Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson has watched his team go from an overachieving NBA darling to what Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski describes as "an increasingly dysfunctional atmosphere."
The latest hint of turmoil comes as Jackson has demoted assistant coach Brian Scalabrine, with at least one report indicating he's headed to the Warriors' Development League affiliate in Santa Cruz, Calif. But the real takeaway may have less to do with Scalabrine and more to do with just how long Jackson will remain part of Golden State's plans.
On the one hand, any dustup with a national fan favorite like Scalabrine would seem to put Jackson on the wrong side of history.
Who doesn’t like Scalabrine?!— NBA Guru (@NBAGuru) March 25, 2014
More seriously, though, this seems to be symptomatic of deeper problems within the organization—or at least with Jackson's role therein. Wojnarowski cites league sources claiming that "Jackson's difficulty with managing his coaching staff and creating a functional work environment has developed into one of the issues that threatens his future on the job."
Wojnarowski also reports that there are no plans to discuss an extension of Jackson beyond next season, the last of his current contract.
Failure to get the Warriors beyond the first round of the playoffs could conceivably lead to an even earlier departure. Though Golden State's core remains fairly young, make no mistake—this club is in no mood for patience.
This summer's acquisition of 30-year-old Andre Iguodala signaled a clear intent to win now, which seemed a distinct possibility after pushing the San Antonio Spurs to six games in the 2012-13 Western Conference semifinals. It could well be the case that Golden State's finest hour is yet to come, but you wouldn't be able to tell from a regular season in which the Warriors currently have the sixth-best record in the Western Conference.
It hasn't been a lost season by any means, but nor has it been the follow-up most expected.
Jackson's apologists will note that Iguodala has missed a handful of games, but by and large, the Warriors have largely avoided injuries this season. Jackson probably deserves some credit for the Warriors ranking eighth league-wide in points allowed. And it's hard to ignore how successfully he's motivated this team in each of his previous two seasons at the helm.
Should Jackson be canned at season's end?
Much of that praise also has to go to Mike Malone, named by general managers as the league's best assistant coach for 2012-13—the year the Warriors made a significant jump in the standings and gave the Spurs a run for their postseason money. Needless to say, Golden State hasn't made a commensurate jump in his absence this season.
Now Malone is the head coach of the Sacramento Kings, another testament to the extent to which he was viewed as instrumental to the Warriors' success.
From an outsider's perspective, it's hard to say who deserves the lion's share of adulation or—for that matter—criticism. But that's where Wojnarowski's report becomes so telling, going so far as to note "Malone and Jackson would go weeks without speaking to each other a year ago."
In other words, there's a precedent for the present discontent—and the common denominator is Jackson. There are any number of potential explanations based on observation and conjecture alone.
Jackson seems by all accounts to be plenty vocal and strong-willed. He's still a young coach in NBA terms and certainly doesn't have a long history of conflict resolution upon which to draw, at least not as the commander in chief of a coaching staff. Perhaps there's a tension between his perceived need to project authority and the fact that he has precious little capital on which to base that authority.
Perhaps he's just not yet very adept at sharing decision-making.
If his career's worth of assists are any indication, the problem isn't his ability to play well with others. But coaching isn't the same as running the point, even if the skills developed doing the latter often translate well when doing the former.
Some of Jackson's own comments could be construed as hints of what went wrong. When discussing Lawrence Frank's departure from Jason Kidd's staff in Brooklyn, Jackson set an uncompromising tone, per the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy:
There’s no difference of opinions with my staff and I. They give suggestions. Some I go with. Some I don’t. But at the end of the day it’s my decision and we are united in whichever way we decide to go. If you have a problem with that, you should not be my assistant coach. That’s the way I feel about it.
As is often the case, there's no need to ask Jackson how he really feels. It's one thing to convey that kind of absolutism when it's predicated on decades worth of leadership—or even a rock-solid rapport with the assistants at your side.
It's another thing altogether when you're Mark Jackson.
Warriors World's Tim Greene compared Jackson to Vinny Del Negro in February, noting a similarly inflexible disposition, an insistence on doing things by the book and—more to the point—by his book. Even if Del Negro is a little harsh as analogies go, the linkage does seem to be consistent with an emerging pattern.
So too does Scalabrine's reassignment. Whether the Warriors can stomach another season of that trend remains an unsettled question, one that probably won't even begin to be answered until we know more about Golden State's playoff fate.
For now, the front office isn't questioning Jackson's decisions—at least not overtly. It's giving him all the rope he needs to plot his own demise, ensuring that if and when the time for blame emerges, we'll all know where to point the fingers.
It won't be at Brian Scalabrine.