Just a few weeks ago, it seemed unlikely that Mark Jackson was the right man to coach the Golden State Warriors. But during a challenging start to the 2012-13 season, Jackson is showing signs that he really might be the man for the job.
Despite the loss of key reserve Brandon Rush to a torn ACL and the recent absence of Andrew Bogut, Jackson's Warriors have compiled a 7-6 record. And while there have certainly been issues on offense, Jackson has the Warriors doing things on defense and on the glass that seemed impossible a year ago.
The Dubs currently rank fourth in the league in rebound rate (after finishing dead last a year ago) and 16th in defensive efficiency (after finishing 27th in 2011-12). The much-discussed culture change is actually taking place, and Jackson deserves credit for it. Whether he's the man engineering the newly successful schemes or not—assistant coach Mike Malone is the team's defensive strategist—Jackson is the one delivering them to the team and implementing them in games. So far, he's been pushing a lot of the right buttons.
We certainly don't know for sure whether Jackson has really progressed as a coach, but there are a few specific reasons to believe that's the case.
He Knows the Numbers
Somehow, despite the obvious success of the teams that embrace them, it's still acceptable for NBA coaches to turn up their noses at advanced statistics. Just ask Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins, who was flatly dismissive of analytics in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Jackson, unlike Collins, seems to recognize the importance of the numbers.
When asked to defend the David Lee-Carl Landry tandem he's used extensively, Jackson said:
Look at the numbers, we are a very good defensive team. Somehow we're stopping people. Somehow we're getting it done. Overall, we've done a great job of defending.
In the face of a mountain of criticism, Jackson is relying on analytics to justify his use of two defensively challenged forwards as his front-line unit. And you know what? He's been right to do so.
According to 82games.com, the Warriors' best lineup this season has been the one that features Landry and Lee as the 4-5 combo. The lineup that features Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Jarrett Jack with Lee and Landry is plus-31 overall this year. No other unit is better than plus-10.
Using Lee and Landry together is far from ideal. Neither is much of a help defender and blocked shots essentially disappear when they're on the court together. But of the available choices without Andrew Bogut, Jackson has wisely utilized the numbers to find his best option.
In addition to trusting the numbers, Jackson has shown an ability to make adjustments when things simply don't look right.
For example, the Warriors started out the season with one of the league's most predictable offensive schemes. A huge percentage of their offensive "plays" involved one guard pounding the dribble at the top of the arc (never threatening to drive) and waiting for two shooters to curl off of matching pin-down screens on either side of the floor.
In theory, the idea was sound. The Warriors have a ton of elite shooters and it made sense to devote plays to springing them free with screens for open looks off of curls or flares. Unfortunately, it didn't work in practice. Teams overplayed the shooters, crowding them and making the catch virtually impossible. More importantly, opponents recognized they could essentially forget about the guard at the top—whether it was Jack or Curry—because it was clear that isolation drives and pick-and-rolls weren't part of the scheme.
The Dubs struggled to beat a vastly inferior Phoenix Suns team on opening night and lost by 10 to the Memphis Grizzlies in their second game. But Jackson slowly made adjustments, tweaking the offense to involve more pick-and-rolls at the top and putting in more back cuts and post-up sets.
The result has been a much freer offensive attack that makes better use of the Warriors' strengths. The focus of the offense will always be creating open looks for Curry and Thompson, but now that Jackson has largely scrapped the clunky sets he started with, Golden State's attack is less predictable and more effective.
The Klay Thompson Situation
Klay Thompson, supposed breakout candidate, certainly didn't start this season the way anyone expected. Things completely bottomed out for Thompson Nov. 10 against the Denver Nuggets, when he missed a pair of late free throws that would have clinched the game, and then inexplicably failed to recognize that the Warriors had a foul to give in the waning moments. He allowed Danilo Gallinari to tie the game on a dunk after simply letting him drive right past him.
The Warriors went on to lose that game in overtime and Thompson played four of the worst games of his career immediately afterward.
Jackson never lost faith in Thompson, defending him in interviews the next day after practice and sticking with him despite the prolonged shooting slump that followed the Denver game.
It would have been easy for Jackson to bury Thompson in the press, reduce his minutes or even bench him. He would have been justified in doing any of those things. But Jackson stayed in Thompson's corner when nobody else would, clearly earning the loyalty of his young guard.
Thompson's last two games have been his best of the season; he's hit more than half his shots in both, something he didn't do once in the first 11 contests. If Thompson continues his turnaround, Jackson will deserve much of the credit for his expert treatment of a very touchy situation.
He Has the Locker Room
Klay Thompson isn't the only Warrior to whom Jackson has endeared himself. It's obvious from the entire roster's attentiveness and positive body language that Jackson has earned his players' universal respect.
Despite an illustrious playing career, it was never a certainty that Jackson would be able to pull that off; his personal issues and blustery cliches could easily have caused his players to tune out. But he has clearly won their trust through his impressive showings of loyalty and his insistence on treating his players like men.
And if the whole "positive body language" offer of proof feels a little hard to accept, we can turn to the players themselves for their thoughts on Jackson.
What was Festus Ezeli thankful for on Thanksgiving?
How about Draymond Green?
I'm thankful to be placed in a situation where my coach @jacksonmark13 is a man of God and making me want to even better my relationship— Draymond Green (@Money23Green) November 22, 2012
Sure, these are a little corny, but earning the respect of the locker room is an incredibly tough task, and we've got proof that Jackson has done it.
Overall, Jackson is far from a perfect coach and there are still plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong. But there's no question that Jackson has made some critical strides in the right direction. He may just be the right coach for the Warriors after all.
*All statistics accurate through Nov. 23
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