Kawakami: Tension, contract talks and the Steve Kerr-Jonathan Kuminga breakthrough that revived the Warriors

SAN FRANCISCO — Not that Steve Kerr’s future with the Warriors beyond this season ever was in serious doubt, but maybe there was an issue that raised the glimmer of a chance of an inkling of accumulating unease.

The thought process worked two ways: You couldn’t imagine the dynastic Stephen Curry Warriors with any coach but Kerr now and maybe a decade from now, but you also wondered how long Kerr could comfortably continue in this job while pushing back at outside and inside pressure to fully commit to some part of a youth movement.

Kerr is the ideal coach for this era of the Warriors. Would he be the right guy as the team transitions into whatever comes next?

Well, yes, it turns out. At least for two more seasons after this one. And I’ll guess: Probably for a few more years after that, too, maybe with a few of these talented young players turning into Kerr and the Warriors’ next great core.

“I don’t have anything against young players,” Kerr told me late Friday night. “I just want to play players who understand what makes winning.”

There never was actual doubt that Kerr and Warriors owner Joe Lacob would eventually agree to the deal first reported by ESPN on Friday (but not yet made official) — Kerr will sign a two-year extension for the highest coaching salary in NBA history, $17.5 million per year, though the 2025-26 season, tied neatly and logically to Curry’s remaining contracted years with the team. But there was a quiet process to this. There were practical and rhetorical steps that needed to be taken on both sides, through this bumpy and at times tragic season and as Kerr wound through the final months of his current contract.

Most centrally: For all things to roll smoothly into 2024-25 and beyond, Kerr and Warriors management had to work through the occasionally delayed development of Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody, Brandin Podziemski, Trayce Jackson-Davis and other young players assembled on this roster, a year after the Warriors gave up on the James Wiseman experiment for good. Kerr had to show Lacob and others that his approach was working; Lacob and the front office had to show that they trusted him to do it.

For a time this season, it seemed like this might involve some major effort. That the two sides might be too wary of the unknown to wholeheartedly keep this relationship going much longer. That some of the tensions of the past several seasons might complicate any Kerr contract talks.

A lottery pick in 2021, Jonathan Kuminga mostly came off the bench his first two seasons. He averaged 16.9 minutes as a rookie, then 20.8 last year. (Petre Thomas / USA Today)

But, as Kerr pointed out Friday night, the event that created the most tension — Kuminga letting it be widely known in January that he had lost faith in Kerr after getting pulled in and out of the rotation this season — probably was the key to figuring everything out. That’s the Kerr method: Identify core principles, keep to them, maybe keep to them longer than seems practical, then bend and adjust when everything and everybody is ready for it. And, typical of Kerr’s sports and coaching history, all this happened at just the right moment to save this season and the good feelings of this era.

Kuminga, deep into his third NBA season, and key members of the Warriors front office wanted him to play more. But Kerr needed to feel he could rely on Kuminga to move the ball, fight for rebounds, remain focused on his defensive assignment, run the floor and attack the basket in lanes opened up by Curry’s presence. Forever stalemate? No, once the issue became public, Kerr and Kuminga sat down and talked it out.

“I knew he was frustrated,” Kerr said of Kuminga. “We had a great talk the next day. He came into my office. He’s a very respectful young guy. For the first two years, our conversations were very much one-sided. I couldn’t get him to respond. So I would tell him what we needed. And he didn’t say a whole lot.

“So I think it was actually a good thing for him to kind of express his frustration because it kind of forced him to really take ownership of it, and we had a good conversation. He let me know how he’s feeling, that he was frustrated, and we went through a list of things that I felt he needed to do, and it coincided with the time that Draymond (Green) was out (suspended for 11 games and then working his way back into game shape) … so he got more minutes based on playing better but also on the opportunity that came up.

“I’m never offended by guys being frustrated with a lack of playing time, because that’s natural. He’s always been a great young guy to coach and we’ve always had a good relationship. I think it grew this year because of a little conflict, and we needed that.”

The Warriors lost six of the next eight after the Kerr-Kuminga conversation to drop to a season-worst five games under .500 at 19-24, but actually started playing better within that mini-skid. Then the wins started coming, and counting Friday’s victory over Charlotte, the Warriors have won 10 of their last 12 to get to 29-26, in 10th place and much closer to the middle pack of the Western Conference’s playoff standings.

Kerr has kept Kuminga in the main rotation, committed to a starting frontcourt of Kuminga, Green (at center) and Andrew Wiggins, and watched Kuminga turn into one of the Warriors’ most reliable players and absolutely their most dynamic one.



Stephen Curry only wants to play for Steve Kerr, and now their contracts align

There’s a method to Kerr’s semi-stubbornness: When and if a young player breaks through for the Warriors, he’s earned the time, as Podziemski did immediately as a fiercely focused rookie this season. When Podziemski moved into the starting lineup recently over Klay Thompson, it’s not like Kerr was demoting a dynastic veteran on a whim. The same for Kuminga moving into the starting lineup and Kevon Looney moving out. If the young player isn’t ready, he doesn’t play. And note: It’s not like any of the young players who bombed out for the Warriors under Kerr the last decade have gone on to stardom elsewhere.

Which is not an inconsequential concept after all the Warriors’ veterans have accomplished.

