To say that Mark Jackson's third go-round with the Golden State Warriors hasn't gone according to plan is to understate the turmoil that's been bubbling up in the East Bay this season.
There was Jackson's decision to demote assistant coach Brian Scalabrine to the NBA D-League. That, in turn, gave Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski an opening to expose the fractious relationship between Jackson, his staff and the Warriors' brass. Earlier this week, the Warriors made another surprising change when they fired another assistant, Darren Erman, for "a violation of company policy."
These surprising shakeups would appear to have put Jackson's job in jeopardy. So, too, would Golden State's lack of progress on its home court (26-13 this season, 28-13 last season) and, more importantly, team owner Joe Lacob's decision not to extend Jackson's contract last summer.
Jackson, though, isn't overly concerned about the apparent chaos.
He told ESPN.com:
This is not the norm. That's OK because really in both decisions, the right decisions were made. You move forward. To me, I think it's a great time for us as a team and an organization. To still be standing, this isn't new. It's new to you guys. It's not new to us. So to still be standing, still winning and still in our right minds says a lot about this culture.
That culture is but one of the many reasons the Warriors would do well to keep Jackson around, rather than let him float around like a lame duck ahead of the 2014-15 season—the last of his current contract with the Dubs.
By all accounts, Jackson's players love him and are unified in their support of him. Stephen Curry, the franchise's most important player, also happens to be Jackson's most vocal defender.
“I love coach and everything he’s about," Curry told reporters in late March, just after the Scalabrine controversy blew up, via the Bay Area News Group's Marcus Thompson.
That endorsement means everything for an embattled coach like Jackson. In a league run more and more by the superstars who make the game worth watching, having the support of the resident franchise cornerstone is crucial to a coach's success, especially when times get tough. For Jackson, having Curry in his corner could boost the coach's job security.
Assuming that Curry is, indeed, as keen to have management consult him on matters pertaining to Jackson's status, as he reportedly told the Bay Area News Group.
Curry may be the most important supporter Jackson could ask for in his locker room, but he's hardly the only one. David Lee, a two-time All-Star, has as much faith in Jackson's leadership as does anyone in Oakland.
"We trust Coach Jackson," Lee told USA Today's Sam Amick. "We trust each other as teammates. There's not a whole lot else you can worry about. Our chemistry is great. I think that we have a chance to do special things this year, so I'm just not going to let this bother me. We believe in Coach."
But no Warrior has been quite as laudatory of Jackson in public as has Jermaine O'Neal. The 35-year-old big man's gone so far as to credit Jackson with inspiring him to put off retirement.
"The No. 1 reason that I will come back and play another year is because of Coach Jackson," O'Neal told the San Jose Mercury News' Diamond Leung. "I'm absolutely, 100 percent positive about that. He makes it easy to come in this gym every day, and there's not a lot of coaches that do that."
O'Neal went on to cite the biggest reason for the players' support of Jackson: the success they've enjoyed during his tenure.
Jackson guided Curry and Co. to the second round of the playoffs last spring, in the franchise's first postseason appearance since the "We Believe" Warriors stormed past the Dallas Mavericks in 2007. For all of his flaws as a coach, Jackson has the Dubs on track to not only hit the 50-win mark for the first time since Chris Webber's rookie campaign 20 years ago, but also partake in the NBA's Big Dance in consecutive years for the first time since the tail end of the "Run TMC" era in 1991 and 1992.
Not bad for a guy whose body of work as a coach extends only as far back as does his tenure in Golden State.
You Should, Too
If nothing else, the Warriors would be wise to hold onto Jackson. He's an up-and-coming but occasionally abrasive coach who's already proficient at what he does and could excel in his role with added experience.
Surely, some of the concerns about Jackson are legitimate. For one, his problems with managing his coaching staff aren't new. According to the Yahoo Sports report, Jackson went weeks without speaking to former assistant and current Sacramento Kings head coach Mike Malone last season, when Malone was still on Jackson's staff.
Strategically speaking, Jackson has some work to do, too. He's done wonderfully to transform the Warriors into one of the NBA's best rebounding and defensive outfits.
Offensively, though, Jackson's old-school approach may be doing his team harm. In a league dominated by ball movement, particularly in the pick-and-roll, Jackson's Warriors have been all too reliant on isolation play and post-ups to exploit mismatches. Per Synergy Sports (subscription required), Golden State finishes slightly more of its possessions via iso or post-up (21.4 percent) than it does in the pick-and-roll (20.8 percent).
That approach occasionally comes at the expense of what the Dubs do best: Get Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson open and let them shoot.
But much of the criticism concerning Jackson's offensive tactics is overblown. According to NBA.com, the Warriors rank 11th in offensive efficiency (105.1 points per 100 possessions) and 10th in assist percentage (.593).
