Is All This Criticism of Golden State Warriors' Mark Jackson Deserved?

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Is All This Criticism of Golden State Warriors' Mark Jackson Deserved?
Marcio Jose Sanchez

With their 130-102 stomping of the Utah Jazz on Sunday, the Golden State Warriors eclipsed their win total from last season.

After an impressive 47-win campaign that saw the team return to the playoffs for the first time in six years and second time in 19, the Warriors are on pace to win 51 games this season. If that were to happen, it would be the third-best regular season record in franchise history.

The headlines should be writing themselves. "The Warriors are entering a long-awaited 'golden' era." "NBA's most loyal fans finally have a real reason to 'believe.'"

But instead of these cute, corny, yet perfectly-fitting headlines, we're seeing "Mark Jackson: Job Depends on Wins," (via The Associated Press) "Will Unstable Coaching Situation Impact Warriors Playoff Chemistry?," (via Bleacher Report) and "Why Isn't the Golden State Warriors' Offense Better With All That Firepower?" (via Bleacher Report).

Huh? How did we get here? Why is the biggest story surrounding this team the job security of the coach when that coach should be a lock to be a top-10 (and probably between top 5-7) Coach of the Year candidate for the second straight season?

 

Some Facts About the 2013-14 Warriors

Jackson's Warriors are on pace to improve on last season's win total by four games. That would tie with the Indiana Pacers for the third-best improvement among teams that had winning records last year.

The two teams ahead of Golden State on that list are the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. One of those teams has the best coach in the NBA, while the other added the top free-agency prize of the offseason.

The Warriors also added a big free agent in Andre Iguodala, but they lost Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry—easily the best one-two bench combination in the league last season. Jackson has made the addition of Iguodala and the subtraction of Jack and Landry combine to equal a positive, as the team's record with a healthy Iguodala is 41-20 (projects to 55-27).

Marcio Jose Sanchez

Considering that Iguodala's preseason projection of 50-plus wins was seen as lofty, a 55-win pace with Iguodala healthy—and a 51-win pace overall despite the 16 games he's missed—should be seen as anything but disappointing.

And it's not as if Iguodala is the only Warriors player to miss significant time this season. The Warriors are fourth in the NBA in man games lost. Besides Iguodala, the team has been without David Lee for 11 games, Andrew Bogut for 13, Jermaine O'Neal for 36 and Festus Ezeli for the entire season. 

They've lost 126 man games from the center position, 16 more from the all-world defender Iguodala and still rank No. 3 in the NBA in defensive rating, which is rather remarkable. The fact they've improved on last season's record despite facing more injuries to more key players while having a weaker bench to fill the void is even more impressive.

Jackson has not only been given limited credit for this accomplishment; it's almost as if he's been blamed for the challenge existing in the first place.

 

The Bob Myers Factor

Paul Sakuma

An unsettling wrinkle in the Jackson drama: Why has 90 percent of the blame for Golden State's "underachieving" (let's pretend that's what going on) been placed on Jackson while the other 10 percent has been placed on the players?

Why hasn't a significant amount of this blame that shouldn't exist in the first place—but does, unfortunately—been placed on general manager Bob Myers?

It was Myers who decided to sign Iguodala and let the Warriors' two super-subs walk in free agency. It was Myers who signed the injury-prone O'Neal to fill in for the injured Ezeli. It was Myers who attempted to fill Landry's void with the disappointing Marreese Speights (and gave him a three-year contract) and attempted to fill Jack's spot with Toney Douglas (whom he traded two months into the season).

It was Myers who traded for Jordan Crawford in the hopes he would rectify the team's backup point guard troubles, only to quickly learn he really is not a point guard. It was also Myers who was forced to trade for Steve Blake, a move that may end up putting the Warriors over the luxury tax and hurt the team's financial flexibility going forward.

Again, no one should be blamed for the Warriors' failures this season, because they haven't failed at all. But given the fact the blame does exist, why it is not directed at Myers is a mystery.

An even greater mystery is why Myers' mediocre personnel decisions over the past year are weirdly being attributed to Jackson.

 

Jackson's Biggest Criticisms

Big-picture stuff aside, there are four specific criticisms that Jackson has faced this season.

 

1. "He is not an X's and O's coach."

Jackson has a reputation as a motivator, and there's good reason for it. A pastor as well as an NBA coach, Jackson has a tremendous verbal gift. He is able to use his words and his voice to ingrain confidence into his team, which explains why they "overachieved" in the eyes of many last year.

