Ric Bucher Courtside: Winning in the NBA, the Jackson Way

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Ric Bucher Courtside: Winning in the NBA, the Jackson Way
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Phil Jackson has been hired to transform the culture of the New York Knicks from its current state of selfishness, indifference and ineptitude—to instill defensive toughness, offensive unselfishness and an overarching and uncompromised pursuit of excellence.

In other words, he has been assigned to do what another Jackson—Mark, no relation—already has done for $10 million less a year over the last three seasons with the Golden State Warriors.

Don Ryan/Associated Press

Not only that—the Knicks' Jackson will be operating from the exact same damn playbook.

For most, that may be hard to understand. The Knicks' Jackson coached for 20 seasons and has 11 championship rings to show for it. He is regarded as one of the most cerebral coaches in league history, thanks in part for his advocacy of the Triangle Offense and the whiff of advanced physics surrounding it. (Myth.) He has turned down coaching opportunities with more teams (at least a half dozen) than he's actually coached (two).

The Warriors' Jackson, meanwhile, is in his third season, has guided his team no farther than the second round of the playoffs and is regarded, by some, as "The Preacher," in part because he is the actual pastor of a church, in part because he is seen as more of a motivator than a tactician on the bench. It's not said in quite the same lofty tones as "Zen Master," the other Jackson's sobriquet for not hiding his spiritual leanings.

Anyone who has seen both men work with their teams in the heat of battle knows, though, that they both draw upon a combination of understanding the NBA game, the way men who play it think and an unusual ability to inspire a group to pursue a common goal. That, more than anything, shapes them as coaches.

Don't think that their respective spirituality has taken any of their combativeness. Both started out playing in New York for the Knicks, and perhaps it's tangling early with the vaunted Gotham media that conditioned them to alternately chastise reporters or use them to promote an agenda.

Jackson played for and won two championships under Knicks legendary coach Red Holzman, who was selected as one of the top 10 coaches in NBA history in 1996. For what it's worth, Jackson says he adopted his habit of never drawing plays during a game from Holzman, who never did, either. Instead, Phil used his clipboard to write themes such as "Communication" and "Teamwork" to show his team and then offer examples of how that might be applied on the floor.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Warriors' Jackson, meanwhile, has been ridiculed for not drawing plays when he actually makes more calls verbally in timeouts than the other Jackson normally did and offers more explicit instructions on how he wants them executed, which options to be ready to exploit and the proper angles, spacing and timing to make them work. He, just like Holzman and the other Jackson, doesn't believe he needs X's and O's to explain all that.

His pastor side comes out as well, as it did after the first quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers, when he addressed his team, call-and-response cadence and all: "That's how good we are, that we can play that bad and only be down by one. Against a team like that, we play that bad and we're only down by one. That's how good we are."

All that aside, the target on Jackson might make more sense if the Warriors weren't currently on pace to win 51 games, four better than last season. Yet the sniping has increased even as the Warriors close on their second consecutive trip to the playoffs, something the franchise hasn't done for over two decades.

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It bears repeating: The Warriors are about to do something the franchise hasn't done for over two decades. Do you have any idea what kind of morass that stretch of ineptitude creates? Failure and bad habits become ingrained in a franchise's bedrock. Every part of the organization learns to operate around a mediocre product and inferior standards. There are Bay Area fans who have no understanding of what a successful NBA team, coach or franchise looks like—and it's not their fault. They simply never have been exposed to one, unless you count watching one from afar when time and the TV schedule permit.

Both Jacksons believe in giving their players latitude to make decisions on the court and work through rough patches rather than calling a quick timeout to stanch the bleeding; the belief being that, in the long run, it makes for more resilient players capable of pulling themselves together on their own. Phil, however, utilized the guise of the Triangle and the myth that the players correctly reading the defense determined success, thereby leaving him beyond reproach on the occasions when his players couldn't figure it out in time. Mark doesn't have that same cloak and refuses to out his players, so he becomes an easy target.

It's a knee-jerk reaction that amuses his players.

"It's funny to me," says Draymond Green. "I know he's a good coach. I look around the league as far as what he brings and he's working his way right up the ladder."

