Mark Jackson Firing Reveals True Priorities of Golden State Warriors Ownership

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Mark Jackson Firing Reveals True Priorities of Golden State Warriors Ownership
Richard Drew/Associated Press

There is not much point in discussing whether or not Mark Jackson "deserved" to be fired.

It might be called the National Basketball Association, but the NBA is essentially a fantasy basketball league for 30 ultra-rich people. Millions of us spend our lives watching, rooting for, writing about and thinking of these teams, what they should do and how they should do it, but ultimately our opinions do not matter.

The owner can do whatever he wants with his team, and, provided he is not caught on tape making overtly racist remarks, no one can stop him (it's always a him, and in 29 cases a white him, but that's mostly beside the point).

The point is, given the way the league is structured, "deserved" or "undeserved" are not relevant phrases. If the NBA were a meritocracy, then this would be the conversation to have. Since all of us non-owners operate under the notion that it is a meritocracy—even though, deep down, we know we're lying to ourselves—this is the conversation we've been having.

One month ago, I wrote an article entirely devoted to the question of whether or not the Golden State Warriors coach "deserved" all of the criticism he had been receiving. My answer was a strongly stated "No," and my reasons were fairly simple.

To briefly summarize, because we have a lot to get into and because we have already established that "deserved" is irrelevant: Jackson's Warriors had the third-largest win increase from last season to this season out of all teams that made the 2012-13 playoffs. They did so despite an offseason that turned out to be a wash at best, incorporating eight new players into their system and losing more man games due to injury than all but three other teams.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Jackson, who was criticized for not being an X's and O's coach, turned the Warriors into the best defensive team in the Western Conference, despite losing assistant Mike Malone. Malone was formerly seen as the strategist that made Jackson—a "motivator"—look good.

He continued to put his players in the best possible positions to succeed and grow, particularly his young core. Stephen Curry went from a good, young scorer to an NBA All-Star Game starter under Jackson. Klay Thompson went from a timid rookie to a fearless two-way force. Draymond Green went from being a second-round pick to being one of the most valuable bench players in the NBA.

Jackson's club was the league's third-best road team. His starting lineup had the best plus-minus in the NBA.

Since that article, Jackson's merit has only increased. He almost knocked the Los Angeles Clippers out of the playoffs despite not having Andrew Bogut, his best defensive player and rebounder, on the court. He kept his team together amid nearly unprecedented levels of conflict, deceit and paranoia within the organization. He was endorsed heavily by all of his players.

There are only 10 coaches in the league—at most—that did as good a job as Jackson did of maximizing their talent and getting their teams to buy in, compete and execute.

Jackson deserved to be the Warriors coach next season, and it is not even close. The problem is that "deserve" has nothing to do with it. Joe Lacob, Golden State's majority owner, did not want him to be the coach, and so he fired him.

We like to think of the NBA as a league with a sense of justice, and we like to think of ourselves as the proverbial jury.

In firing Jackson, Lacob reminded us all that the NBA is not what we pretend it to be.


***

Remember this?

For those who don't, the year was 2011. On March 19, Chris Mullin's jersey was being retired.

The Warriors had just traded then-franchise player Monta Ellis to the Milwaukee Bucks for Andrew Bogut, who was out for the season with a broken ankle.

After promises of an improved product were made by Lacob, Jackson and all of upper and lower management, another disappointing season was unfolding. Rather than making a move to try to push for the playoffs, the team traded a fan favorite for a walking injury (who wasn't even walking at the time).

This would be enough to anger any fanbase, but it just so happened to be taking place during a lockout-shortened season. Meaning, Lacob and the rest of those 29 aforementioned rich guys decided they wanted to squeeze a few more million dollars each year out of the millions of people who invest their time, money and mind into the league, even if it meant nearly canceling the season.

If that weren't enough, Lacob decided that he should speak after Mullin. Event emcee Greg Papa stated "we've saved the best for last" before introducing the Warriors' owner.

If that still weren't enough, Bill Simmons gave 60 more reasons why Golden State's fanbase was completely justified for relentlessly booing Lacob throughout the ceremony.

