The Golden State Warriors have improved since last season, but the perception of Mark Jackson as a coach has declined.
This is because, after adding Andre Iguodala and a healthy Andrew Bogut to an already dynamite core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee and Harrison Barnes, being one win better than last year at the All-Star break is not seen as an improvement.
To many, it's seen as a step backwards.
Jackson is the first to point out the inaccuracy of this opinion, as he did during his postgame presser on Feb. 10:
I mean, we are 10 games over .500. Some of you guys haven’t seen that in a long, long time. So keep on acting like you have. We’re going to continue to work our tails off and continue to try to be a good basketball team and celebrate how far we’ve come and how much further we’ve got to go.
Jackson is factually right. The Warriors are well above .500 (31-22) at the All-Star break for the second straight season, something they have not done since 1991-92.
However, the Dubs' coach seems to be contradicting his own message here. He regularly lets it be known that the team is not complacent or satisfied and that a title is the ultimate goal. That's what he means when he talks about "how much further" the team has to go.
If that's the case, then it stands to reason that the media and fans are going to feel the same way.
The Bay Area has not experienced winning basketball in a "long, long time," and everyone is relieved that the Warriors franchise has finally turned things around. But the team's futility was not as ancient as its title drought, which dates back to 1975.
Making a couple of consecutive trips to the playoffs and winning a series or two each year would be nice, but it's not enough to satisfy fans—and not enough for a coach to place himself above heavy pressure and scrutiny.
To a certain extent, Jackson has created this pressure for himself. After a rough first season, he led the 2012-13 Warriors to 47 wins—more than most optimists predicted—and the No. 6 seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
What he did with his young group of unheralded players earned him some dark-horse Coach of the Year buzz, but it was beating the 57-win Denver Nuggets—and outcoaching the actual Coach of the Year in George Karl—that truly established Jackson.
Entering 2013-14, he was widely considered one of the best young coaches in the league, and many expected his team to significantly outperform last year's club after adding Iguodala to the mix.
Considering their 2012-13 performance, improvement would have to mean winning 50-plus games and making the conference finals.
While understandable, these expectations were—and still are—not entirely fair.
Jackson took a team of unknowns and turned it into a team of knowns last season, so flying under the radar was not an option this time around. Rather, after an offseason of Curry hype, Barnes hype and Warriors hype in general, the team entered 2013-14 as one that opponents would circle on their schedule.
Perhaps more importantly, Jackson's club lost its two most important clubhouse presences in Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry. Replacing them with Iguodala and a healthy Bogut is certainly a talent upgrade, but neither player matches Jack or Landry in terms of leadership.
Jackson also lost Mike Malone, widely considered to be the best assistant coach in the NBA. With less leadership, less proficient assistants and a target on his team's back, getting this club to simply match last year's win total at the All-Star break is no easy task.
Those who are calling Jackson's merit as an NBA head coach into question are over the top. Just being able to get guys to play for one another, to buy into a system and to win consistently in the Western Conference takes an average-at-worst coach.
Doing so with a young roster facing never-before-seen expectations takes a coach better than most. Jackson is just that. He is not underperforming, nor is he squandering his talent.
But just as his team will not settle for being pretty good, no one should settle for Jackson reaching the same level.
Just as his franchise player has improved from dangerous scorer to quality point guard to All-Star snub to MVP candidate, Jackson must continue to grow. So far, Curry has lived up to and surpassed the expectations his success has created, and Jackson has no choice but to do the same.
His weaknesses are clear. His rotations leave much to be desired, his offense is far too stagnant far too often and his team struggles to bring the same intensity night in and night out.
Jackson will have a chance this weekend to figure out what adjustments he needs to make for the second half. Fortunately for him, his team's record is good enough that it isn't too late to get to 50 wins and make a serious run at a title.
Even if this doesn't happen, Jackson should not be fired or even placed on the hot seat. He is a good coach who is only in his third season. Much like his third-year shooting guard Thompson, Jackson has far too much ability and potential to be ditched due to his limitations at this early stage of his career.
The Warriors had to sacrifice depth at two key positions, veteran savvy and leadership to add Iguodala last summer. The team will almost certainly upgrade its bench this offseason, and after a year's worth of experience as "the hunted," Golden State will have far fewer excuses to not be significantly better at next season's midway point.
Until then, Jackson should be given a chance to improve and grow. He's earned it.
The first part of that growth is realizing that he, like his team, has expectations to live up to, and it really doesn't matter who created them.
The last thing he should be doing is hinting that he's a a victim of his own success, because success only victimizes those who cannot continue to progress.
All records courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
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