Surprisingly enough, those indicators would suggest that the Dubs have actually improved offensively. Last season, Golden State scored 104.2 points per 100 possessions (10th in the NBA) and registered assists on 58.9 percent of its field goals (20th).
Should the Warriors ignore those results and decide to part ways with Jackson, their search for a replacement may well begin with Steve Kerr. According to USA Today's Sam Amick, team owner Lacob has "a great affinity" for Kerr, whose five NBA championships and sage voice on TNT broadcasts evidently carry plenty of weight. Kerr, too, has made no secret of his desire to coach.
But Kerr, like Jackson back in 2011, doesn't have any prior coaching experience. Kerr's work as the GM of the Phoenix Suns is noteworthy, but the Warriors already have former agent Bob Myers serving in that role.
And, well, the Warriors wouldn't likely be the only ones bidding for Kerr's services if it came to that. He was the first person mentioned as a successor to New York Knicks head coach Mike Woodson when word surfaced of Phil Jackson's return to Madison Square Garden.
Kerr's name is far from the only one that would populate whatever list of prospective hires Golden State has in mind. At present, the market is practically inundated with experienced, highly qualified coaching candidates, from George Karl and Lionel Hollins to Doug Collins, Vinny Del Negro and the Van Gundy brothers.
Karl would seem the snuggest fit of that bunch, at least on the surface. He's coached the Warriors before, during a two-year stint that began with a playoff appearance in 1987 and ended after a 62-loss season in 1988.
That spell in the Bay Area was but a blip on Karl's impressive coaching resume. He's been party to the sixth-most regular-season wins in NBA history (1,131) and the ninth most in the postseason (80). In Karl's 25 years as a head coach in the Association, his teams have missed the playoffs just three times.
The clientele that Karl's coached therein is worth noting, too. He's mentored great point guards (Gary Payton) and historic sharpshooters (Ray Allen), just as he would with Curry and Klay Thompson, respectively. Like Jackson with the Warriors, Karl parlayed the addition of Andre Iguodala into vast, team-wide improvement on the defensive end for the Denver Nuggets.
And, like Jackson, Karl wound up on the hot seat, even with his obvious successes—not the least of which was earning Coach of the Year honors in 2012-13.
Which, as it happens, might not be enough to gloss over other concerns from his C.V. If a first-round ouster is enough to cost Jackson his job, hiring Karl would hardly be the best move for the Warriors. Karl's Nuggets escaped the first round just once during his nine seasons in the Mile High City.
Golden State may approve of Karl's penchant for transition basketball, especially in light of the team's offensive regression amid endless isolation basketball under Jackson's auspices. But Karl's squads have rarely played the sort of smothering defense that Lacob championed when he took over the team in 2010.
Moreover, Karl, a 62-year-old cancer survivor, probably isn't the best bet to stick around long term were he to succeed. And though Karl hasn't been shy to share his opinions on a number of NBA-related topics this season—from J.R. Smith's struggles and Carmelo Anthony's fitness for championship contention to Phil Jackson's future with the New York Knicks and Tim Duncan's potential retirement—he's yet to say publicly that he's eager to get back into coaching.
The Other TV Retreads
The same goes for Doug Collins, who, like Karl, is 62, currently works for ESPN and cut off his coaching career—albeit on his own terms, at least publicly—after last season.
Collins is known as a "rah-rah" coach of sorts, not entirely unlike Jackson. He tends to bond with his players on an emotional level, though his act has worn thin rather quickly at every one of his coaching stops.
As it stands, Collins is plenty busy serving in an advisory role with the Philadelphia 76ers, with whom he spent his entire pro playing career and for whom he coached until his resignation last summer.
Chances are, though, Karl and Collins would be easier to pull out of their TV gigs than would, say, Jeff or Stan Van Gundy.
They've been out of the coaching game for longer than have Karl and Collins. Jeff last stalked the sidelines for the Houston Rockets in 2007. Stan ditched his gig with the Orlando Magic in 2012, after the prospect of a post-Dwight Howard rebuild came into focus.
Either would gladly abide by Golden State's defense-first philosophy. Both plied their trade under legendary coach Pat Riley—Jeff with the New York Knicks, Stan with the Miami Heat. Each has gone on to "spawn" defensive proteges, as well. Jeff worked closely with the Chicago Bulls' Tom Thibodeau for over a decade, and both have employed Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford in the past.
Whether either brother's outspoken nature would deter a team like the Warriors is unclear. But if Golden State is at all uneasy about Jackson's stern communicative style and willingness to gab to the press, it won't find much sedative in that of either Van Gundy.
Not to mention how awkward it would be for Jeff to replace a player, in Jackson, whom he once coached in New York.
The worst-case scenario for the Warriors? Fall back on Vinny Del Negro. He had the privilege of coaching great point guards (Derrick Rose, Chris Paul) in the playoffs but was fired from each of his previous posts amid concerns about his ability to set rotations, manage late-game situations and command the respect of an NBA locker room.
