For a franchise that's spent most of the last two decades without either, the Golden State Warriors are having a predictably hard time balancing the weights of success and expectations.
The success is unlike anything the Bay Area faithful have seen in some time.
The Warriors have won 46-plus games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1974-77. They have a top-five defense (99.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, fourth) and a top-10 glass presence (51.3 rebounding percentage, eighth). They've moved closer to the Western Conference's No. 5 seed (two games back) than they are to falling out of the playoffs (two-and-a-half games up).
Yet, this season has a disappointing feel to it, if not for the fans than surely for dream-big owner Joe Lacob. Fueled by last season's strong second-round showing and the offseason arrivals of proven vets, like Andre Iguodala and Jermaine O'Neal, the front office has been anxiously awaiting signs of progress. While the winning percentage has increased (.622 up from .573), the conference standing has not (sixth).
So, despite potentially leading the Dubs to consecutive postseasons for the first time since 1991-92, coach Mark Jackson finds himself in a precarious sideline position. External optimism and some apparent internal turmoil has only clouded his already uncertain future.
The Warriors are still new to the national stage but already shouldering make-or-break pressures knowing that their coach may need several of the former to avoid the latter.
Maybe that's a good thing. These players have been steadfast in their support of their embattled coach, but this is their chance to practice what they preach.
If perception is reality, then Jackson has thrown this organization into disarray.
Never mind the rising win total, stone-wall defensive efforts or delayed summer vacations. There's behind-the-scenes mischief allegedly brewing that doesn't seem to have affected the final product, but has caused some concern nevertheless.
It came to light through the reassignment and subsequent D-League demotion of first-year assistant—and longtime NBA folk hero—Brian Scalabrine. Jackson cited a "difference in philosophies" with his assistant, via ESPN.com, but Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski blamed "an increasingly dysfunctional atmosphere" and wrote that Jackson had been having "difficulty with managing his coaching staff and creating a functional work environment."
That dysfunction in the workplace, according to Wojnarowski, wasn't unique to Jackson and Scalabrine. The Warriors coach reportedly feuded with his former assistant, and current Sacramento Kings coach, Michael Malone over the last two seasons, and the two "would go weeks without speaking to each other," sources told Wojnarowski.
The timing of Scalabrine's demotion was troubling.
The Warriors have plans for postseason greatness, but they're still fighting to punch their playoff ticket. Shaking up the coaching tree this late in the game seemed unnecessarily risky.
Some of the follow-up reports were just as unnerving. A picture of Jackson was being painted as a control freak, desperate to keep all the recognition for the team's turnaround for himself.
"League sources say Jackson is very insecure about his assistants getting credit," Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote. "He doesn't allow them to speak on the record to print media."
Sounds pretty bad, doesn't it? Probably a lot worse than it actually is, to be honest.
For one, those reported weeks of silence have been debunked by Malone himself.
"We never went weeks without speaking to each other, and it wasn't just a conversation of, 'Hey, how you doing?'" Malone said, via Antonio Gonzalez of the Associated Press. "We spoke as an assistant coach and a head coach. He hired me to help him, and that's what I did in my two years there."
And Scalabrine's untimely reassignment? Well, it may have been exactly what Jackson said it was—a simple philosophical difference, according to B/R's Ric Bucher.
There's a colorful story angle to follow here, particularly with the fact that Jackson has nothing more than an exercised team option for 2014-15 left on his contract. If he really was this paranoid, credit-hoarding madman, he might be partially justified for hogging the spotlight.
But the truth sounds far less exciting—or threatening—from the people inside this supposedly chaotic locker room.
"We have one of the best locker rooms, in my opinion, in the whole league," David Lee said, via Sam Amick of USA Today. "... The word 'dysfunction' (which has been used in the media to describe the Warriors) is one that we've been laughing about, almost making a joke out of it, like are you serious?"
Jackson does have air to clear with the front office, but that doesn't have to be an in-season issue unless the parties involved allow it to be. The coach and his players can instead focus on addressing the real threat to this team.