It would be lunacy to suggest Jackson has lifted the Warriors all by himself or that he hasn't made mistakes. On the latter, he could've been more careful in relaying that he'd been told Andrew Bogut might've hurt his shoulder while sleeping, causing a ruckus that had to be quelled with a team meeting. On the former, owner Joe Lacob set a bar—championship or bust—and, for the most part, has provided the resources to pursue it. GM Bob Myers has deftly put together a nice roster of talent. But they've made their share of missteps as well.

Lacob, in his eagerness to land a big man, used the ultra-valuable amnesty provision to rid himself of Charlie Bell and his $4 million contract so he could pursue free agent Tyson Chandler, who never had any intention of playing in the Bay Area. Lacob and Myers then signed restricted free agent DeAndre Jordan to an offer sheet that the Clippers matched, fortunately since that would've precluded getting Andrew Bogut, a far more well-rounded big man, later. (While basic box-score statistics suggest Jordan is having a better season, deeper analytics as of last weekend have Bogut as the best one-on-one defender in the entire league and his passing and playmaking far exceed anything Jordan does.) And it remains to be seen if the acquisition of Andre Iguodala proves to be worth the price of a four-year, $48 million contract and four draft picks, including two first-rounders.

Top management also provided the grist, unintentionally or otherwise, with which the rumor mill has churned out questions about Jackson's job security. The grist came via interviews in which Lacob expressed disappointment with certain losses and Myers suggested Jackson has been provided all he needs to succeed.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

All that aside, Lacob and Myers have not had as much to do with changing the Warriors' culture as Jackson has. Jackson is the one who has held his players accountable to a level of defense that hasn't been played in the Bay Area in years. Jackson challenged players in a way that led to Stephen Curry being an All-Star starter, Klay Thompson becoming one of the best two-way shooting guards in the game, David Lee becoming more than a double-double machine, Green becoming one of the more versatile substitutes in the league and Bogut becoming a selfless rim protector. The players put in the work, but they will tell you Jackson gave them the direction and the faith that their sacrifices would be rewarded and therefore worth it.

"He demands respect and greatness, but he gives the same," Green says. That, of course, is coming from a second-round pick who has been given more latitude to grow and contribute than most players selected that late ever get. How does Bogut view Jackson, especially after he became incensed upon hearing that his coach supposedly had suggested he sustained a shoulder injury while sleeping?

As a comrade-in-barbs, for one:

"Last year it was me everyone questioned; this year it seems like it's Coach. There are people who sit on a high horse and take potshots at us, and they don't know what's going on from day to day. We cleared up that one misunderstanding right away. It's not even close to the truth that we have issues. I've supported him just like he supported me when I was going through it last year."

As perhaps the ideal coach for this particular group of Warriors, for two.

"He understands the NBA, the ups and downs of it. He knows when to push us and when we need a rest. We have a lot of guys who are laid-back on this team. He's not mf-ing or stomping up and down the court. Maybe that's what some people want, but we're a happy-go-lucky group and we're still young. Yeah, you might get a more disciplinary coach who yells and sits guys down but I don't know how this group would respond to that. You might have people saying then, 'The coach is taking away their confidence.' There are pros and cons to everything. You have to be confident in the process. You can't just become a champion over night."

Not that Jackson is above benching anyone or holding players accountable. It was no accident that Lee, a starter, sat for a stretch of 15 game minutes while the Warriors made their comeback against the Blazers. Lee was matter of fact about why Jackson sat him. "Coach wasn't happy with some of my rotations," he said. "When I got my chance (again), I was ready to go."

Lee set the screen that started the offensive sequence that led to Klay Thompson's game-winning three-pointer.

"I give him credit," Jackson said. "I've seen teams where the starter says, 'Forget you, Coach, I'm not going back out there' or 'I'm giving you half an effort.' He went out there and maybe gave us the biggest play of the game."

The exchange is reminiscent of those the other Jackson had with players in his previous stops, Chicago and Los Angeles. Those that question whether he can have the same success in New York do so because they question his direct involvement. They see his secret as not so much being what he did, but how he did it. How he challenged people. Encouraged them. And, yes, ultimately embraced them.

Call it the way of the Jacksons.

 

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.

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