The Golden State Warriors would rather be talking about "what comes next" in terms of schemes for stopping Kevin Durant in the second round of the NBA playoffs. But their Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday means all forward-looking angles now focus on unpleasant topics like job security and roster shakeups.
The Warriors aren't where they want to be, but they're not exactly miles away either. The roster has talent, and the defense ranked third in the league this past season. Just as importantly, head coach Mark Jackson motivated his players to give their best efforts more often than not.
In the past, talking about building a championship team in Golden State was a joke, something you'd bring up ironically. Now, it's an honest discussion.
With the right changes, the Warriors can take another step. And one more step might be all they need.
They just have to answer a few key questions first.
What Becomes of Mark Jackson?
Jackson's future has been the biggest question mark all season, and it'll remain on center stage until the situation is resolved.
Most of the Warriors support their coach, a stance they've voiced throughout the year and one Stephen Curry reiterated more strongly than ever in his postgame comments on Saturday:
Realism tempers that support. Jermaine O'Neal has been around long enough to know when smoke means fire:
"You get the feel that no matter what happens, our coach won't be our coach next year," Warriors center Jermaine O'Neal told Sam Amick of USA Today. "You just get that feel."
Jackson is under contract for the 2014-15 season, but he might as well be a free agent right now. No organization willingly heads into a season with a lame duck coach.
Faith-based leadership in a decidedly secular area of the country hasn't played well, and Jackson's outwardly defiant, self-assured demeanor hasn't helped. In fact, his blustery rhetoric and insecurity has made it surprisingly easy to see why his coaching staff went through such upheaval late in the season.
Jackson may be arguably the best motivator in the NBA, as long as you buy into his core religious ideals and choose to identify with them. He'll still give you confidence to go do your job, but it's up to you and your faith in him with how high that confidence rises.
As much as the Warriors' players support Jackson, there's a case to be made he's simply not the guy to maximize the roster's talents. Sure, he helps his players believe in themselves, instilling valuable confidence. But can we definitively tie Jackson's faith infusion to real improvements on the roster?
For every Draymond Green who thrived this past season, there was a Harrison Barnes who wilted.
And it's critical to note Andrew Bogut and some of the other less biblically inclined players on the roster found themselves somewhat alienated by Jackson's preaching. Amick covered the potential for faith to both divide and unify a locker room here, and he highlighted Bogut as the Warriors player least willing to buy what Jackson has spent his coaching career selling.
Those lobbying on Jackson's behalf often cite the roster's support for him as a reason he should stay. But let's get serious; there's no potential for a player uprising if Jackson gets the boot. This is one of the most high-character rosters in the league. It's not a group that will rebel against a new coach.
The Warriors are choir boys—with or without Jackson sermonizing from the pulpit.
And who knows how much more unity there could be if Bogut and the other less pious players didn't feel ostracized by church in the locker room?
Jackson Question No. 2: Who's Next in Line?
Finally, we can't leave the Jackson question behind without mentioning his strategic shortcomings. Those are the ones most likely to get him fired because they directly impacted Golden State's failure to meet its potential.
Here, the story is the same as it's always been: Jackson's reliance on isolation play and post-ups (not to mention his nonsensical substitution patters) turned an exceptionally talented offense into the plodding, streaky mess that ranked 12th in the league this past year.
He didn't make tactical adjustments all year long, and the Warriors should be concerned that he never will.
But if Jackson gets the axe, where do the Dubs turn?
Steve Kerr? Jeff or Stan Van Gundy? Lionel Hollins? George Karl?
It's too early for a real list to have emerged—Jackson hasn't even been fired yet, after all. But if the Dubs dump him back into the coaching pool, chances are Jackson won't look as objectively qualified as some of the other available candidates.
The Warriors' ownership group is aggressive, prone to acting quickly and seizing opportunities when they're available. Expect them to make a move on Jackson soon enough to get involved in the coaching market before some of the big names disappear.
In the end, it comes down to asking if the status quo is good enough. That's because Jackson is who he is and has repeatedly said he won't change. When he asserts his intractability, he does so boastfully, as though stubbornness and resistance to logical analysis are virtues.
