- Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN Staff Writer
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I don’t know Warriors coach Keith Smart, and I don’t think he’s doing a good job. But it’s painful to watch him slowly lose what I’m guessing is a dream vocation. Every now and again, I show up to Oracle, volley post-game questions from the folded chairs. After losses, Keith appears close to a crying rage. A losing coach bottles torrents. And I’m this bespectacled dork, bleating into his ears, clawing for some damning quote by which to screw him over.
Smart once approached after a presser, wondering why I had “something against Monta.” He towered over as I tried to say what should have been, “It’s hard to convey nuance when asking brief questions.” Whatever I spoke melted into a mumbled shrug as my eyes ran away from his glare.
(I’m just a nerd, obsessed with efficiency. There is no media agenda here, sir.)
As he walked away, I felt ridiculous. Suddenly, it was embarrassing to be a 5-11 twentysomething with bad facial hair, assessing a basketball coach’s performance--between tweets. I used to only watch these games on the TV, a device that never got mad at me. How had my livelihood become about judging his livelihood? It was similar to the shame I felt after Al Thornton tweeted me, in response to snickering digs. Thornton’s handle says “a driven country guy with an old soul.” He was born and raised in Perry, Georgia, where the population hovers near 10,000. At Florida State, Al slowly worked his way off the bench, finally blooming as an upperclassmen. The improbable NBA journey must have been doubted along the way by unathletic haters like myself. What does he think about the avatar in glasses who dares mock his game?
A few times this season, Smart cited “the tape,” as though obscure snippets of Warriors footage contained what I lacked in maturity and common sense.
“See you look at the stats...I watch the tape.”
To a weary coach, mastery of “the stats” could appear a youthful alchemy obsession--a beginner’s chemistry set. “The tape” may well represent all that escapes outsiders. Sure, I can re-watch Warriors games. But I won’t know the exact offensive sets or defensive schemes. I won’t know who’s hurting, who loafed through practice. “The tape,” is his coaching gravitas, the moat between Smart and marauding critics. With every loss, a little bit of that moat evaporates.
Before games, Keith’s gregarious, quick to smile. It’s easy to see how he held a happy locker room through a losing season slog. Reporters grumble about his vague, meandering quotes, but there’s presence behind the vocalized nothing. When basking in a win, Smart can tease writers into laughter. He’s confident and at ease, like so many former pros are.
But no one thinks he’s staying. The new ownership needed Keith to exceed expectations and he underwhelmed. Matt Steinmetz -- the guy who broke the Sprewell choking incident -- went so far as to call Smart’s ouster what should be a “forgone conclusion.”
So the coach is a dead man walking, except we can’t really say it to his face. He’s bound by a certain etiquette as well. In a home loss against the Mavs, Smart benched Stephen Curry for a crucial crunch time stretch. Curry had been playing poorly, the benching did not spring out of the air like some Nellie flight of whimsy. But, Keith refused to flesh out its logic, stating that the choice just wasn’t a “big deal.” The coach won’t trash his young star, even when the situational politics might call for it.
To reference Steinmetz again, the Curry-Smart relationship is chief among the reasons for this expected firing. There’s something strict and paternal in the way Keith handles his best player. A bad mistake often leads to a quick hook, while veteran Monta Ellis is free to frolic. It’s as though Smart’s trying to hone Curry’s mastery of split-second decisions through punishment. The process looks ridiculous to my eyes, like Keith’s foolishly channeling that Bobby Knight schooling, seeing if he can yell life’s rhythms into submission. I wouldn’t be shocked if Smart cites “the tape” as a rebuke to Curry’s frustrations.
If Stephen Curry played five more minutes per game, I’d hazard that his coach would have a chance. I’d also wager that Golden State would have a few more wins. This is why Smart’s Curry-handling might be an instance of misguided integrity. Keith will sacrifice job security in pursuit of his path. Eventually, “the tape” won’t save him. Eventually, his young star will have a new coach.