Explain One Play Mailbag #6. Steve Kerr's flexibility and adjustments
He is more flexible than he gets credit for
A list of all Explain One Play articles and videos is at The new Explain One Play index.
Question: Is it fair to say that the Warriors offense now looks pretty much like it did when Kerr first took control?
This is a big enough question that it deserves a whole series of E1Ps. But here is the thumbnail.
I think it is true that Steve came into 2014 believing all the same stuff about the ball having energy and the team needing to be connected and that passing is a part of that. So he hasn't adjusted in that sense. The general principles are the same (spacing, off-ball movement and screening, team-wide reaction to defense away from pressure, improvisation with small automatic actions).
In fact, historically, Kerr has made more adjustments than he’s been given credit for. He introduced a motion offense that changed the league, then a revolutionary small-ball lineup, then a revolutionary switching defense (he started with ICE), then the extreme Tony Allen ignoring defense, then put in a new playbook for Kevin Durant, D’Angelo Russell, and then Andrew Wiggins.
The funny thing is I think Kerr has been making a LOT of adjustments all season. Not all good obviously. Whenever you see a new random lineup that sucks, that’s an adjustment, haha.
Adjustments Are Hard
There is just a limit to how much change you can make to a team’s playbook and play style and lineups in a season where almost the whole team is new and there’s practically no practice time.
First, the new players need to get used to the motion offense. We’re not chucking that; the question is about how much pick and roll we also use. The only way to get used to the motion and the automatics (like pin in screens for Steph relocations) is to run that at game speed a lot.
Let’s not ignore how much upheaval Kerr has had to deal with in the lineup. Every time you have a new team, you have to re-install your basic schemes and vocabulary from the beginning. He dealt with an entirely new team in 2019-20 losing all his veterans and trying to get the most out of D’Angelo Russell. Then that season, he had to deal with ANOTHER entirely new team after the first new team was traded away, and he had to integrate Andrew Wiggins. Then in 2020-21, it was AGAIN practically a new team that hadn’t played together.
For lineup changes, we’re dealing with human beings here. Brad Wanamaker is a proud excellent player with a track record of success elsewhere. If he’s not playing well in the first month, do you just bench him? You don’t do it lightly. You want to treat players right and the other players see how you handle everyone else. Is it just a temporary slump that will go away with time (see Oubre, Kelly)? Will benching them break their confidence for good?
So Kerr stuck with Kelly Oubre through a historic slump and it paid off. He tried Wanamaker and finally moved on. He tried Eric Paschall in a number of different lineups and has temporarily put him on the shelf. He’s tried James Wiseman in many lineups and has doubled down on his development.
2020-21 New Playbook
This season they’ve used a lot more HORNS and simple plays out of it. The HORNS plays originally I think were meant to lead to simple handoffs to Oubre and Wiggins to get the ball at speed to drive in space. But over time I think he’s found Oubre to be more effective as an opportunistic driver, not as a first option.
They’ve added pitch back options to every Steph play so the doubles and box-and-1 don’t have to keep him out of the play. They’ve also tweaked the old Motion Weak Pick and Roll (PNR) and Klay plays in ways that would be worth E1Ps.
This weekend I’ll try to do a video on the new O from the Wiseman-focused PNR plays in the Mar 29 Bulls game. There was already a little east-west action introduced this season, but this game really tripled down on it as a way to get into PNR.
For more on these playbook changes, you can look through this season’s E1Ps at The new Explain One Play index.
Why Not More Pick and Roll?
When Steph was injured, if Kerr wanted to max odds of winning with the Stephless, spamming simple high PNR probably would be best. But he went instead for development so the team would be readier to optimize Steph on return.
Don’t get me wrong. Like many others, I want Steve Kerr to run MORE pick and roll because (1) Steph is great at it, (2) Dray is great at running 4-on-3s, and (3) it’s a simpler play that players are used to so there is a comfort and stability to it.
And in the Mar 29 Bulls game, we got more Pick and Roll and Dub Nation cheered. This might be an adjustment that sticks going forward.
But I also understand Kerr’s reasoning as I tweeted in 2018:
Here is a thread about why Kerr doesn’t run much PNR. It’s true that in the highest leverage times of crisis, GSW goes more Steph PNR. 17 Finals Game 5, and 18 Houston Games 6-7. Why not all the time?
1. Kerr is on record as saying that GSW is full of playmakers, not shooters, so motion gets the most out of non-MVPs. See my old piece.
Why the Curry - Durant Pick and Roll is Overrated (2017 Finals Game 5)
2. Kerr also said when everyone is involved as a decision maker on O, it energizes your D and team spirit. BTW, HOU was an interesting counterexample last year, but this year I wonder how well the new personnel are dealing with just spotting up, waiting, as their D rating is bad.
3. Steph ran a lot of PNR under Mark Jackson, which meant Steph couldn’t also use his historically good off-ball movement and gravity, and teams could take the ball out of his hands anyway by trapping. It’s also exhausting to have one player be magic every play.
4. It’s not been proven, but I feel Klay slumps when the O goes heavy PNR and he just spots up. Compare the 2017 playoffs under Mike Brown who ran a lot of PNR.
5a. Also, the whole NBA spent 2014-15 and 2015-16 collectively trying to solve the GSW motion and split cuts. Over time, teams evolved a switching scheme. It was interesting to see the idea tried out in Dallas one night, then San Antonio a few games later, then everywhere.
5b. So, Kerr doesn’t want to give the league more chances to solve a Steph PNR or Steph-KD PNR, especially for nigh-meaningless regular season games.
To elaborate on something that I’ve not seen discussed much: the motion offense is good for unlocking half of Steph’s game, but it’s REALLY important for unlocking Klay Thompson’s game. In the early days, when GSW went heavy high PNR (think 2015 Finals smallball and the 2017 playoffs mentioned above), Klay had low impact on O. Even now I think it’s true, though 2019 Finals Klay was showing an improved ability to get his own shot.
And if I’m right, then to get the most out of Klay next season, the team should get good at playing with off-ball cutting scorers this season.
What’s With All The Kerr Hippie Passing?
I think the Kerr thesis on passing is very new age. More passes = more team connection = better coordination on O and more effort on D and more resilience in adversity. Hard to capture in stats. So a lot of the apparently pointless passing isn’t for pure offensive advantage.
Kerr and Phil Jackson believed in it, so ... In a way it's a bit like me complaining about Steph’s goofier passes. You get more efficiency for those plays, but maybe you lose some of the creativity (didn’t want to say j*y) that makes his overall game so good.
In another weird association, I’m thinking about teaching with group work. One approach has people assigned roles so people HAVE to participate, like Recorder, Question Asker, etc. That always seemed artificial to me... but if a teacher really buys into it, I think that does give a lot of structure that can support other community building. So Steve’s extra passes might be artificial in one setting but as part of a bigger nutritious breakfast maybe it does help the energy and connectedness. The group work roles probably can’t turn a dysfunctional group into a functional one, but maybe it can help turn a willing and raw group into a productive group.
Steve Kerr is fair game for criticism. Do I agree with all his calls and lineups? Anyone reading my game comments and notes knows I sure don’t. All coaches make mistakes.
But looking at the bigger picture, Steve Kerr has made big adjustments through his whole career. He’s made plenty of adjustments to lineup and scheme this season, and that’s been under very difficult circumstances.