Here's an excerpt from the end of Simmons' phenomenal 2011 piece for Grantland:


Imagine you were a paying customer and Chris Mullin Night doubled as the last bankably fun night of the season. Imagine the emotion inside the building with those Warriors legends on hand. Imagine everything cresting with Mully’s humble speech. Imagine the arrogance of Lacob grabbing that microphone — somehow deciding that he should be the last speaker of the ceremony, not Chris Mullin — and imagine your resentment over the past 35 years suddenly swelling as you realized, “Here’s my one chance to be heard.”

I ask you … would you boo?


Of course, Lacob would argue that those 35 years should not be counted against him, that he, unlike previous owner Chris Cohan, was committed to winning, and that his recent moves, while unpopular, were made for the long-term benefit of the team and the fans.

Essentially, he would argue that he did not deserve to be booed.

That was Lacob then—a man trying to seperate himself from Warriors history. Considering it is a history filled with losing, terrible trades, dysfunction and apathy from management, this was a no-brainer from a public relations standpoint.

The Ellis trade did end up working out. The Warriors lost enough games without Ellis to land a lottery pick, which they used to select Harrison Barnes. That enabled them to trade for Jarrett Jack. When Bogut got healthy, they had a franchise center, and the development of Curry and Thompson quickly made fans forget Ellis.

The team won 47 games the following year, upset the 57-win Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs and added a stellar free agent in Andre Iguodala after the season ended.

Everything was looking up, and Lacob had gone from fan punching bag to borderline hero.

Through it all, Lacob was the real winner. That isn't to say he became the winner once the team turned things around. He was the winner from the second he bought the Warriors. He was the winner when he hired Mark Jackson.

He was the winner when he was being booed. He was the winner when the players on his team built an exceptional bond with their coach, which led to an incredible 2012-13 season. He was the winner when that locker room and culture change allowed him to sign Iguodala.

He was the winner on Tuesday, when he fired Jackson after the team's best season in 20 years.

Now, despite all of the negative feedback he is receiving from fans—despite the notion that Jackson's firing is undeserved and that Lacob is arrogant and selfish—he is still the winner.

Eric Risberg/Associated Press

When Lacob bought the Warriors in July of 2010, he told Marcus Thompson of the Bay Area News Group:

We’re all about winning. We think it’s a very good opportunity as a business enterprise and the potential is there. But this is all about winning. We’re going to change the course of the franchise.


Less than two years later, Lacob and co-owner Peter Guber announced plans to move the team out of Oakland and into the far more lucrative Piers 30-32 site in San Francisco.

In between, Jackson was hired in June of 2011.

After the plans to move the team to Piers 30-32 fell through, the Warriors launched another plan in April of this year: to move the team to Mission Bay, another San Francisco location.

Two weeks later, Jackson was fired in a decision that had to do with anything but basketball.

Jackson did not get along with the owner's son, Kirk Lacob. He did not get along with assistant coach Brian Scalabrine, a personal friend of Lacob's.

He did not get along with assistant coach Darren Erman, who was secretly recording Jackson's conversations, probably for Lacob, who still treated Erman like a part of the team after his firing, according to Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher.

Jackson did not get along with Lacob, Lacob's son, Lacob's friends or Lacob's moles. That's why he was fired. It had nothing to do with basketball. That much is painfully obvious.

It would be one thing if Lacob had admitted this was an issue throughout the season, maybe even showing some of the transparency that he claims Jackson lacked. Instead, the owner lied repeatedly.

He criticized his team's performance in home games. He undermined Jackson's basketball expertise. He never once said Jackson would be back next season, yet he claimed that all of the hot-seat talk was completely a media creation. One endorsement of the coach would have ended the chatter, but he opted against this.

On May 2, Lacob spoke to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports about Jackson being on the hot seat:

Honest to God, that’s the media that is doing all this.
There is nothing going on until after the season. I refuse to let anyone talk about that. We don’t talk about it. We haven’t had that discussion. Everybody in the entire organization is reviewed after the season and we make decisions.


On May 6, he fired Jackson.

In doing so, Lacob showed he has no qualms about deceiving fans, players and coaches. This has, in turn, greatly jeopardized the short- and long-term future of the franchise.

The short-term ramifications are fairly straightforward. The Warriors—as a team unit and as a collection of individual players—improved every year under Jackson. Bringing in a new coach who has anything less than a championship on his resume would be a lateral move at best.

