Where there's smoke, there's fire, and right now, there are plumes aplenty billowing between Mark Jackson and the Golden State Warriors.
Perhaps enough to choke out Jackson's future as the head coach in Oakland.
The first puff came on Tuesday, when Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news that Jackson had reassigned assistant coach (and Internet cult hero) Brian Scalabrine to the team's D-League affiliate in Santa Cruz. Jackson added Scalabrine to his staff this past July on a recommendation from Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Jordan Ramirez of WarriorsWorld.net later reported that Scalabrine's demotion likely came as the result of a postgame confrontation with Pete Myers, a Jackson loyalist dating back to their playing days with the New York Knicks. Myers also came to Golden State when Jackson was first hired in 2011.
Deeper Problems in the Bay
That lone dust-up drudged up some other Jackson-centric dysfunction. There was the alleged frostiness between him and former assistant-turned-Sacramento Kings head coach Mike Malone. For what it's worth, both Malone and Jackson have denied the existence of any extended friction between the two when they were colleagues last season and during the one prior.
To hear Tim Kawakami of The San Jose Mercury News tell it, there was some uneasiness between the two, dating back to their first season together. Malone had been a candidate for the same gig that Jackson got and wound up in charge of the team's X's and O's while Jackson devoted his energy to delivering sermons, as any preacher would.
But fellow coaches aren't the only ones within the organization with whom Jackson has apparently had his differences. His relationship with team owner Joe Lacob isn't all rose petals either. Back in February, Lacob tap-danced around unequivocally endorsing the job Jackson had done with a team that, at the time, owned a record of 31-21.
"I do think our coach has done a good job—we have had some big wins, a lot of wins on the road, and that’s usually a sign of good coaching," Lacob told The Mercury News. "But some things are a little disturbing—the lack of being up for some of these games at home, that’s a concern to me."
And who could blame Lacob for being unhappy? He expected his team to contend for a title after the surprising playoff run they enjoyed last spring and the busy summer they put together thereafter. Lacob had pushed general manager Bob Myers to spend money and sacrifice valuable assets to bring in Andre Iguodala via free agency. Anything less than a significant step forward for this squad was bound to draw the ire of the guy signing the checks.
For Jackson, that ire came in the form of the Warriors declining to extend his contract. Instead, the Dubs picked up Jackson's option for the 2014-15 season, thereby nudging him toward lame-duck status.
Jackson didn't bat an eye about it publicly. "There is not a piece of me that's bothered that an extension has not been agreed upon or anything of that nature," Jackson claimed during his weekly radio show on KNBR in the Bay Area (via Bay Area News Group's Diamond Leung). "We move forward. I had the deal. They picked up my option for next year, and I think that obviously speaks volumes even though for some folks it doesn't say anything."
"None of it was true. I'm not going to go any further," Jackson told CSNBayArea.com's Monte Poole. "This is my job and I'm thrilled to death to be the head coach of the Golden State Warriors."
What Really Matters
Of greater concern to Jackson, it seems, is that he has the backing of his players, most notably Stephen Curry. The Warriors' All-Star guard came out in support of his coach the day after word of Scalabrine's move made it to the masses.
"I love coach and everything he’s about," Curry told reporters after practice that day (via Marcus Thompson of The Contra Costa Times). Per Thompson, Curry called on the team's management to consult with him before doing anything drastic with Jackson, be it extending his contract or letting him go.
Not surprisingly, Jackson was appreciative of Curry's support. "Obviously he's a guy that had an opportunity and a platform to show his loyalty, his support for me," Jackson said of Curry during his radio show. "I don't take it for granted, and it's not a surprise because he knows how I feel about him."
At this point, Jackson's regard for Curry is probably as high as it's ever been. Having the face of the franchise in his corner can only solidify Jackson's standing in ownership's eyes and legitimize his leadership in the locker room.
More than anything, Jackson needs Curry to keep performing like a superstar and carrying the Warriors to wins because, when push comes to shove, his future will be determined by the team's on-court results.
Lacob hinted at as much in February.