Darron Cummings

Now that the expectations have been set, Jackson's motivational abilities are being taken for granted while the flip side of this, which is his lack of X's and O's expertise, has come under fire. Besides this being a "grass is always greener" argument—an X's and O's coach would be equally criticized for not being a motivator—it is also not true.

Bleacher Report's own Ric Bucher detailed this in an article he wrote in March, in which he compared Mark Jackson's style to that of Phil Jackson:

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.

Backing up Bucher's perspective here is the fact Jackson has the NBA's No. 11 offense and No. 3 defense.

He also out-X'd and O'd a renowned X's and O's coach in George Karl last postseason, even though it was Jackson's first and Karl's 22nd time coaching playoff basketball.

 

2. "His offense is not as good as it should be."

With a backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, along with the presence of David Lee at power forward, there is a belief Golden State should have an elite offense.

Where this belief comes from is unclear. The last time the Warriors had an elite offense (anything inside the top eight) was 2007-08, when the team's offensive rating was No. 4 in the league. Of course, Don Nelson was the coach then, meaning that offense was really the team's sole focus. Defensively, they were No. 23 in the league.

More importantly, two elite shooters and one very good scoring big man does not make an automatic offensive machine. Andrew Bogut is a very limited offensive player, and his high efficiency (62.8 field-goal percentage) is canceled out by his awful free-throw shooting (34.4 percent).

Iguodala is a good offensive player, but a strained hamstring has limited him almost all season long. He is choosing to use most of his energy on defense, an excellent decision considering the skills of Curry, Thompson and Lee offensively.

John Storey

The team's top bench player, Draymond Green, is an offensive liability. He cannot shoot well from anywhere on the floor, he sets a ton of moving screens and is too small to post up while too slow to slash.

The only quality offensive players off the bench entering the season—Harrison Barnes and O'Neal—are one-dimensional scorers. It wasn't until the Blake acquisition in late February that the bench unit had a distributor.

The Warriors roster also features only six holdovers from last season, meaning the offense was bound to take time to jell this season. 

Given all of that, along with the aforementioned injury problems, the Warriors still have the NBA's No. 11 offense. This should not be seen as disappointing.

And while an offensive genius could certainly use the talent of the Splash Brothers and Lee to construct a top-eight offense, the team's elite defense would take a step backward.

That is perhaps the biggest problem with criticizing Jackson's offense. How many coaches in the league are capable of orchestrating elite (top eight) offenses and defenses simultaneously?

This season, only Doc Rivers, Gregg Popovich and Scott Brooks have been able to pull off the feat, and all three of those coaches have superior personnel to Jackson.

 

3. "He doesn't develop young players well."

Entering the season, Barnes was expected to break out. Instead, he has taken a step back. And this—like everything else that does not go perfectly well with this team—has been blamed on Jackson.

This can quickly and convincingly be dismissed by looking at every other young player on Golden State's roster.

When Jackson took over, Curry was an elite shooter, limited playmaker and questionable option as a franchise point guard. He has shown tremendous growth since the coach's arrival, and is now a top-three point guard and top-10 player in the association.

Jackson's three years in Oakland have coincided with Thompson's three years in the NBA, and he has turned Thompson—the No. 11 pick of the 2011 NBA Draft—into the No. 2 player from that class.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Barnes' draft peers, Ezeli and Green, would go 10 and 25 spots higher, respectively, if the draft was redone. 

Of course, the development of all those guys is not credited to Jackson; it is credited to their strong character. Yet, Barnes' weak character is not blamed as much as Jackson's inability to "get the most" out of his talent.

Of all of Jackson's criticisms, this one is the most inaccurate and frustrating. However, it is not as worrisome as the next one, which seems to be the driving force behind his seat becoming as hot as it has.

 

4. "His team has dropped too many winnable home games."

First of all, this can be looked at in the same way as the first three critiques can.

Jackson's X's and O's cannot be criticized if his motivational skills are not equally praised. Jackson's offense cannot be questioned if his defense is not affirmed. Barnes' lack of development should not be blamed on Jackson if he is not credited with the development of Curry, Thompson, Green and Ezeli.

The Warriors' home record cannot be seen as an area of concern if the team's road record is being taken for granted.

