Ime Udoka and Steve Kerr show the NBA's coaching innovation

Ime Udoka and Steve Kerr show the NBA’s coaching innovation

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Before the NBA Finals, Steve Kerr used a little self-deprecation as he talked about how much the game has changed. Having contributed to multiple dynasties as a player and coach, Kerr can go back more than 30 years, but for a question about the creative ways teams hunt specific defenders, he focused on the dramatic shift over just the time he has spent directing the Golden State Warriors.

“It feels like it wasn’t this way when I first started coaching eight years ago,” Kerr said of NBA offenses that have evolved from finding mismatches to forcing them with their actions, screening and spacing. “Maybe over the last five or six years, it’s gotten more and more popular as we’ve had more and more three-point shooting, more five-out lineups, because the floor is so open. And all the switching, it’s hard to attack switches. I think that’s the reason for the hunting over the last few years.”

Then Kerr, a great shooter not known for defense, made fun of himself.

“I’m glad they didn’t have it, like, 25 years ago,” Kerr said. “That wouldn’t have gone well for me.”

The Celtics are shrinking from the moment, and they’re doing it to themselves

Over the past decade, Kerr has been at the forefront of an innovative NBA era, a period in which first-time coaches with fresh ideas have dominated the Finals stage and tinkered appropriately with the sport’s best practices to match the evolving skills of modern players. In 2015, Kerr won the NBA title during his first season as a coach, and with the Warriors holding a 3-2 lead over the Boston Celtics, they could clinch their fourth title in eight seasons Thursday night in Boston. But Kerr will have to find a way to outmaneuver Ime Udoka, the latest clever rookie coach to guide a team to the Finals.

Since Kerr and former Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt met in 2015, the Finals have regularly showcased the value of new coaching blood. In 2016, Kerr encountered a better first-time coach for Cleveland, Tyronn Lue, and the Cavaliers wound up rallying from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the historic Warriors (73-9 during the regular season) in seven games. After Golden State beat Cleveland in the next two Finals, Kerr faced Toronto’s Nick Nurse in 2019. The Raptors won, and he branded Nurse a championship coach in Year 1.

Add it together, and the NBA has seen five rookie coaches in the past eight Finals. Three of them have captured the Larry O’Brien Trophy. And these aren’t cases of beginner’s luck. Blatt is the only coach in the group who flamed out. Kerr, Lue and Nurse have continued to be successful with various rosters and situations. With most of the Celtics’ core between 24 and 28, Udoka figures to be a sustainable strategist, too.

We’re just beginning to realize the impact of the NBA’s embrace of new ideas. The style of basketball is more pleasing, though the extreme reliance on three-point shooting is a bubbling issue. Even during a Finals featuring two stellar defensive teams, the beauty of the game is evident amid all the muck. Kerr’s motion offense has revolutionized the way NBA basketball looks. It’s a hybrid system that borrows wrinkles from classic systems such as the triangle offense, the Princeton offense and Jerry Sloan’s Utah Jazz system, but it becomes its own transcendent thing because it’s built around the multidimensional shooting and playing ability of Stephen Curry and the elite complementary skill set of Klay Thompson.

With skilled players and shot creators all over the floor — and a power forward with a point guard’s court vision in Draymond Green — the Warriors play both a free-flowing and a thinking man’s game. It’s a chess match in which decisions must be made at an incredible pace. After nearly a decade of trying to keep up with the Warriors, teams aren’t just hoping to copy some of their offensive principles. They have devised defensive systems that are far more versatile and better at utilizing the current positionless culture of basketball.

Under Udoka, the Celtics have transformed into the NBA’s No. 1 defense, and they could have a long run as the trendsetter. It’s a masterpiece of interchangeable pieces. They have no weak individual defenders. Their big men can function guarding on the perimeter. With Robert Williams III, they have rim protection. Their roster is flexible enough to play big or small. They have length. They play physical. Marcus Smart, the defensive player of the year, is a disruptive lead guard.

It took more than half of Udoka’s first season, but Boston has a championship identity. Offense, particularly turnovers and decision-making, has been the Celtics’ problem against the Warriors. Even when they have played drop coverage and allowed Curry a lot of freedom, the Celtics have done plenty to limit Golden State. While the series has lacked dramatic, last-minute endings, it has been an interesting battle of wild momentum swings. The coaching game within the game has been riveting, with Kerr making slight tweaks to free up Curry and Udoka striking a balance between dogged defensive philosophy and throwing new looks at an opponent that has seen everything.

“Two physical teams, two great defensive teams,” Curry said. “There’s a lot of adjustments from game to game. The deeper you go in the series, you just know each other so well. Things become a little harder for both sides. If you embrace the fact that even if it’s not pretty you can still win the game, that’s all that matters.”

Now we’ve truly arrived at the adapt-or-die moment. The series can still go either way, but the Warriors have been here before. They have closed out the Finals three times under Kerr, and two of the championship-clinching victories were on the road. They also blew three chances to eliminate Cleveland in 2016. Boston, young and erratic, hasn’t been to the edge before. But Udoka’s ability to relate to players and sternly tell them the truth has gotten them this far. The ending may come down to trust and grit.

Whether Kerr or Udoka celebrate, new blood wins. And a diversity of thought leads to diverse hiring. Next season, half of the league’s 30 coaches will be Black. Many of them are like Udoka, relative newcomers who have been around the game for a while. When the Los Angeles Lakers hand over what may be LeBron James’s last good years to a rookie in Darvin Ham, the trend is clear.

Throughout sports, the coaching profession is changing. Legends are retiring. Attitudes are shifting. It’s an ideal time for a refresh, and as another NBA season reaches the end, ingenuity keeps owning the moment.

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