Steve Kerr was a good coach when he came to the Warriors in 2014 and soon became an excellent coach. He’s one of three to reach six NBA Finals and claim four championships in his first eight seasons.
It would be wrong, however, to believe Kerr’s impeccable credentials indicate that his learning curve has closed into a circle. He’d be the first to acknowledge that lessons keep coming. Sometimes they sting, and the memories tend to linger.
Which is why Kerr should be a better coach next season than he was last season – or last week.
That is to be the net result of the latest disappointing international performance by Team USA men’s basketball. Kerr must live with being the head coach of a FIBA World Cup team that lost three of its last four games, finishing in fourth place, with bittersweet memories but without medals. In that inglorious distinction, Kerr joins Gregg Popovich, the winningest coach in NBA history, whose team finished seventh in the 2019 World Cup.
Though there are several contributing factors – none greater than elite NBA players declining to participate in an international competition that lacks the prestige of the Olympic Games – this latest version of Team USA had a daunting challenge from the start.
Three major factors stood out during the competition in the Philippines:
1) The roster construction was, um, curious. This was a “B” team, with a few “C” level players. It was notably young, with players as young as 20 and none older than 28. It was short on star power, with two players (Josh Hart and Bobby Portis) who are solid veteran rotation players but hardly All-Stars. Not one player had senior national team experience. It was long on “switchability” but short – literally and figuratively – on interior presence, with Jaren Jackson Jr. a stellar defender but an average rebounder prone to fouls. Most of the responsibility for the roster falls on Kerr and his staff.
Golden State Warriors
2) The rotations were, um, curious. Tyrese Haliburton, the closest thing to Jason Kidd as a floor general, often sat during crucial moments. The purest 3-point shooter, Cam Johnson, averaged 11 minutes per game. The best rebounder and shot-blocker, 7-foot Walker Kessler, averaged only eight – fewest on the team. He was the only player who spent the entire game on the bench as Team USA fell out of gold medal contention in a loss to Germany. Considering the length of the Germans, and the way they bullied the paint, Kessler’s defense-oriented skills made him an obvious candidate for meaningful minutes.
“You’ve got a lot of big strong guys in there on the switches and so they did a good job of executing,” Kerr told reporters after the 113-111 loss to Germany. “And of course, on the switch you know (point guard Dennis) Schröder’s attacking. They put a lot of stress on your defense. Just give them credit.”
3) Adjustments were slow or not at all. Curious. The most visible adjustment was made after stunning loss to Lithuania, which did a superb job of exploiting Team USA’s weaknesses. Kerr and his staff – respected coaches Erik Spoelstra, Tyronn Lue, Mark Few – unleashed a ferocious, swarming defense that suffocated Italy in a 100-63 rout. What followed was back-to-back losses. One against the big German team, against whom Kessler was a logical adjustment, and one against a more determined squad from Canada, which outlasted a Team USA that lost some juice once the gold medal was out of reach.
With Team USA spanked by three teams in an eight-day span, Kerr was subjected to the usual round of criticism. Some of it was deserved. It comes with the job when you’re coaching a favorite that does not win. Popovich, you may recall, got the same treatment four years ago. It comes with the job when you’re coaching the favorite and leave the tournament empty.
“The game has been globalized over the last 30 years or so,” Kerr said after the loss to Germany. “And you know these games are difficult. This is not 1992 anymore. Players are better all over the world. Teams are better. It's not easy to win a World Cup or Olympic Games.”
That’s not an excuse. That’s a fact. The last five NBA MVP awards were won by players born in other countries. Nine of the 24 players on the 2023 All-Star rosters have roots in Europe or Africa.
Yet every Team USA player and coach comes home draped in humility. Perhaps no one more than Kerr, who as a player and coach has experienced more success than failure. He already has mentally replayed this World Cup, and likely will do it a few more times.
There will be another “Redeem Team” taking the floor in Paris for the Olympics next summer. They’ll bring the gold back to America. That’s typical of the international basketball cycle.
Meanwhile, Kerr has an NBA season coming in less than six weeks. He embraces the challenge. He’s eager. It’s an opportunity to show growth. To prove he is a better coach than he was last season, last week or yesterday.