That road record, by the way, is 22-16. That's the third-best mark in the entire league. If the home record of 26-13 is slightly disappointing, then that road record is a massive achievement.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

It is absolutely dumbfounding owner Joe Lacob would say the things he said back on February 11, which not only show his ignorance about basketball, but are also largely responsible for starting all of the unrest and questions being thrown around about Jackson.

Lacob, as quoted by Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News:

... we have not played as well as we need to play. We’ve been very inconsistent at home. The road’s been fine.

But at home we’ve lost a couple games–to Minnesota and to San Antonio when they played their scrubs, if you remember… and Denver and Charlotte. Maybe another, four games that we just absolutely should’ve won.

We didn’t. And I’m not sure why.

...

If we had (won those games), that’s the difference between really being let’s say 35-17 and being 31-21 now. We could be tied essentially with the Clippers for fourth.

...

... we’ve squandered some home games. So my answer to your question overall: I’m a little disappointed.

This skewed analysis from the owner—the man with power over everyone's job within the organization—is incredibly disturbing. The NBA's ninth-best home record is classified as "very inconsistent" while the third-best road record is "fine."

Losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves, the San Antonio Spurs' "scrubs," Denver Nuggets and Charlotte Bobcats leaves him "disappointed," but the Miami Heat's home losses to the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Denver and Brooklyn Nets (twice) are nothing to get worked up about?

Lacob did not actually speak on Miami, but the point is that every team—including teams with far more experience and far more talent than Golden State—loses several winnable home games each season. 

Erik Spoelstra, however, is not on the hot seat.

 

The Nightmare Scenario

Let's say Golden State ends the season 51-31, faces the Los Angeles Clippers in Round 1 and loses a hard-fought seven-game series without David Lee.

After the season, Lacob fires Jackson.

He says he fired Jackson, because in his third season coaching a team that was growing, learning to play together and learning to handle expectations, they lost a few winnable home games in January.

Sure, Jackson changed the culture after two decades of losing, had a strong playoff record despite not having his All-Star power forward healthy either season and had a young core who was committed to him, including a young superstar who publicly endorsed him and wanted to play his entire career in Oakland largely due to the culture Jackson created, but that home loss to Charlotte on Feb. 4—they just had to let him go.

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

If this sounds absurd, then so should all of the criticism surrounding Jackson right now. Because while Lacob never said and likely never will say those exact words, that kind of logic is essentially the basis for this entire situation.

The only good reason to even think about firing Jackson would be if his replacement was going to be a clear upgrade. The question is: Who would qualify as a clear upgrade?

In three seasons as an NBA coach, assuming projections hold true, Jackson will have had two teams in the playoffs (the two years he was given a non-decimated tanking roster), a record of 98-66 in those two years, at least one playoff series win over an established NBA coach and at least one honorable battle against an all-time great.

Obviously, no rookie coaches could be considered an upgrade, as success for, say Steve Kerr, would simply mean matching or coming close to what Jackson has done.

Experienced coaches such as Karl, Jeff Van Gundy, Lionel Hollins and others would have to be considered downgrades, since Jackson's success rate is equal to or better than that of any veteran coach out of a job right now, while his potential is higher.

That's a key factor here: potential. If the Warriors ultimate goal is to win a championship, then they need a championship-level coach.

Sorry, Mr. Lacob, but Rick Carlisle is not walking through that door. Pat Riley is not walking through that door. Red Auerbach is most definitely not walking through that door.

The closest the Warriors can get to adding a championship-level coach is the same as how close they can get to adding a championship-level superstar: Stick with what you have and hope it works out.

Curry is no more proven as a player who can lead a team all the way than Jackson is as a coach who can do the same. But while Curry is universally acclaimed as the franchise player, a rare talent that Golden State cannot let get away, Jackson is somehow seen as replaceable.

Even though all of the success Curry has "led" the Warriors to has come under Jackson's guidance.

So go ahead, continue to criticize Jackson. Continue to ignore everything that makes him a high-quality coach and leader. Continue to blow his flaws out of proportion. Continue to act like the Warriors should be the No. 2 seed despite the No. 6 roster. Continue to strangely act as if Jackson assumes Myers' identity whenever Myers makes a bad move. 

Continue to believe Jackson is not the right man for this job. All I ask is that while you're at it, please demand Curry be traded as well.

Because if the goal is to revert to the ways of Warriors teams past—building up something special and then destroying it immediately—we may as well go all out. No reason to half-ass it.

 

 

Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, NBA.com, and ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.

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