As bad as the public skewering of Jackson has been, nothing poses a bigger threat to his future than the team's perplexing penchant to play to its competition.
The Warriors can knock off the league's elites or get knocked out by bottom feeders—and look completely natural in either scenario. They let opponents dictate the style of play, then either rise to the occasion or lower their own standards to keep the contest close.
Slip-ups are unavoidable in an 82-game season, but the Warriors give away too many games to be considered as a full-fledged contender. Not to mention, infuriate their formerly patient fans to no end.
"Few things are as frustrating as underachievement," as Marcus Thompson II of Bay Area News Group put it.
Especially when so many lethargic performances have been held right in front of the home fans. Their 24-13 record at Oracle Arena includes losses to the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Washington Wizards, Charlotte Bobcats, New York Knicks and a San Antonio Spurs team playing without Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or Tim Duncan.
"We certainly own the fact that we have lost some games that we should've won," Jackson said after his team's 89-84 loss to the Knicks Sunday night, via Gonzalez.
They might own it, but they haven't been able to change it. Not even as the stakes have risen down the stretch run.
This problem doesn't rest on Jackson's shoulders alone.
The roster isn't necessarily built for consistency—not with an offensive so dependent on a pair of perimeter gunners (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) finding their rhythm every single night (they average a combined 14.4 three-point attempts per game).
Lacob, however, hasn't blamed the roster makeup. He's seemed to take issue with a lack of intensity and focus, criticisms that pretty openly put the heat directly on the coaches.
"We’ve lost a couple games...four games that we just absolutely should’ve won," Lacob said in mid-February, via Tim Kawakami of Bay Area News Group. "... The team wasn’t ready in those games. I can’t explain it–why we don’t play so consistently at home as we should."
Focus has been an issue.
They've had enough defensive lapses (see: the 41-point second quarter allowed to the Dallas Mavericks Tuesday night) and careless giveaways (15.5 turnovers per 100 possessions, 13th-most in the NBA) to hammer that point home.
But effort is something that they always bring. They attack the floor with a bigger purpose than themselves:
.@jermaineoneal: We’re fighting for ourslvs, we’re fighting for our coach, we’re fighting for our city, we’re fighting for our organization.— Jeff Caplan (@Caplan_NBA) April 2, 2014
The words are great, but seeing them in action is what makes you think this team just might have enough to fight its way out of inconsistent funks.
When Jermaine O'Neal lifts his 35-year-old frame to snare a game-saving block (again), you know you're witnessing a roster fully committed to their coach and his no-excuse philosophy.
The knowledge that the coach might be out of chances in the ownership's eyes, that every win could bring him one step closer to a long-term extension, could have a special impact for this optimistic organization.
If there's some dissension in the front office toward Jackson's future, none of it is shared among the players. They're all in Jackson's camp and open about their position.
"I love coach and everything he's about," Curry said, via Thompson.
"He is a great coach, one of the best I have ever had," Thompson said, via Sean Deveney of Sporting News. "... He instills so much confidence in all of us, I would not want to play for anybody else."
Andre Iguodala said he was drawn to Golden State in free agency because of "the coach and the culture," via Thompson.
This is a team that truly loves their coach. They're literally wearing that emotion on their sleeves:
Now, those emotions need to carry over to the hardwood. Every single night.
Whether he should be held under this gun is moot. The fact is, Jackson's coaching for his job.
No one knows just how high the bar is set, but the owners promised these fans a winner and they're looking to make good on that boastful claim. Jackson has proven he can get this team to relevance, but the brass want to see the next step now.
It has to see it to keep the faith in its coach.
That isn't lost on these players. They know what's expected of them, not just due to Jackson's scrutiny, but also from the money invested in this core and the future draft picks sacrificed to put this team together.
All of this is new to the Warriors: The talent, the plans and even the dreams. But they're welcoming the lofty aspirations of a battle-scarred postseason veteran.
It's Jackson's job to make good on those playoff plans, but he won't be alone in that attempt. He'll have a full complement of players ready and willing to help save the coach that gave them something worth saving.
Unless otherwise specified, statistics used courtesy of NBA.com.