The crazy, true story of the birth of the Warriors’ historic offense
IF YOU WERE casting the role of Warriors metrics guru, Sammy Gelfand would almost be too on the nose. A bespectacled, scruffy-haired Chicago native, Gelfand, the Warriors’ manager of analytics, was one of the few holdovers from Mark Jackson’s staff. Still, Kerr and Gelfand are kindred spirits. Just as Kerr is the sort to diagram plays with snacks, Gelfand grew up doing similar things with his breakfast cereal, staging elaborate games between his Lucky Charms, keeping score, his mind always at work. And so it is that during the preseason, Kerr turns to Gelfand in search of a concise, gettable metric that can serve as a benchmark for the team and, in so doing, unite it.
When they sit down to analyze the previous season, in search of a Grand Unifying Metric, one figure stands out. “What about this one — passes per game?” Gelfand asks.
Kerr considers it. It has potential. It fits right in with the culture he hopes to develop. He looks at Gelfand. “What’s a good number?”
Gelfand knows the Warriors ranked last in the NBA in that category under Jackson in 2013-14. He also knows that many of their turnovers had come, counterintuitively, on possessions in which they passed the ball less than twice. The less they passed, the sloppier they played. He also knows that when they passed more than three times in a single possession, they led the league in points per possession on such plays. In essence, when the Warriors moved the ball, “we were,” Gelfand says, “almost unstoppable.” They just didn’t do it very much.
Now, in search of their number, they analyze teams whose styles they want to emulate. The Bobcats, who led the league the year before with 338.2 passes per game? Nope. Too much of a leap. Besides, they barely posted a winning record. The defending-champ Spurs? Aiming for 334 passes, as the Spurs had the season before, was also too lofty. When the Warriors tracked their passes in preseason games using Kerr’s new scheme, the squad routinely hit the 280 mark. And so over the course of the two-week preseason, a nice round figure was identified — something easy to remember but challenging to attain: 300.
“CAN WE EVEN do this?” Myers wonders.
It’s early November, and doubt is creeping into the mind of the Warriors’ GM. His team has begun the season 5-0, but basketball-wise, it’s a disaster. The Warriors are racking up turnovers like they’re storing them for winter — averaging 21.6 per game. That’s not only the worst mark in the league, it’s about five turnovers per game more than the worst team in the prior season and only a few off the worst mark in NBA history.
After each game, Gelfand has been feeding Kerr postgame statistical reports, and the first stats listed are always passes: passes per game, secondary assists, free throw assists, the number of possessions with zero to two passes, three to five, six-plus. In morning film sessions, while coaches show players 15 to 20 clips from the previous game, they also post passing totals. And indeed, the Warriors are hitting that 300-per-game mark — averaging 320.8, in fact, through the first five games, eighth best in the league.
The good news, then? The team is passing. The bad news? They’re overpassing.
“Don’t pass for the sake of it,” Kerr implores his team. “If you’re open, shoot it. If not, pass it. But don’t be stationary. Move!”
Still, it’s a struggle, like a classical flutist trying to learn to play jazz flute — onstage, in real time. In a Nov. 9 loss to Phoenix, the Warriors tally 26 turnovers — 10 by Curry alone — after also notching 26 the game before against Houston.
Curry, for his part, is relying on what Kerr calls “horrible tendencies” — careless left-handed hook passes over the top of defenses — but also doing something far worse: remaining stationary after making passes. Defenses are manhandling Curry, and Kerr tells his star to run from pressure, not fight it, that even a back cut without getting the ball is a productive play because he’s taking the defense with him. Instead, Curry is, as Kerr came to call it, “dancing” in place — and stopping their offense as a result. Meanwhile, Draymond Green, former second-round draft pick, is trying too hard to establish himself as one of the team’s top playmakers. He’ll show potential, then become frustrated if he fails. “Keep it simple,” the staff tells the third-year forward. “You can make plays, but make the simple play.”
For weeks, Kerr has harped on the turnovers. In August, Kerr had visited Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll during his team’s training camp and had seen, in the Seahawks’ defensive meeting room, a football on a rubber handle attached to a wall; as players came in and out, they’d hit the ball, trying to knock it loose. Carroll believed the habit would cause more fumbles. Ball possession, Carroll preached, is everything.
For the first six games, in this regard, the Warriors have been a white-hot mess — like a race car with a wobbly wheel. Game 7, Nov. 11, would be a date with the Spurs, defending NBA champions and the gold standard for ball movement. Kerr had played four seasons (and won two titles) under Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and had admired how the Spurs’ passing helped foster a selfless, team-first culture.
“It wasn’t just play your best five guys to death,” Kerr says. “It was play everybody. You go deep into your rotation, even if it means losing a couple of games in the regular season, just empower everybody. It’s kind of the beauty of basketball, the old cliché about the total being greater than the sum of its parts — I believe in all of that. Five guys have to operate together, but the other seven on the bench, or nine, however many, they’ve got to feel part of it.”
Revenge would also be a factor. The Spurs had beaten the Warriors in the playoffs two seasons earlier, then swept them in the regular season the year before Kerr arrived. “The reason we made all these changes,” Gelfand says, “was to get on their level.” From day one, Curry recalls, Kerr had talked about the Spurs and their legacy. Though the season is young, the Warriors know this game will be a measuring stick.
They do not measure up.
It’s kind of the beauty of basketball, the old cliché about the total being greater than the sum of its parts — I believe in all of that.
