In this series we will be taking a look back at some of the coaching decisions that may or may not have changed the outcome of NBA Finals over the last several years. It’s always easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback but as an NBA Head Coach this is something that comes with the profession. This is not meant to be referendum on their abilities as a coach as a whole but a look back at what might have been should different choices have been made.
Talk to any NBA player or coach and they’ll tell you one of the most important things on the team is trust. Teammates must trust each other that they will know where to be on the floor positionally, both on the offensive and defensive ends. Coaches must trust that the players in the game know the gameplan, know their matchups, know their roles, and be able to execute in the tensest of situations.
For the Golden State Warriors in the Steve Kerr era, the team has played with an extraordinary amount of trust. Coming from the coaching tutelage of all-time greats Phil Jackson and Greg Popovich, Kerr saw first hand the value of having trust in your players and the impact it can have on a players performance. Not to mention the importance of trust between teammates (Jordan to Kerr anyone?).
As coach of the Warriors, Kerr implemented a system built on mutual trust between players and coaches and it resulted in 3 rings and 5 total finals appearances. This trust was most evident when he made the decision early in the pre-season of his first season *2014-2015) as coach to start Draymond Green at Power Forward. This decision unlocked Draymond as a brilliant play-maker in the short roll, as a transition facilitator, and as a small ball Center. Kerr also demonstrated trust in his players when in the Finals against the depleted Cavs he turned to David Lee who was excellent in the pick n’ roll game since the Cavs were aggressively trapping Curry as a ball-handler.
Next year in the 2015-2016 Finals, I would argue it was Kerr’s loss of trust in a certain player that ultimately cost them the finals. Now you can certainly point to other factors. Lebron, Kyrie, and the Cavs were exceptional in games 5, 6, and 7. Curry wasn’t quite 100% due to a MCL injury in Round One. And Draymond’s accumulation of technicals caused him be suspended for Game 5. All of these things on the surface limited the 73 win Warriors from finishing off the Cavs after going up 3-1.
I would argue though it was Kerr’s loss of trust in a key member of the Warriors team that cost them the championship. While no one would argue that Harrison Barnes was the best player on the Warriors, he was critical to so much of what they did. His ability as a wing defender and his strength and his size allowed him to guard 3-5 effectively. He was a strong finisher in transition. A high IQ player in a read and react half court offense. And his ability to shoot the 3 ball (38% during the regular season) was critical to their spacing.
In the first 4 games Barnes was 6/14 from 3, however in games 5 and 6 Barnes shot a combined 1/11 from 3. In Game 6 Kerr completely abandoned Barnes, who logged only 16 minutes in the game. Then in the deciding Game 7, Kerr only entrusted Barnes with 29 minutes despite the fact he went 2/4 from 3. While its impossible not to argue that Barnes’s jumper was erratic, his defensive versatility alone should’ve been enough to warrant his usual 37-40 minutes.
In my view Barnes had proven himself as a champion the prior year and was a consistent contributor throughout the season and playoff run. Kerr needed to trust the guy who helped get them there. Yes, it is very easy to look back in hindsight and find this decision to be faulty but considering all the factors at play…
- Lebron was playing possibly the best basketball of his life. Barnes provided another defender to guard him and someone Lebron couldn’t hunt in a mismatch like he could Ezeli.
- Though struggling from 3, Barnes was still a player the Cavs had to close out hard to and could not ignore defensively.
- The Cavs were not hurting the Warriors on the offensive glass enough to need to upgrade size wise.
We will never know if the 2016 NBA Finals would have turned out differently had Kerr trusted Barnes but I believe the case can be made that the loss trust in his player pushed Kerr to “search” for a solution that ultimately he knew was not to be found on his bench. The Warriors though would turn out just fine as they would return to the NBA Finals each of the next 3 seasons under Kerr’s stewardship and with a new and improved “death lineup” with the addition of Kevin Durant. Barnes would leave in free agency and would put the Warriors in his rear-view.