“I think he gets a lot of criticism for, ‘Oh, he’s not playing young guys,’” Draymond said of Kerr. “But would JK have been as ready as he is now a year ago? I personally don’t think so. I think we all believed in what JK could become. But you almost do JK a disservice by not giving him credit (for) the work he put in to become the player that he’s become this year.

“I think Steve has caught a lot of unfair criticism about playing young guys when No. 1, you haven’t had to or needed to, but as soon as you’ve needed to, you’re doing it. And you’ve made that adjustment, and look at what it’s done for us this season.”

Kerr shook his head immediately when I asked if this was all part of a long-term plan for Kuminga. No, Kerr didn’t plot this out exactly.

“There were times early in the season where I didn’t bring him back in (after an early-game stint or two) and maybe I should’ve,” Kerr said. “That’s the thing with this, there’s no formula. And I for sure have made my share of mistakes with these guys and with our team. That’s part of it. This is not a science, and you’re trying to nudge these guys along.

“I think what happened with JK is he had a breakthrough the last two months and he started to do the things that we’ve really been harping on. And then that sort of fed on itself. He started to feel more confident, we started giving him more rope. I think the change in the starting lineup helped him quite a bit, with Draymond at the five, it allowed him to have more space, get to the rim more often, that sort of thing.

“And this is what people usually say in this league: It’s Year 3 when guys start to really feel it and take off. But when you draft a guy that high (at No. 7 overall in 2021), nobody wants to hear, ‘It takes three years.’ They want it to happen right away. But it just doesn’t.”

Many Warriors fans haven’t wanted to hear that over the last few years. Maybe a few Warriors executives, too. Though Lacob and his lieutenants don’t talk about the famed “Two Timeline Plan” much anymore and never really said it exactly like that in the first place, anyway, there definitely was a building exasperation as the top veterans got older and an assembly line of highly touted young players stalled out on the Warriors’ bench.

Then the Kuminga moment happened.

Jonathan Kuminga

Through Dec. 12 this season, Jonathan Kuminga was averaging 20.5 minutes and 11.9 points per game. Since then, those numbers are up to 29.2 minutes and 17.5 points. (D. Ross Cameron / USA Today)

“It was a tension spot from the beginning, for sure,” Kerr said. “If you think about it, the first two years of JK’s time with us, I played Juan (Toscano-Anderson) the first year, I played (Anthony) Lamb last year, and I played them simply because they were better players. Now, they weren’t more talented players, but they understood the game better, they shot the ball better, they knew how to move the ball in the half-court. They knew how to communicate defensively. All the little things that have to go into winning, they were better.

“And that’s why I played them, I know much to the anger of some of our fans and I’m sure people in our front office and ownership. I know that they weren’t thrilled. But again, this is the path we chose. Kind of swinging for the fences (in the draft). And remember when we took James and then the next year we took JK, we hadn’t played the playoffs for two years. We didn’t know if we were still a championship team.

“I was totally on board with taking guys with high ceilings. But I was the one who had to face the daily grind of helping them get to that ceiling. With a championship team in ’22, didn’t leave a whole lot of room for playing with guys who needed a ton of growth.”

So maybe now all of the Warriors, from the coaching staff to the locker room to the front office, can see and embrace a Two Timeline Plan because there are actually multiple generations of players contributing to this push toward the playoffs?

“I don’t really think it’s a two-timeline thing anymore,” Draymond said. “I think it’s the natural progression of a dynasty, which is you win with certain guys, and that’s how you build a dynasty. Then those guys start to get older and you start to build up young talent to keep the train rolling. And I think that’s kind of where we’re at.

“The young guys that are playing, they’ve learned to plug in and find their spots and play the right way and play our brand of basketball. It’s not quite the same as what we’ve always done, but there’s a lot of similarities in what we’ve always done, there are some staples of what we’ve always done. I don’t necessarily think it’s a two-timeline thing, I think it’s moreso these young guys have grown and they’re getting more responsibility as they continue to grow.”

The young players who’ve earned it are playing, but some minor tensions remain. Moody has been in and mostly out of the rotation this season and, like Kuminga, he’s due for a rookie contract extension this summer. Jackson-Davis has been in and out, too, though it looks like Kerr is ready to give TJD regular minutes in the second unit once Chris Paul is back healthy. Nobody’s guaranteed minutes, including Paul, who may or may not walk back into a closing-unit role.

But of course, Paul’s return will lead to other tensions, because it probably will reduce Podziemski’s time or Kuminga’s time or wipe out Moody’s time entirely.

“It’s funny, it’s like, how do you develop young players? Well, you hold them accountable and you make sure that they’re doing all the things they need to do to win,” Kerr said. “That’s what it’s about every day. I treat them really with a ton of respect, and they deserve the respect that I give ’em, but they earn the playing time.”

This is the way the Warriors do it because this is the way Kerr does it. Maybe they got a little lucky with the timing of the Kuminga breakthrough this season. But this is probably when it was due, when Kerr and Kuminga were both ready, when the team was ready, which came just when the Warriors most desperately needed it.



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(Top photo of Steve Kerr and Jonathan Kuminga during a January game against the Sacramento Kings: Noah Graham / NBAE via Getty Images)

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