"I think you’re always evaluating everybody, whether it be the players, the coaches…," Lacob told Tim Kawakami. "It’s hard to know, if you don’t quite win a few games you should, is it the coach’s fault? Is it the players’ fault? It’s hard to say.
"I think we’ll have to look back on a body of work at the end of the season and look at that and make an evaluation."
The lingering questions about Jackson's ability to oversee his staff and foster, as Wojnarowski described it, "a functional work environment" certainly don't help the coach any. But those apparent problems will only matter if they're not accompanied by wins, wins and more wins. Here's Kawakami again:
But really, is this going to be decided by anything other than wins and losses—now and into the playoffs? No. It’s about the results, it should always be about the results, and now that the honeymoon between Jackson and GSW management is officially over, that’s what is has to be about.
The Road to Safety
To that end, Jackson might actually have reason to worry about his job security. His Dubs are currently sitting sixth in the West, just two games (and one victory) ahead of the ninth-place Dallas Mavericks.
Golden State, though, has the easiest remaining schedule of any Western Conference club, per Playoff Status.
That doesn't necessarily portend smooth sailing from here on out for the Warriors. They'll play the Memphis Grizzlies at home on Friday and have road games remaining against the Mavs, the San Antonio Spurs and the Portland Trail Blazers.
Still, with the way Golden State has been playing of late—the team took eight of 10 before losing at home to the Spurs on March 22—Jackson's club should find itself with a seat in the postseason circle once the music stops playing in mid-April. Better yet, if the Warriors make the most of their relatively soft schedule, they should enter the playoffs with 50 or more wins for the first time since Chris Webber's Rookie of the Year campaign in 1993-94.
That's all well and good, but in all likelihood, the powers that be in Oakland aren't going to be satisfied with regular-season success alone. Last year's second-round run raised the stakes for the Warriors. So too did the decision to send four draft picks (including two first-rounders) and three expiring contracts to the Utah Jazz as a means of clearing cap space for Iguodala.
Chances are, the front office believes it gave Jackson the requisite talent to take another leap up the playoff ladder. It's up to the coach, then, to meet those expectations.
Whether that's entirely fair is a different story. Letting Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack, two key members of Golden State's bench last season, walk in free agency didn't help. Neither has the well-intentioned attempt to turn Harrison Barnes into a "super sub;" Barnes has responded by averaging 9.4 points on a paltry 39.3 percent shooting from the field. Iggy's been great when healthy but has missed handfuls of games here and there this season due to various injuries.
Not that those issues will draw any sympathy from ownership if Jackson doesn't navigate this group through the choppy seas of the Western Conference playoffs. That figures to be a tough task, given how loaded the West is this year. If the postseason started today, the Warriors would face the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, with whom they split their season series, before potentially tangling with the Oklahoma City Thunder in Round 2 and the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
There's no guarantee the Warriors won't be "one and done" this time around. Whichever team they face in the first round would be favored, for reasons beyond seeding.
In that event, Jackson's job would probably be in serious jeopardy.
And not without basketball-related reason. According to Basketball Insiders, the Warriors will be at (if not just over) the cap heading into this summer and figure to be similarly strapped the offseason after, assuming they sign Klay Thompson to a hefty extension before the start of the 2014-15 season.
In essence, Golden State could be "stuck" with its current core group until 2016, when David Lee's contract is due to come off the books. It's imperative, then, that the Warriors make sure they have the right coach in place, lest they let this window go to waste.
Or worse, watch their team deteriorate into yet another capped-out catastrophe.
Whatever the future holds, Jackson might not be around to see it if he doesn't make sure the Warriors' present outcomes aren't up to par. According to USA Today's Sam Amick, there's at least one familiar name that figures to cross the Warriors' lips if Jackson's given his walking papers:
As disconcerting as all of this may be for Jackson and the Dubs, drastic changes to the organization appear to be anything but imminent. Winning doesn't cure everything, but it does make back-room drama like that which is brewing at Oracle Arena more than bearable.
So long as Jackson's squad does that much, his job should be safe.
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