Is Golden State Warriors Head Coach Mark Jackson's Fate Already Sealed?

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Is Golden State Warriors Head Coach Mark Jackson's Fate Already Sealed?
USA Today

At this point, the questions are many.

Will Mark Jackson return to coach the Warriors in 2014-15? Do owner Joe Lacob and the team’s front office want Jackson back next season? And even if they do want Jackson back, who says he even wants to be in Golden State anymore?

Perhaps the most intriguing question of all, though: How have Jackson and Lacob managed to make themselves and Jackson’s future the center of attention rather than the team that is enjoying one of the most successful two-year runs in the history of the franchise?

To answer that, you have to go back to the day Lacob hired Jackson.

At the introductory press conference to announce Jackson as coach (June 6, 2011), it also came out that Michael Malone would be his top assistant. But the sense that fans and media got that day was that Malone was no ordinary assistant; he was far more.

“Yes, he (Malone) was my second favorite candidate,” Lacob acknowledged to a group of reporters afterward. “Definitely. Without question.”

Lacob would also say: “I had to have both (Jackson and Malone).”

You could argue that the seeds of all this current uncertainty and doubt about Jackson were sown that day. He was never going to feel safe and secure. Or simply, that Jackson and Lacob, a pair of guys high on ego and self-assurance, were bound to get here at some point.

Not only would the working relationship between Jackson and Malone be unusual and challenging, it would all play out against a relentless and sensitive narrative that Jackson was the motivator and Malone the strategist. And how could you draw any other conclusion?

Jackson, after all, had no coaching experience and was going from TV analyst to the sidelines. Malone already had 10 years in as an assistant coach by then, including being the top guy on Mike Brown’s staff during the Cavaliers’ run with LeBron James.

That perception bothered Jackson from the get-go. Now it seems to be bothering Lacob and a segment of fans.

In Jackson’s first season, one in which the Warriors traded Monta Ellis for an injured Andrew Bogut en route to a 23-43 record, a story appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle characterizing Malone as doing much of the actual coaching and Jackson being more message-giver.

The story was accompanied by a photo of Malone, holding Sharpie and clipboard, instructing the team during a timeout.

According to several people, the story bothered Jackson enough for him to seek out a meeting with the writer, who was not one of the usual media members covering the team. The meeting never took place [clarification: Jackson did in fact meet with the writer of the story, Vic Tafur. Mark Jackson accused Tafur of having an agenda, but the meeting was civil, according to Tafur]. but Jackson shared with many around him his disappointment with the story, how he was portrayed in it and how he was hurt by it.

Jackson’s sensitivity and defensiveness about his coaching ability has been a constant during his Warriors tenure.

Plenty of times during the course of talking rotations, playing time and X’s and O’s, Jackson will throw in that he might not be entirely correct about something because he’s “just a motivator,” a clear reference to the understood perception.

Yet at the same time, television cameras routinely caught Malone diagramming plays in the huddle—while Jackson watched—at critical junctures of games while Malone was on staff.

Jackson also has been known to trumpet his own horn a little bit, which feeds into the idea that he feels maligned and under-appreciated in Golden State.

After a February victory against the Philadelphia 76ers, Jackson took the opportunity to strike down those who believed the Warriors weren’t having a good year, saying: “We are 10 games over .500. Some of you guys haven’t seen that in a long, long time. So keep acting like you have.”

That barb was borne out of a misunderstanding/disagreement between Jackson and center Andrew Bogut that turned into a mini brouhaha. Jackson chided the media to stop “twisting my words” and he went out of his way to proclaim: “Understand this also: You will never see a problem in my locker room. You will not see a problem in my locker room, with my group.”

Jackson’s indignation was considered an overreaction by many, and further fueled the notion that the coach had been feeling pressure about his job performance. After all, there were no claims out there that Jackson had lost the locker room.

Last week, Yahoo Sports reported that Jackson forced the demotion of assistant coach Brian Scalabrine, and it also included that Jackson and Malone had gone weeks at a time without speaking during Malone’s two years as an assistant.

Jackson was also said to be sniffing around for some other jobs, according to the report. Then again, how unusual is that for a coach who’s gotten no assurances?

All of this has given the impression of disharmony, and Lacob finds himself right in the middle of it along with Jackson. General manager Bob Myers has been mostly a bystander through it all, not surprising when you’re working between two men with strong personalities and not afraid to share them.

Shortly after Jackson’s “10-games-over” rant, Lacob added to the muck by telling the Mercury News that “some things are a little disturbing” about the Warriors’ play and season. Lacob criticized the Warriors’ lack of readiness at the start of games and their inconsistency at home, among other things.

It was not a ringing endorsement of Jackson even though he had his team smack-dab in the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture. But expectations are working against Jackson.

The Warriors finished sixth in the Western Conference last season, but knocked off the Denver Nuggets in the first round. From there, they gave the Spurs a heap of trouble in the Western Conference semis, and the next thing you know, an apparent juggernaut had arrived.