If Jackson's offense was the problem, then bringing in an offensive-minded coach like George Karl or Mike D'Antoni would cause a significant defensive regression.

If experience was what Jackson lacked, then Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg or TNT's Steve Kerr would be a step backwards.

If Jackson was too stubborn, then Tom Thibodeau or Lionel Hollins would be no more agreeable. If Stan Van Gundy's flexibility with upper management is a plus, his critical, potentially confidence-crushing approach with his players is a minus.

There is not a single candidate out there who checks off more relevant boxes than Jackson.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

To expect any of these coaches to come into Oakland next season and lead the team to a top-four seed and a Western Conference Finals appearance is unrealistic, barring significant roster upgrades (which would have helped the old coach just as much).

Jackson's endlessly positive rapport with his players and steadily improving record could have had the Warriors making a deep run next season. The best-case, post-Jackson scenario would be to bring in a new coach, spend next year adjusting to him and make a title run in two years.

In other words, even the most positive outcome still has the team waiting an extra year to truly contend.

Which brings us to the long-term problems brought upon by the Jackson firing.

Let's stay optimistic for now. Say the Warriors' next coach adjusts well in 2014-15 and gets his team to the 2015-16 Western Conference Finals. Entering the 2016-17 season, Curry is on the last year of his contract, as are Bogut and Iguodala. Lee is already a free agent. Bogut will turn 32 during the season, Iguodala will reach 33.

The Warriors' title window will essentially be that season. If things do not go great early on, the drama of having three high-profile upcoming free agents—one a superstar in the prime of his career—will put a level of pressure on whoever is coaching that team that even Lacob could not apply if he tried.

Remember what Dwight Howard's impending free agency did to the 2011 Orlando Magic?

Unless the Warriors look like a championship favorite that season, there will be calls to break up the core at the deadline and enter a semi-rebuilding phase. Maybe they swing a great trade and replace Curry with several high-quality players to go along with Thompson, Green, Barnes, Bogut and Iguodala. Kind of like the 2011 Denver Nuggets did with Carmelo Anthony.

Maybe they keep it together and go for it all, hoping to re-sign Curry and continue to contend for a few more years despite much of their core aging or leaving, much like the Phoenix Suns did in the late 2000s.

Of course, neither the Magic, Nuggets, nor Suns won a championship. The coaches of those three teams—Van Gundy, Karl and D'Antoni, respectively—are all potential Jackson replacements.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Would Jackson have stayed, the Warriors could have made a much deeper playoff run as soon as next season. They could have continued to tweak the roster next summer and become true title contenders an entire year earlier.

In doing so, they could almost certainly extend Curry before he ever reached that final season. They could do the same with Bogut and Iguodala, or move them while they were still in their early 30s and held good trade value. The Warriors would be contending one season earlier and likely remain in contention several seasons longer than they will with Jackson gone.

And that's in comparison to the best-case scenario.

What if Jackson's replacement does not work out? What if the Warriors' elite defense takes a step back, the offense improves only marginally, the chemistry declines and the team misses the 2014-15 playoffs (very possible in a conference where 48 wins doesn't guarantee a top-eight seed)?

This would lead to the team losing confidence in its new coach and, worse yet, upper management. The collective mindset amongst players would then become something like: "We were really building something, we loved our coach, you fired him, and now we're getting worse."

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

That's when the locker room starts to weaken. Curry starts to realize that the reason he wanted to be on the Warriors for his entire career was not something inherent about the team or location but rather the special atmosphere that Jackson had created.

Free agents that would have once flocked to Oakland at a discount (such as Iguodala did) start to shy away from signing in a place where the ownership has a history of breaking up successful, potential-laden teams due to ulterior motives.

As quickly as Lacob shed the darkness and dysfunction that had been plaguing the franchise for 20 years, the Jackson firing could ultimately trigger a rapid descent back into NBA obscurity as soon as 2017.

One year later, the Warriors would move into a sparkling new arena in one of the world's most affluent cities. Even if millions of Warriors fans, hundreds of thousands of East Bay residents and 12 Warriors players felt like the franchise was failing, Lacob would feel like it was a total success.

Which is why discussing whether or not Jackson deserved to be fired is completely beside the point.

 

All stats and contract figures courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and HoopsHype.com


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