Or the Dubs could once again appeal to a lesser-known quantity, this time from among the assistant coaching ranks. That would've been much easier to swing last year, before the Sacramento Kings poached Mike Malone, another Lacob favorite, from Jackson's staff.
Mr. Hollins' Opus
In truth, if the Warriors were to opt for a "retread," they'd probably do best to bring in Lionel Hollins.
For one, he clearly wants to get back into coaching. "I miss coaching," Hollins recently told the Portland Tribune's Kerry Eggers. "What I miss is the teaching ... the development of the team and the players. ... the players working together and watching them grasp it mentally, and then have them go out and do it physically."
Physicality is a big part of what Hollins asks of his players. He's an old-school coach, one who prizes defense, rebounding and toughness above all else. To that end, a transition from Jackson's voice to Hollins' might be smoother than most for Golden State. At the very least, Hollins' philosophy would jibe with that of the Warriors' brass.
Hollins, too, has a 10-year NBA playing career on which he can lean. But, unlike Jackson, Hollins can capture the attention of his players with a championship ring of his own: The one he won as a member of the 1976-77 Portland Trail Blazers.
More importantly, Hollins sports the sort of prior experience that Jackson still lacks. Hollins' tenure with the Memphis Grizzlies spanned three stints, including one when the team was in Vancouver. In his seven seasons as the Grizzlies head honcho, Hollins won 214 regular-season games and guided his team to three playoff appearances, including a trip to the Western Conference Finals last spring.
Hiring Hollins wouldn't be a worry-free prospect for the Warriors—or for any team, for that matter. He and the Memphis Grizzlies parted ways after last season on account of discord between coach and management. Hollins' more conventional approach clashed with the new-age, more analytics-driven regime that swept in when tech billionaire Robert Pera bought the team from Michael Heisley in 2012.
Would a similar tiff be in store for Hollins in Golden State? The Warriors have already had their fair share of issues with Jackson, whose stubbornness and trust in traditional tactics are similar to Hollins' and have already landed him in hot water by the Bay.
Safe and Smart
Still, if winning now really is of the highest priority for the Warriors, the worst thing they could do is fire Jackson and spend the summer searching for his replacement. Bringing in a new coach would likely require the institution of a new system and the usual period of adjustment that comes with introducing a new voice to the mix.
All of which carries with it the inherent risk of team-wide regression and, perhaps, rebellion, if Jackson's rapport with his players is as strong as it's been reported to be.
O'Neal, an 18-year veteran, is well aware of how fragile a winning ecosystem can be—and how important it is to preserve it when an organization has cultivated one.
"Here's the facts. To everybody that's negative out there, you may not ever see this again," O'Neal added. "I know that firsthand because I've been in the position. It may take 10 years to be back in that position, so do you want to accept us with open arms and continue to show the support?"
Jackson may no longer be the darling of the team's impatient ownership, but he's well in control of the locker room already. He can pick up the finer points of coaching and relating to management in time, but only if Golden State's brass affords him the proper patience to do so.
Of course, the success of first-year coaches in L.A., Phoenix, Memphis and Brooklyn doesn't make Jackson's case any easier. The Nets' climb out of their early-season chasm, though, could put the Dubs at ease. Jason Kidd's dismissal of Lawrence Frank seemed a moment of crisis at the time but has since given way to a more cohesive team, led by a confident rookie coach.
And, in turn, more wins, which is what the vast majority of coaching-related concerns are about anyway.
The more the Warriors win, the more leeway Jackson will have and the safer his job will be. That much is clear, even (especially?) to the coach himself. "My job will be determined on winning," Jackson told the San Jose Mercury News' Tim Kawakami. "I'm fine with that."
As well he should be. Were the regular season to end today, his Dubs would find themselves in much the same position that they did last spring: as the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference, matched up against a fast-paced, high-scoring squad (the Los Angeles Clippers) whose litany of injuries leaves it vulnerable to a first-round upset.
The Warriors certainly don't fear the Clippers. They split their season series with L.A.—and added plenty of bad blood to this budding West Coast rivalry to boot.
Nor should Golden State fear anyone in the playoffs. The core of this club is already battle-tested from last year's foray into the second round. The addition of Iguodala and the long-awaited return to health of Andrew Bogut have only bolstered the Warriors' prospects further.
And, of course, there's no escaping the threat of Curry and Thompson, who may well constitute the scariest one-two punch in the NBA today.
Or at the very least, the streakiest.
Jackson can only hope that his sweet-shooting backcourt gets hot at the right time and that the chips fall into place for his Warriors. They may have every reason to retain their head coach, but only one—winning—will guarantee that Jackson is still in the saddle this fall.
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