As a broadcaster, Kerr began collecting video clips of plays he liked. Those he filtered through what he learned playing under Phil Jackson (and assistant Tex Winter) in Chicago, Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, and working with Mike D’Antoni in Phoenix. Mix in some Lenny Wilkens and some Lute Olson.
Kerr hired Alvin Gentry as his offensive assistant and the two hunkered down in a cave (actually Kerr’s office) for two months, emerging with the bones of the new deal.
No more isolation
The Warriors had success under previous coach Mark Jackson, especially on defense, but Myers Crew didn’t like Jackson’s old-school isolation offense. Too much of one or two guys working a play while three guys took a figurative smoke break.
“We hired Steve on the heels of the Spurs’ clinic against the Heat (in the 2014 NBA Finals) on how to play basketball,” Myers said. “We felt that was the right way, that kind of ball movement. At the end of the year we looked at our passes per possession on halfcourt, and we were on the low end. Our offense was fine, we were scoring points, but how could we improve? Steve actually brought a better blueprint (to the job interview) than any candidate we could find.”
It was as if Kerr was reading Myers’ mind.
“He had watched us in the playoffs that year against the Clippers,” Myers said, “how we were defended, how much of a load was put on Curry to make decisions, and he wanted to alleviate that load. … For us, it was fantastic, and we just let Steve go with it.”
It wasn’t all about Curry, but Curry was the key.
“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.”
Livingston said the new offense “definitely made Steph better, for sure. … Now it’s a lot harder to guard him, because he’s constantly moving without the ball and with the ball. With Mark Jackson, Steph was great, and got confidence to be able to play his game, but it was more of an isolation system, which takes a lot of energy. … Now he can score in a greater variety of ways.”
Cousin of the triangle
Kerr’s offense is a cousin of the triangle, the offensive scheme Phil Jackson used to win 11 NBA titles. The Warriors’ current plan looks to be the next step up the evolutionary ladder.
The triangle starts with each player going to an assigned spot. In Kerr’s offense, the fastbreak is the No. 1 option every time, but when the fastbreak is stopped, no “reset” is needed to get each player to an assigned spot. Instead, the play starts instantly, from wherever everyone happens to be. The play flows cleanly from the aborted fastbreak into the offense.
Kerr said his offense isn’t “nearly as uniform as the triangle — it’s more random and we give our players a lot of freedom to move wherever they want.”
In the triangle, the two guards play side by side. The Warriors present a one-guard front, with the other guard usually running to a wing or corner to start coming off picks, setting picks, cutting through the lane, ideally setting off a panicky fire drill of panting and confused defenders.
In the triangle, the center sets up on the low post. In Kerr’s offense the center usually sets up above the circle, setting picks and passing.
“When I told Andrew (Bogut) I wanted him at the top of the key, running a lot of dribble handoffs, his eyes lit up,” Kerr said. “That’s what he does.”
Once a play starts, the Warriors read and react, with emphasis on not taking a good shot if you can find a teammate open for a better shot, and not shooting early in the clock, because over the course of a game, multiple-pass possessions break down defenses.
The Warriors do have a playbook, on tablet. It consists of four or five main concepts, with five or six plays for each concept. In a typical game of about 100 possessions, Kerr will call a play from the bench 15 to 20 times. The rest of the time the players improvise off the basic framework, like jazz musicians.
One reason this type of offense is not universally popular is that the coach cedes power to the players.
Luke Walton, who coached the Warriors through the first half of this season in Kerr’s absence, said, “We share the philosophy that you don’t want to be a coach that’s up yelling plays out every time. The strength of the players at this level is their creativity and ability, so you want to give them that power. Let them recognize what they see out there and let them have the freedom to call the plays.”
From the beginning, Kerr listened to input from his players.
“I tell the players all the time, it’s their team, it really is,” Kerr said, “and our staff is here to guide them and try to put them in a good position. But they get to do what they want, as long as we’re taking care of the ball and moving it. That’s the only thing I keep yelling — ‘Move the ball, move the ball!’
“As long as they do that, they can do whatever they want, and they should be able to, because they’re incredibly talented, and when they play together and they move the ball, honestly, we don’t have to call many plays at all.”
What about the exhaustion factor? Doesn’t the nonstop running/cutting/screening tire out his own guys?
“I don’t think getting a rest from standing still gives you energy,” Kerr said. “What gives you energy is getting a backdoor layup off a beautiful cut off a possession where everybody’s moving. That pumps a team up, and it demoralizes the opposition. I see the energy arrive more when we’re moving, and I see it lacking when we’re standing still.”
Kerr’s offense required an initial buy-in by the team, and the talent and maturity to run a free-form offense.
Kerr was sure the brains were there, with high-IQ guys like Curry, Andre Iguodala, Livingston, Bogut. Draymond Green would be a surprise.
“There was a little bit of a push-back at the beginning, mainly from Draymond,” Kerr said. “He was shooting a lot at the beginning of training camp. I was trying to get him to understand that we wanted ball movement early in the possession, we didn’t want quick shots, we really wanted him to become a playmaker. It sort of naturally evolved to that — he became obviously the best-passing forward in the league.
“But early on, it was a pretty big change for our guys.”
Green might be the smartest basketball player on the Warriors, with the thickest head. He and some other Warriors silently chafed at the elementary drills Kerr and his staff ran the team through every … damn … practice. Good, simple passes lead to spectacular plays. It was a new concept — and bo-ring.
Walton said Green was the toughest sell because “he had more moving parts than some of the other guys. He’s a different guy. He’s great, he’s coachable, but he had to figure out that maybe those (early) shots weren’t his best shots. In most offenses, (once you pass) you don’t see those shots again. In our offense, you do, and he had to buy into that.”
“It used to be funny,” Green said a month ago. “Last year Coach Kerr would (show us video and) say, ‘Look at this cut!’ And it would be like the most simple cut you’ve ever seen in your life, and he’d be like, ‘That set all this up!’”
Green rolled his eyes for effect.
“You’d be like (to yourself), ‘Yeah, whatever.’ You’d just laugh. Whatever. And then as time go on, he’s preaching the same thing, and you realize that the simple cut really set up the whole rhythm for that play. … So all of a sudden, guys are back-cutting, you create the rhythm, the shots become easier, now you’re in the rhythm, everything’s flowing.”
Rhythm and flow, rhythm and flow …
Scott Ostler is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: scottostler
The qi offense?
Steve Kerr’s offense has no name.
When the Warriors’ offense is discussed, the words “rhythm” and “flow” invariably come into play.
Maybe this is the feng shui offense, designed to enhance the flow of the Warriors’ invisible life-energy force qi (also called chi). We consulted Deborah Gee of San Francisco, a globally recognized feng shui expert.
“When I watch the Warriors,” Gee said, “I am struck by how the offense flows, like the qi of water. The players flow around obstacles and move into openings, a perfect balance of yin (passing) and yang (shooting).
“The team’s slogan of ‘Strength in Numbers’ is really ‘Strength in Qi.’ The players are connected by an invisible life energy force that creates strong instincts and a telepathic connection. The team play has been called selfless. I say they are tapped into the force of qi.”
— Scott Ostler
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