If not then, certainly a few months later when the Warriors acquired Andre Iguodala in a trade.

Eric Risberg

The Warriors already had a star in the making in Stephen Curry and an All-Star in David Lee. Bogut gave them a big slice of nasty and the futures of Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes looked bright. Yes, it was all coming together for the Warriors, and people were feeling it.

Particularly Lacob, who as a hands-on owner takes an overwhelming pride in the formulation of the roster. In the wake of the Iguodala acquisition, Lacob made certain everyone knew he thought he’d put together a darn good team, and he said the Warriors should be among the top four teams in the West.

The fans and media were on-board, too. If you don’t believe it, Google “Golden State Warriors” and “Championship contender” and check out how many stories you see.

What wasn’t being written around this time was that Jackson and the Warriors were talking contract, but they were hardly agreeing. Jackson was guaranteed through 2013-14 and had a team option for 14-15.

Jackson wanted a flat-out extension this past summer, understandable in light of the Warriors’ terrific season in 2012-13. But the Warriors only picked up Jackson’s option for next season, virtually ensuring this season of doubt and speculation.

It was the second offseason in a row where Jackson and the front office had an issue to deal with. In June 2012, it was revealed that Jackson was the target of an extortion related to an extramarital affair he had had six years before.

It was an embarrassing time for Jackson, a pastor, and Lacob, and it’s hard to believe their relationship didn’t change some at that time.

At the heart of the uncertainty is the difference of opinion about the kind of season the Warriors are having. They’re 45-28 and trending toward their first 50-win season since 1993-94.

You don’t think these are heady times for the Warriors? Well, they’ve now won 45 games in consecutive seasons for the first time since winning 45 in three straight years from 1974-77. But the trumped-up expectations have helped create a fanbase with a wide range of opinions on Jackson.

Many think he’s doing perfectly fine, but there is another segment of fansand it may be Lacob’s sentiment, too—who believe another coach could get this team to another level.

But Curry, Thompson, Lee and Draymond Green have flourished under Jackson, and the Warriors have struck a nice balance of exciting offense and an improved, scrappy defense. Most would consider the Warriors a very dangerous first-round opponent.

But Lacob and Co. want more. In the February interview with the Mercury News, Lacob talked about “four or five games” that the Warriors had lost to what he considered inferior opponents and how that was the difference between being alongside the Clippers in the standings.

Lacob undoubtedly meant losses at Oracle to teams such as Charlotte, Washington, Cleveland and Denver. You have to throw Sunday night’s loss to the Knicks in there now, too.

The assumption must be then that Lacob believes this team should be elite. But is that fair? The Warriors are just two years removed from “tanking,” some would say. In March 2012, the Warriors traded Monta Ellis for an injured Andrew Bogut with the team on the periphery of the playoff race.

That led to a 5-22 finish and a trip to the lottery. From there it’s been nothing short of up, a brief, but nonetheless historic run for the franchise. When you look at it that way, it seems crazy to think that the Warriors and Jackson could part ways at the end of the season. And it’s easy to see how Jackson might feel unsupported and under-appreciated.

Jackson’s critics question his late-game strategy, his ability to identify the best lineups/matchups and his bent toward isolation rather than uptempo. They’ll acknowledge the Warriors have come very far in a very short period of time, but they’ll also maintain that right here and right now they should be competing with the Miami’s, Indiana’s, San Antonio’s and Oklahoma City’s of the NBA.

So, what does Jackson have to do to return next year? Just getting to the playoffs again might not do it. Do the Warriors have to win a round in the postseason? Must they reach the conference finals? Some believe the decision already has been made, by one or the other.

If Lacob is overly dissecting Jackson as a tactician, he probably feels like he has a reason. According to several sources, Lacob and the front office pushed Jackson hard to hire an experienced No. 1 assistant, with an emphasis on X’s and O’s, after Malone became the Kings’ head coach in June.

But Jackson, who had made a point when he was hired to say he expected all of his assistants to aspire to be head coaches, only wanted to bump remaining assistants up in the pecking order.

In the end, ownership/management relented and allowed Jackson to control his staff. He bumped up Myers and Darren Erman, neither of whom fit the description of veteran, tactical, X-and-O guy. Is it any wonder then that Jackson’s late-game decisions and the team’s 2011-12 record in games decided by four or fewer are getting attention?

Management showed the same kind of support following the Scalabrine-Myers dust-up, allowing Jackson to banish Scalabrine.

Those wanting to believe all is well with the Warriors cite Scalabrine’s demotion as proof that Lacob still has Jackson’s back. A more cynical observer would note that Lacob still kept Scalabrine in the organization.

Through all of this, though, it is undeniable that the Warriors are playing hard for Jackson and that he still has the team’s support.

Veteran Jermaine O’Neal said over the weekend that it was “ridiculous” and “unfair” to even be talking about Jackson’s status right now. Curry, the unquestioned face of the franchise, made his feelings clear midweek when he said the players “back (Jackson) 100 percent.”

More important, though, is whether Lacob backs Jackson.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from this article were obtained firsthand.

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