Coaching Profile: Steve Kerr and the Triangle

May 7th, 2014 | by Dan Clayton
Steve Kerr is on a lot of teams' list as a potential head coach... including the Utah Jazz. (Getty Images)

Steve Kerr is on a lot of teams’ list as a potential head coach… including the Utah Jazz. (Getty Images)

Here’s a coach profile we didn’t anticipate writing: Steve Kerr.

As Marc Stein first reported, the Utah Jazz have somewhat unexpected gotten into the fray, attempting to lure the TNT analyst into conversations about their vacant head coaching position.

Kerr was a skilled and important role player for championship teams in Chicago and San Antonio — he even delivered the title-clinching shot against the Jazz in the 1997 Finals — before working as an analyst and front office guy for the last decade . He apparently is ready to try his hand at coaching, and several teams are vying for his attention, including New York, Golden State… and now Utah.

Personality-wise, it’s easy to see why Kerr is at or near the top of the candidate pool despite having zero experience as a coach or assistant. He’s affable, articulate, smart and well-prepared. He’s level-headed and, if his on-air analysis is any indication, brings a good blend of traditional analysis and metrics comprehension. For all those reasons, teams are willing to look past a résumé that is conspicuously devoid of any kind of coaching experience.

Kerr was a decent General Manager for the Suns from 2007 to 2010, and that’s the closest thing he has to basketball management experience. While running the team there, he had three head coaches in three years, and presided over a decline from division-winning, 60-win years to a middle of the pack Western Conference team. Not all of that is on Kerr, as they were forced to part company with some good players and witness the age-and-injury-related decline of others, but it’s worth noting that Kerr was far from a resounding success in his previous experience as a hoops boss. If you want the Jazz to build on a defensive foundation, you might also want to know that Kerr’s Suns teams were pretty bad on that end of the floor.

In terms of philosophical fit, Kerr is a believer in the triangle offense, which is why he has been linked so strongly to Phil Jackson’s coaching search in New York. This, more than any other aspect of his profile, is why I was surprised that the Jazz had reached out, since Lindsey is such a disciple of a the Spurs and Rockets-style offensive systems.

On a certain level, the triangle isn’t a huge philosophical departure, in that it’s not that different from any movement-oriented read-and-react offensive system, like the Princeton set Jazz fans are used to seeing. Both are just different structures for spreading the defense and forcing decision points that offensive players can read and exploit. But there are some specific differences in terms of the types of skills the triangle attempts to emphasize, and it’s worth examining those in light of our current personnel.

You can find a lot of really smart explanations of the triangle just by doing a quick online search, but here are the basics. It’s a post-oriented set with three players on the strong side of the floor and a “two man game” on the weak side with cutters/shooters who can flash to spots that keeps the defense stretched.

One of the most important prerequisites for the triangle offense is a good passing big who makes quick, smart decisions. This is the first red flag for me, since it’s pretty well documented that Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter don’t have great track records as passing or decision-making bigs. Should the Jazz land a Julius Randle or Joel Embiid type this June, that could help since both are skilled bigs with turn-and-face ability, but relying on rookies to make your complex offensive set work might be a tall order. I’m not sure where the Jazz will get the personnel to run the triangle through a highly skilled post player.1

That’s not necessarily a reason to not hire Kerr; it’s really just an argument for why Favors and Kanter need to develop as passers, something I think they should do anyway. Look around the league and you’ll see that having passing bigs is an important prerequisite to an elite offensive, irrespective of system specifics.

It’s also worth noting that Kanter as the weak-side forward could give him the opportunity to strut out that shot he’s been bragging about, but then he could be forced into that pinch-post passing role depending on how the defense plays the triangle, and again, that might not be Kanter’s strong suit.

The triangle also calls for a point guard who thrives in the corner, like Derek Fisher, John Paxson or Kerr himself. This is another spot that doesn’t necessarily match our talent profile. While you can say a lot of great things about Trey Burke early in his career, he’s been mostly an above-the-break shooter. He attempted just 39 corner threes all season long, compared to 292 across the front of the three point line. He did shoot better than league average on those 39 shots, but it’s just not a huge part of his game or, frankly, his comfort level. For Kerr’s system to work here, the Jazz would either need to develop Burke in a different direction or hitch the cart to a different horse.

A triangle could actually be a good place for Gordon Hayward or Alec Burks to thrive. Burks is a perfect weak side threat because of his developing jumper and his slashing ability, and Hayward could thrive there or as the third man in the strong side triangle because of his handling and decision-making skills. Likewise, if the Jazz come away from draft night with one of the premier wings like Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker, I could see either excelling in the triangle, once they had time to learn it2.

For all those reasons, Kerr’s system probably only works for the Jazz after some combination of triangle training and personnel tweaks, and Kerr would likely want some latitude to be able to add the types of players that would make his philosophy work. Consequently, it might change Utah’s offseason strategy to a degree, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just know that if Kerr is hired, acquiring excellent post passers or corner shooters might become a higher priority than drafting a superior overall talent.

It’s also why I see Kerr as a bit of a long shot for Utah, because he may choose to ply his specialty somewhere where the tools are better suited to him right out of the gate. While Jackson would give him the pieces over time, I think Kerr in Golden State is an absolutely scary thought. The Warriors already have all the pieces to make the triangle pretty lethal, especially corner shooters and skilled bigs. Klay Thompson would need to be a little less sticky on offense, and the team is a bit hamstrung in terms of roster-refining capabilities3, but Kerr’s best shot at a talented roster with triangle-vital skill sets might be in Oakland. The Warriors have way too many skilled players to rank 12th in offensive efficiency, and a lot of that is because their sets, while hard to defend, were pretty uncreative. They could really unleash some offensive talent there by implementing some more offensive structure, which I’m sure is part of the reason why they’re making a big push for Kerr.

Still, I’m glad to see that the Jazz are thinking big. There’s absolutely no reason to be self-deprecating in this search; theirs is one of a small number of available positions in what may be the most elite peer group in world. With other attractive openings in sexier markets, they might not be first in line for some of these big names, but they should expect to land someone impressive. I love to see that they’re getting in the conversation.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

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  1. LKA says:

    I think it is a rumor or a get you off the right track thing. Kerr has been a dagger to the Jazz and would love to have a player like him. Bigger markets would pay him more so I think he will go there..

    • Dan Clayton says:

      I think it’s less about the pay and more about the opportunity. I applaud DL & Zanik for doing their due diligence and putting in a call, but I’m with you – this is a long shot.

  2. Aged fan says:

    Passing big: Jazz still have the rights to Ante Tomic (only 8 months older than Jeremy Evans, btw), who’s likely to be in the running again this year for best player in Europe and who almost perfectly is Pau Gasol (by now only just a little)-lite.

    If his Barcelona team can upset Madrid in the Euroleage semis and then prevail (in what would probably not be an upset) over Messina’s or Blatt’s team in the finals, maybe he’ll figure he’s reached the pinnacle of Europe and want to give the NBA a try.

    • Dan Clayton says:

      I like Tomic, and I’m one of few left who think he may still play for the Jazz some day (especially if Messina is the coach). But I doubt he’s going to play a huge enough role to by the bellweather for the Jazz’s offensive success. I could be wrong, though.

  3. Mewko says:

    I think that Kerr is off to New York. He trusts that Phil Jackson will provide him good players, and Kerr can mesh all the playing styles. Good to see that Utah is making a play for him though.

    • Dan Clayton says:

      Yeah you’re probably right. I’d say 60% NY, 35% GSW, 5% something weird happens. We at SCH are just trying to leave no stone unturned.

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