– Steve Kerr
It begins well enough, the Warriors clinging to a 38-34 lead midway through the second quarter. But then the Spurs hit their stride. With less than a minute before halftime, forward Boris Diaw pump-fakes two Warriors on the perimeter, drives and zips the ball to Manu Ginobili on the right wing, who catches it with his left hand and in the same motion whips it to the right corner, where Tony Parker has enough time to do his taxes before swishing a 3-pointer. Six seconds of perfection.
After halftime, the Spurs cash in on more sloppy Warriors turnovers — an errant pass by Curry, a fumble by Green. By this point in the season, Kerr has seen so many mistakes that he’s been repeating, repeatedly, the phrase: “We’re just slingin’ the ball around out there!” It’s like a mantra. Or a koan. He’s saying it so much that his wife, Margot, has begun chiding him for it. And that’s what Kerr sees against the Spurs: more carelessness, more slingin’ the ball.
The Spurs, who feature the same Big Three — Tim Duncan, Ginobili and Parker — as they had when Kerr played beside them a dozen years before, cruise to a 113-100 win. In the locker room, Kerr explains to his deflated team that it doesn’t matter that the Warriors had outshot the Spurs. Not only had they lost the turnover battle, 19-8, they’d lost their focus. “Look, guys,” Gentry adds, “you don’t want to say it, but this is how we want to play. This is who we want to emulate.”
It’s an enigma — and a conundrum. They need to play with pace but protect the ball. They need to play unselfishly but not too unselfishly. Pass the ball, but don’t turn down a great shot.
“Can we do that?” Kerr asks.
IT’S JUNE 13, 2017, 24 hours after the Warriors have won their second championship in three years. They’ve humiliated the Cavaliers in five games, and Vino Volo in Oakland International Airport is abuzz, as usual. Wine unites everyone, Volo’s staffers like to say. But it’s seats C1 and C2 at the end of the bar, where Kerr and Fraser sat on that August afternoon, that to them are now legend.
Lawrence Flores, a 36-year-old assistant manager, was working the floor that day, stealing peeks at Kerr’s demonstration. He’s told the story a dozen times to friends and family. “That could’ve been the creation of this offense,” he tells them, “That could’ve been the start.” When Ninkovich, now 32, watches the Warriors, he sometimes sees not players but cranberries and almonds.
After their loss three seasons ago to the Spurs and inspired by the manner in which San Antonio had filleted them, the Warriors went on to win their next 16 games. “It was,” Kerr says of that Spurs loss, “the best thing that could’ve ever happened to us.” Pre-Spurs loss, the Warriors had ranked last in turnover percentage, with Green amassing more turnovers than assists. The rest of the season, they would rank sixth in turnover percentage, with Green averaging twice as many assists as turnovers.
And the epiphany arrived just five days after that Spurs defeat. By virtue of a schedule quirk, the Warriors were granted a four-day break after a road game against the Lakers, and when Kerr entered the visitors locker room at Staples Center before tip-off, he proffered a deal: “Play the way we’ve been talking about and play the right way — take care of the ball, defend, do all that stuff — and I’ll give you the next two days off.” The players literally gasped in disbelief.
That night, there wasn’t one moment, or a singular play, but a river of them — a constant flow, the ball pinballing around the court, side to side, to the tune of 343 passes. “Beautiful,” Kerr says, thinking back on it. The Warriors scored a season-high 136 points.
In the days prior, what Kerr had most wanted was to know that his words were being heeded. “You just want to know the ship is heading in the right direction,” he says. And as he watched the rout unfold, he saw everything he had been preaching, his players carrying out his vision with focus and flair.
The transformation was radical — and ruthlessly effective. By the end of the season, the Warriors ranked second in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency. They averaged 315.9 passes per game, nearly 70 more than the season before — the second-biggest leap in the league. They had the highest increase that season in assists per game and secondary assists per game, and the second-highest jump in assist-to-turnover ratio. They would go on to win an NBA-record 73 games the next season, falling one win shy of a second consecutive NBA title, and Curry would win his second straight NBA MVP award, just as Nash had done in Phoenix exactly one decade earlier in the offense that so inspired Kerr.
The Warriors ultimately found that if defenses were panicked about the first pass, by the time their third pass arrived, they were rewarded with a wide-open corner 3. “The main goal,” Curry says, “is to just make the defense make as many decisions as you can so that they’re going to mess up at some point with all that ball movement and body movement and whatnot. But it took awhile for us to kind of get the understanding of where each other was going to be without having to call a set play or whatnot. So it took awhile.”
Actually, it took eight regular-season games.
It took. And it held: The Warriors today claim the three highest assist-per-game averages of the past two decades. And all have come in the past three years. “I can’t sit here and say we knew this was going to happen,” Fraser says, “but if I go back and read Steve’s thesis on what he wished for, it’s very close to what happened.”
Consider: Since the start of the 1995-96 season, nine of the 10 best teams in offensive efficiency were either the mid-’90s Bulls (where Kerr played), the Nash-led Suns (where Kerr managed) or Kerr’s modern-day Warriors. Kerr’s basketball journey weaved through offensive greatness, and then he built his own.
“It was like it was destiny to have Steve come in and try to coach that way,” says Luke Walton, former Warriors assistant coach, “because they were built to play that way.”
And after two seasons alongside Kerr, soon after Walton agreed to take over the rebuilding Lakers, the new coach announced to his team that he wanted to create a nightly goal. He wanted something to establish a culture. Something to make everyone feel a part of a whole. Luke Walton wanted 300 passes a game.
Holmes is a staff writer for ESPN.