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Steve Kerr’s Leave of Absence is Latest Sign Warriors Will be Challenged in Title Defense

Nothing in sports is more cliche than how difficult it is to repeat after a magical season, with the bromides to “Murphy’s Law” and all that, but you have to give the Basketball Gods credit for this much: They’re not being subtle about how this is going to go for the Warriors.

The San Antonio Spurs, the one team in the league you really had trouble matching up with and escaped facing in the playoffs? They added LaMarcus Aldridge in the offseason, for kicks.

Harrison Barnes, the useful, young fourth option you were fretting about being able to extend for a reasonable figure after Charlotte’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist got a four year, $52 million deal? His camp has turned down a four-year deal that would’ve been worth $64 million.

And now, this: The Dubs find themselves in a spot where they very well might have to begin their title defense with Luke Walton as their head coach, with the team announcing that Steve Kerr is taking a leave of absence to rehab from his second back surgery of the offseason:

“After the first two days of training camp, I realized I need to take a step back and focus on my rehabilitation in order to be ready for the grind of another NBA season,” Kerr said in a statement released by the Warriors. “As I noted last week, my summer was difficult and no fun due to the multiple back surgeries. At this point, I simply want to get healthy and back to my normal daily routine on and off the court.”

There’s no timetable for Kerr’s return, general manager Bob Myers told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, though the team is hoping he’ll be back by the Oct. 27 season opener. Assistant coach Ron Adams believes Kerr will be back “in the next few days,” but Myers pledged that the organization would be “extra conservative” in making sure Kerr doesn’t rush back and suffer a setback:

“I think he was trying to gut through it the last few days, and I think we all realized this isn’t the time to do that,” Myers told Diamond Leung of Bay Area News Group. “We’re not in the postseason. We’re not even in the regular season.”

Kerr originally hurt his back during the NBA Finals this past June, rupturing a disc during Game 5. He had his first surgery on July 28 and then a second one on Sept. 4 after complications arose. He spent most of his summer recuperating, and all seemed to be going well. In a Sept. 16 interview with Tim Kawakami of Bay Area News Group, Kerr said he felt “fine” and that his back was “coming around.”

On some level Kerr anticipated that his back issue would be problematic, telling reporters during the team’s Media Day that he’d be taking “a little bit of a back seat” during the beginning of camp and taking on more of an observational role, but it seems apparent that whatever adrenaline boost he was expecting to kick in to get him through pain and discomfort has not been sufficient. The players noticed, with Andrew Bogut telling Leung, “The first two days of camp, he was flat energy-wise. He didn’t really have a chance to stay on his feet long. He was sitting down every 10 minutes, so we knew he wasn’t right.”

It simply wouldn’t do, in training camp when coaches have to be at their most lively and energetic to get their charges through grueling and at times monotonous two-a-days, when they have to install new sets into the playbook and get newcomers up to speed, for Kerr, universally renowned for his enthusiasm for life, to be acting like a zombie in front of his players:

“Steve is such a perfectionist that he didn’t feel like it was fair to the team to not be here at 100 percent,” Myers said. “I think he realized pretty quickly, ‘I need to have more energy. I need to feel better to do my job, and I don’t have that right now.'”

So now the task of guiding the title-holders through this falls, on an interim basis, to assistant Luke Walton. Undoubtedly the Warriors would prefer to have someone more experienced, such as last season’s top assistant Alvin Gentry, filling the breech, but he got the leading gig at New Orleans and was actually hired for that job before the previous Finals was even finished. Make no mistake though, Warriors brass view Walton as a rising star, a future head coach in the league for certain, and it’s telling that they’ve chosen him for this role instead of the far more seasoned defensive guru in Adams.

Also, it’s worth noting that just by virtue of his past season in the assistant chair, Walton has more coaching experience than Kerr had when both the Warriors and the Knicks were vying for his services, and more than Kerr’s predecessor Mark Jackson had, for that matter:

“We’ll keep this ship moving in the right direction until our captain can return,” Walton said of Kerr.

In the meantime there’s nothing the Warriors can do but lean on their leaders in Bogut, Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala, and to hope that Walton is worthy of Kerr’s confidence. They can cling to the futile hope that this isn’t yet another omen that the upcoming season will be filled with significantly more adversity than the previous one had, but that’s not the way to bet.

If even the coach can’t avoid being injured, what chance do the players have?

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