Steve Kerr’s ‘whirlwind’ as Suns GM: A Shaq trade, a firing, many lessons

Steve Kerr split his weeks between a Phoenix condo and his family house in San Diego.

Some days, when the Suns were on the road and he wasn’t scheduled to scout a college game, Kerr flew home in the morning and back that evening. However, no amount of Southwest Rapid Rewards points could keep him from feeling a profound sense of loss.

Kerr, who had three young kids, was missing birthdays, parent-teacher conferences and rec-league games — and all for a job he wasn’t sure he even loved in the first place.

When Kerr stepped down as Phoenix’s general manager in June 2010 after three up-and-down seasons, he knew he wouldn’t be a front-office executive again. There was too much time spent studying the salary cap and not enough interacting with players. But that experience with the Suns might have been a necessary precursor to where he is now: eyeing his fourth NBA title in five years as the Warriors’ head coach.

“I wasn’t very good at the job, but I learned a ton,” Kerr said of his time with Phoenix, which plays Golden State at Oracle Arena on Sunday evening. “The biggest thing I learned was organizational dynamics and the relationships within an organization that are so important: owner, GM, coach, top players. Those relationships have to all be in line.”

Though an elite offensive mind and sound in-game tactician, Kerr’s greatest asset as a coach might be his ability to relate to almost anyone. Players laud him for his genuine, transparent approach. When locker-room issues arise, which they have multiple times this season, Kerr deals with them directly.

Much of this is fundamental to his personality. Thirty-five years after his father was assassinated by two gunmen in Beirut, Kerr remains a firm believer that almost any problem can be solved through candid dialogue.

But more than a decade ago, when he took over as GM of the Suns, Kerr still had plenty to learn about communication. One of his biggest regrets is that he couldn’t work through his differences with head coach Mike D’Antoni, who left after a single season under Kerr to accept the same position with the Knicks.

In July 2014, shortly after he was introduced as the Warriors’ head coach, Kerr was settling into his new office when GM Bob Myers stopped by to check in. The two began to open up about situations they wished they had handled better. After Kerr detailed what had gone wrong with D’Antoni, Myers admitted that he didn’t always communicate well with Kerr’s predecessor, Mark Jackson.

From that moment on, Kerr and Myers have made a point not to let that happen to them. They see their working relationship as a partnership. Seldom does a day pass without the two catching up about their day — if there is no basketball to discuss, they’ll chat about family.

“I don’t think you can really relate to somebody’s job unless you’ve actually done it, so that’s unique to have a coach that’s been a GM,” said Myers, who, like Kerr in Phoenix, is a first-time GM. “He understands what the job is. He understands the things that he thinks he did well, and other things that he thinks were challenging. So, it’s good to have kind of a peer to talk to about it.”

Added Kerr: “When you look at a GM’s performance, you look at the draft and you look at trades. … But the job itself is so much more than that. It’s interpersonal relationships, inter-organizational relationship building, being a psychologist. We’re both trying for the same thing, but we come at it from different jobs. We support one another.”

When Kerr announced his retirement as an NBA player in June 2003, he had no intentions to pursue a front-office career. But 13 months later, real-estate mogul and fellow Arizona alum Robert Sarver offered him a 1 percent ownership stake in the Suns and a part-time consulting gig. It was a thank you for helping Sarver set up a meeting with then-Commissioner David Stern to buy the franchise. Kerr was too intrigued to say no.

For the next three years, Kerr worked as an analyst for TNT, drove his children to school and games, and offered advice during a weekly conference call with Phoenix’s management. In June 2007, after more than a year of prodding from Sarver, Kerr agreed to take over as GM.

It was a tenuous time for the Suns. Fresh off not reaching the conference finals for the first time in three years, Phoenix had an aging core and championship ambitions.

Before the 2008 trade deadline, Kerr shipped four-time All-Star Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to Miami for Shaquille O’Neal. Well past his prime at age 35, O’Neal was a curious fit for D’Antoni’s up-tempo offense. Phoenix, 37-16 at the time of the trade, went 18-11 with O’Neal before falling to the Spurs in the first round.

Hours after that early postseason exit, Sports Illustrated reported that D’Antoni was looking to coach elsewhere. There was chatter that D’Antoni had bristled at Kerr’s suggestions to make defense more of a priority. Two weeks later, D’Antoni inked a four-year, $24 million deal with the Knicks.

Even though Phoenix had won 65 percent of its games in its five seasons with D’Antoni, Kerr was adamant that it needed a philosophical makeover. His former teammate in San Antonio, Terry Porter, was brought in to instill a defense-oriented mentality. The experiment lasted 51 games, with Kerr deciding to fire his longtime friend after the team stumbled into the All-Star break in a 6-10 rut.

“Probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do was to relieve someone of his duties you like, respect and admire so much,” Kerr said. “But it had to be done. I could feel it. We could feel it as an organization.”

Kerr traded O’Neal to Cleveland, signed Channing Frye — a sweet-shooting big man better suited for Phoenix’s signature style — and named assistant Alvin Gentry the full-time head coach. Once on the verge of a rebuild, the Suns emerged as the league’s biggest surprise, winning 54 regular-season games before they lost to the Lakers in the conference finals.

Less than three weeks later, Kerr resigned to spend more time with his family and soon got his job back at TNT. Before parting with the franchise that drafted him as a little-known second-rounder in 1988, Kerr, ever self-critical, thanked Phoenix fans publicly for “sticking by me after I made some bonehead moves that didn’t go so well.”

“Once he got to Phoenix and was the GM, I think he really realized that he missed the direct connection to the team — the highs and lows of that, the connection that you have and the strategy,” said Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser, who was a Suns scout during Kerr’s time with the Suns. “Once he left Phoenix and went back into TV, I think he knew he needed to be fulfilled more.”

In the nine seasons since they employed Kerr, the Suns are a combined 268-438 with no playoff appearances. Sarver, whose obtrusive leadership style was the subject of a recent ESPN report, has rotated through four GMs and five head coaches.

Still, Kerr is grateful for the opportunity Sarver gave him to run an NBA front office. It helped Kerr figure out exactly where he belongs.

“Incredible learning experience,” said Kerr, who now forgoes his Southwest points for Golden State’s charter flights. “It was a whirlwind, for sure.”

Connor Letourneau is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: cletourneau@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @Con_Chron

This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/warriors/article/Steve-Kerr-s-whirlwind-as-Suns-GM-A-Shaq-13676560.php.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *