Charting Mark Jackson's Evolution as Golden State Warriors' Head Coach

Simon Cherin-Gordon@SimoncgoContributor IIIMay 4, 2013

It may be an over-simplification of an NBA playoff series, but the Golden State Warriors' defeat of the Denver Nuggets in the first round was due primarily to two people: Stephen Curry and Mark Jackson.

Sure, the Warriors got great performances from Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Carl Landry and Festus Ezeli. But try to tell yourself with a straight face that those three rookies, one role player and one injury-riddled center actually were responsible for eliminating the 57-win Denver Nuggets.

The impact that these players made was enormous, but it was made possible by Curry and Jackson.

The Curry part was to be expected. Just about everyone knew entering the series that Curry was the best player on either side; the one player who could swing a game single-handedly.

What most people did not expect was Jackson, a second-year NBA coach making his playoff debut, to so thoroughly dominate George Karl, a 25-year coaching veteran who has been in the playoffs 22 times and is a leading candidate for the 2012-13 NBA Coach of the Year award.

Jackson, of course, is a dark-horse candidate for the award himself. And if these things were decided post-postseason, Jackson would undoubtedly garner even stronger consideration.

He's certainly come a long way over the past 12 months.

Well, it really started nearly two years ago. Shortly after Jackson was hired as the Warriors' head coach, he guaranteed a trip to the postseason. Jackson preached a defensive philosophy and the Warriors brought in assistant coach Michael Malone—one of the top defensive minds in the league—to help make Jackson's wishes come true.

Jackson cannot be blamed for the shortcomings of the 2011-12 Warriors. The NBA owners' lockout nearly eliminated any sort preseason and made implementing any sort of new schemes very difficult.

The team's defensive personnel was also severely lacking, and the small defensive improvements the team did make were canceled out by the league's worst defensive rebounding rate.

The Warriors also traded their leading scorer (Monta Ellis) and top post-defender (Ekpe Udoh) for an injured Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson, who was immediately turned into a washed-up Richard Jefferson. Stephen Curry missed the majority of the season and the Warriors ended up 23-43.

While these things were out of Jackson's control, the playoff promise he made was still a monumental mistake. It was as if Jackson thought that winning in the NBA was easy and it came off as both arrogant and ignorant. 

Jackson made no such guarantee before the 2012-13 season, so the lesson was learned. And it appeared early on that another guarantee would have equalled another broken promise, as Andrew Bogut, the man expected to change Golden State's defensive and rebounding woes, was ruled out indefinitely due to the micro-fracture ankle surgery he had discretely underwent months earlier. This happened just after Brandon Rush, the team's best perimeter defender, tore his ACL.

However, 2012-13 quickly began to look like the type of season that Jackson had promised for last year's team. After having a full summer to implement his (and Malone's) defensive approach and with a far better roster at his disposal, the Warriors got off to a roaring start, going 22-10 to open the season.

A healthy Stephen Curry, an energized David Lee and a deadly bench duo of Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry appeared to be at the forefront of this success, but it was Jackson's ability to get everyone to buy in, play as a team and believe that the franchise's losing days were over that led to Golden State's blazing start.

As the season went on, the Warriors hit several bumps. The team would peak at 30-17 before falling to 35-29 over a month-long stretch from early February to early March. In the process, they fell from No. 4 in the Western Conference to No. 7, and suddenly a postseason trip shifted from a forgone conclusion to a major mystery.

This is where Jackson made his finest mark.

Rather than calling players out, expressing anger and attempting to somehow light a fire under his team, Jackson remained calm and confident. He showed a trust in his team that most coaches of veteran clubs have trouble expressing. The fact that the Warriors possessed one of the youngest rosters in the NBA made it borderline baffling.

But while it may have seemed crazy to believe that such a young team would be able to pick itself back up, the confidence Jackson had instilled in his players from day one allowed the Warriors to close out the season on a 12-6 run.

Jackson's excellent coaching season could have ended there, leading the Warriors to playoffs for the first time in six years and second time since 1994. But it didn't. It hasn't.

Even ignoring what Jackson did to get the Warriors to the postseason, an isolated look at Golden State's first-roud tilt with Denver makes Jackson look like an elite NBA coaching veteran.

The Nuggets had a clear game plan, and a good one at that: Stop Stephen Curry at all costs, force the turnover-prone Warriors into turnovers, get points in transition and get to the line. Considering that Curry is the most important piece of Golden State's offense, turnovers are their weakness, transition defense is their weakness and they commit a ton of fouls, Karl's strategy seemed spot-on.

Throughout the series, parts of this approach baffled the Warriors. The Dubs committed 17.8 turnovers per game and allowed the Nuggets to shoot 31.3 free throws a night. But Jackson threw counter-punches that hit twice as hard.

Whether it was Curry or Jack finding a wide-open Bogut, Green, Landry or Barnes out of a double team, tempting Denver's lower-basketball I.Q. players to join Golden State in a three-point shooting contest or even bringing back elements of Nellie Ball, Jackson answered every Karl move with a stronger move of his own, and Karl failed to respond.

Beating George Karl in a playoff coaching battle doesn't make a coach legendary, not when you consider that Karl has lost 14 times in his 22 first-round appearances. Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs coach and Jackson's next opponent, will present far more difficult obstacles for Jackson and his Warriors.

Jackson may pull it out, but he may also be defeated by Popovich. His Warriors may be outplayed. The Spurs aren't unbeatable, but there is certainly a strong chance of them ending Golden State's season.

What the Warriors will not do is be intimidated, and what Jackson will not do is panic or change his coaching style, a style that made the Golden State Warriors one of the final eight teams standing in the NBA this season.

Considering the youth of the Warriors and the fact that Jackson should be around for a while, this mentality could not only lead to Jackson eventually winning a Coach of the Year award; it could lead to him winning a whole lot more.


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