Way back in October a Golden State Warrior who was only around for three weeks hit on the formula that produced the franchise’s best season in four decades.
Jason Kapono was in Warriors training camp at the behest of general manager Bob Myers, even though Kapono had been out of the NBA for two years. Myers wanted to see if Kapono, who twice led the league in 3-point field goal percentage, still had enough jumpers left in him to provide some depth at a bargain rate.
It didn’t take long for Kapono to realize he had no business on a court filled with younger, faster players. It took him even less time to realize an important attribute about Steve Kerr, the Warriors’ rookie coach. About halfway through Kapono’s 20 days on the training camp roster, he told me he noticed Kerr didn’t feel the need to build himself up at the expense of anyone else’s confidence. Kerr could find a way to be the boss without constantly reminding people he’s the boss. He didn’t spend his practices belittling his players. And Kapono thought that approach would work perfectly for Harrison Barnes.
“He seemed like a great guy,” Barnes said. “He told me, ‘Look, if you’re going to be on this team and playing with us, there’s going to be a lot more ball movement. I’m going to put you in a lot of different situations. It’s not going to be as many iso situations. You moving, coming off cuts, screens, that type of stuff is going to be better for you. If you just believe in what we’re doing, I think you have a chance to be successful.'”
Barnes fixated on the first “if” more than the second. “If you’re going to be on the team.” With two years and $7 million left on a rookie-scale contract, Barnes was a very tradable asset. In his first two seasons he had shown enough promise to be appealing, but not enough to be an untouchable fixture for Golden State.
After a hip injury took David Lee out of the 2013 playoffs, Barnes flourished as an undersized power forward, scoring 23 or more points four times in games against the Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs. The Warriors got him the ball, cleared out a side for him and let him go past taller defenders or post up smaller ones.
It looked like the Warriors had discovered a new weapon. It turned out to be more of a tease than a prophecy. The next season, in which Iguodala signed as a free agent and took his starting spot, Barnes stagnated. He also felt disrupted by the cold war between the front office and coach Mark Jackson that led to one assistant coach being reassigned and another assistant coach being dismissed.
And with teams better prepared to face him he couldn’t take advantage of isolation matchups.
“I think I really struggled with that and let it get to me a little bit,” Barnes said.
It affected both his confidence on the court and his belief that he fit with the Warriors’ long-term plans. And it made for a side order of skepticism during his lunch with Kerr.
“He didn’t promise me I’d be here,” Barnes said. “I kind of took it with a grain of salt. But he came through. I believed in the system he put out front and said I’d be successful. And everything’s worked out since.”
The Warriors held onto Barnes. Barnes bought into Kerr, one of many who gave him a fair shot after the tumultuous firing of Jackson. Kerr always handled that sensitive coaching-change topic well. Early on he always made sure to acknowledge the previous staff’s development of the team’s tougher defensive mentality. When Jackson made his first broadcasting return to Oracle Arena in January, Kerr broke the ice in the pregame coach’s meeting with the announcers by giving Jackson a hug.
And Kerr won over his players by giving them clear ideas of how they’d be used. (He also somehow managed not to lose those he couldn’t find a regular place for, such as Lee and Leandro Barbosa.) In Barnes, Kerr saw those breakout games in the 2013 playoffs and thought there was more where that came from. He saw a 6-foot-8 forward who could shoot 3-pointers and take on defensive challenges from the low post to the perimeter (a trait that will have him spending considerable time guarding LeBron James during the NBA Finals).
“The guy’s skill and athleticism is easily recognizable,” Kerr said the night the Western Conference finals ended. “What I love about him is he’s a modern-day two-way player. He guarded Zach Randolph last series, he guarded James Harden this series. How many guys in the league can do that?”
How many rookie coaches could get a team to buy in from the outset, long before proving that it works? Kerr’s impact has been even more astounding than Barnes’, as closely as they’re tied together. And Jason Kapono’s the one who saw it coming.