First things first. Before we can say whether Mark Jackson is the right coach for this particular version of the Golden State Warriors, we’ve got to ask a much tougher, but far more fundamental question:
Is Mark Jackson the right coach for any version of any team?
What’s amazing—or confounding, depending on your perspective—is that somehow, with a full season already logged in his coaching resume, we still don’t know much of anything about Mark Jackson’s ability to coach an NBA basketball team.
So how is it, exactly, that the jury’s been out on this one for over a year?
Well, the main explanation is the total write-off, mail-in nature of the Warriors’ 2011-12 season. First, there was the lockout, which truncated training camp, making it tough to do much more than learn names and jog through a few lay-up lines before meaningful games began.
Then there was the injury. Stephen Curry missed 40 games and even when he did play, he wasn’t himself. Can we fairly judge Jackson as a coach if he doesn’t have his best player? Maybe. But, then again, maybe not.
Bad luck aside, the roster Jackson had last year simply wasn’t very good. It was woefully unbalanced—full of scorers and bereft of rebounders or defenders. And on top of that, Jackson lost a player he clearly depended on when the Warriors shipped Monta Ellis to Milwaukee for Andrew Bogut, who, of course, didn’t suit up once last year.
And finally, there was the obvious tank-job the Warriors employed to retain their lottery pick. There was a very real disincentive to winning games toward the end of the season last year, so it’s hard to pin all the losing on Jackson.
Look, I don’t mean to make excuses for the Warriors’ coach, and as you’ll soon see, by no means am I a Jackson apologist. But at the very least, we can say that last year didn’t give him the best opportunity to prove his worth.
So although we can’t divine much from Jackson’s 66-game coaching tenure, there’s still another source of information that could help determine whether he’s the man for the job: Jackson himself.
You just have to go into any analysis of his words with the knowledge that although he talks a ton, he almost never says anything.
Here’s what Jackson said on the day he was hired about how the Warriors would play under him:
We're going to be an up-tempo basketball team that is going to be very exciting. But first and foremost, we're going to be a defensive-minded team. I'm totally convinced that if you want to win in this league, then you have to defend. It's going to be a great challenge, and it's going to start from Day 1.
Translation: We will be both up-tempo and defensive-minded. We will be fast and slow. We will be all things, and none. Not exactly illuminating. We’ll have to look elsewhere for evidence of Jackson’s capabilities. And, of course, the Warriors were the complete opposite of a defensive team last year, ranking 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency.
Here’s Jackson recently. This time, he’s talking about a more specific topic: whether he’ll be more creative with this year’s newly balanced roster.
I think when you look on the floor, the weapons we have, you don’t really have to be creative. Those guys can score. If you look at the great coaches or the great teams, there’s nothing creative about throwing the ball to Michael Jordan on the foul line or Kobe on the wing…That’s not creative. That’s just some bad boys getting it done when it matters most.
Now, there’s something. We can learn a lot about Jackson from this last quote. Unfortunately, it tells us that much of his coaching philosophy seems to revolve around letting great players decide what to do on their own. That doesn’t really sound like coaching at all, does it?
Really, this brings me to my ultimate point on Jackson. Based on his short track record and his own words, there is almost no reason to believe he’s the right coach for this team—or any team.
Logically, based on the evidence available, there’s nothing that points to Jackson being a good coach. Conversely, there is reason to believe that he’s not the man for the job.
The evidence against Jackson’s capability must start with his strategic shortcomings. When owner Joe Lacob hired Jackson, he simultaneously brought in Mike Malone to be the team’s top assistant. Malone is known as a terrific defensive strategist and a great X’s and O’s guy. He was meant to offset Jackson’s weaknesses and inexperience—a shrewd move by Warriors ownership.
But what are Jackson’s strengths? And what does he value as a coach?
We’ve established that his one season hasn’t given us a clear answer to these questions. And his own words, rife with clichés and an unnerving aversion toward tangible strategy, haven’t helped either.
Certainly, Jackson can talk. He’s an engaging speaker and an ordained minister. So we can assume that his persuasiveness and verbal skills might make him a good motivator. But there are two problems with that line of thinking.
First, his credibility among his players took a serious blow with the news that Jackson was mixed up in an extortion scandal, which arose out of an extramarital affair he admitted to having with a stripper six years ago. It’s going to be harder for the players to trust and believe in the things Jackson tells them than it was before.
And second, this particular group of Warrior players will be smart enough to realize that Jackson’s words must, at some point, be supported by proof that he knows what he’s talking about.
If he continues to preach about defense, but doesn’t exhibit an ability to actually explain how to play it, that’s going to be a problem. And if all he does is throw out quotes about “bad boys getting it done when it matters most” without backing his words up with tangible strategic advice, they’ll start to ring hollow.
Jackson’s time to prove his worth is running short.
He signed a three-year deal before last season, and the Warriors’ ownership is smart enough to know that no lame-duck coach can survive in today’s NBA. That means Jackson probably has to earn his extension this year, or face a buyout if he fails to meet expectations.
One thing seems certain, though: he won’t be allowed to coach the team in 2013-14 if he hasn’t signed an extension. This is going to be a make-or-break year for Jackson.
Ultimately, there are two possible answers to the question posed in the headline. Either we don’t have enough information to judge Jackson yet, or we have just enough to know he’s not qualified for the job. I’m leaning toward the latter.
The pressure’s on this season, and Jackson certainly has a better chance to succeed than he did last year. But even after a full year, we absolutely cannot say that there’s proof he is the right coach for this—or any—team.