"I'll go down being me," he said earlier this year (via BayAreaSportsGuy.com).
If the Dubs are happy where they are, Jackson should probably get an extension. If they aren't, he's a goner.
Seeing as Golden State isn't currently holding the Larry O'Brien trophy, it's safe to assume management is unsatisfied with the current state of affairs.
Are Roster Changes on the Way?
It's tempting to argue management's impatience with the Jackson situation will also mean a roster overhaul is in order.
According to ShamSports.com, there's not much the Dubs can do to their locked-in personnel group.
Golden State has two players who'll definitely become unrestricted free agents: O'Neal and Steve Blake. Jordan Crawford is owed a $3.2 million qualifying offer, which the Warriors probably won't choose to extend, making him a third potential free agent. All told, Golden State will still have over $64 million committed to next year's salaries, which is still above the projected cap of $63.2 million.
That means veteran's minimums and the mid-level exceptions are the only tools the Warriors will have to improve the roster without giving up talent in the exchange.
Ideally, the Warriors would like to add more shooting on the second unit and a point guard who can penetrate. The former will address a bench group that simply couldn't score, while the latter could help Golden State bend defenses a bit.
All year, the Dubs worked exceptionally hard to create open looks because they didn't have a player capable of piercing the defense in a way that forced help to leave perimeter assignments.
Though trades are practically out of the question, the Warriors would certainly be wise to explore moving David Lee, who makes approximately 16 times more money than Green will next season.
Green is an elite defender, one who does all the small things Lee ignores. He rotates intelligently, helps willingly and rebounds out of his area like few players in the league. Plus, he scares defenses with his ability to stretch the floor.
There's simply not a logical case for playing Lee ahead of Green anymore, except for the argument based on his bloated salary necessitating a big role.
Said salary makes moving Lee difficult, and the Warriors would have to take on an equally bad financial burden in return. Plus, Lee remains the closest thing to a low-block threat on the roster, and Golden State might be reluctant to give that up—even if we've now seen how much better the offense can look with more spacing.
The Warriors should explore moving Lee, but the more likely scenario involves him becoming the first big off the bench next year, spelling Green or Bogut and propping up the reserves' offense. That all depends on whether or not Lee is willing to accept a reduced role.
The other significant question with the roster pertains to fallen star Harrison Barnes. If that label seems hyperbolic, remember that Golden State once viewed the small forward so highly that it all but refused to discuss him in any preseason or deadline trade talks (via Marcus Thompson of Bay Area News Group).
Barnes was awful this season, lacking confidence and routinely put in positions to fail. He couldn't score in isolation, handled the ball like it was covered in axle grease and didn't expunge the typical rookie mistakes from his game during his second year.
It's possible other teams haven't quite caught on to his limitations yet, so maybe he's a piece the Warriors could move. After all, Golden State is overstocked with wings who can't create their own shots as it is. If dealing Barnes could bring back a penetrating point guard or a shot-creator more reliable than Crawford, the Dubs would have to consider a deal.
Who, What, Where Are We?
The Warriors find themselves in the odd position of having finished a six-month season without developing an understanding of where they are on the championship spectrum.
It's clear they're not a title contender at this moment (Playoff elimination tends to drive that point home.), but Jackson's mismanagement of the roster, Bogut's injury and the uncertain capacity for growth on the roster make it tough to know if major overhauls or a couple of small tweaks are necessary to raise the team's ceiling.
If it's really just Jackson holding back the offense, Golden State might want to keep its changes small after canning the coach.
But if management determines the issues are bigger than that, the Warriors might get creative on the trade market.
In addition, it's becoming more and more difficult to figure out how the Warriors should define themselves. Are they really a team that should be utilizing two big men? Their third-ranked defense would seem to indicate they should. But what if there's an extra offensive gear they could unlock with a smaller lineup?
Few 51-win teams finish a season without a real identity. Before the Warriors figure out who they want to be, and how far they want to go, they need to figure out who they are.