After making back-to-back playoff runs for the first time since the early 1990s, the Golden State Warriors are dreaming big.
Parting ways with head coach Mark Jackson, overseer of this terrific turnaround, would be a nightmare for all parties involved.
Yet, it's the kind of nightmare that follows a horror movie marathon. The Warriors are playing with fire and will have no one to blame but themselves for getting burned.
The flames that sat under Jackson's coaching seat all season now threaten to ignite an unnecessary (unjustified?) changing of the guard. That's assuming, of course, this bridge hasn't already gone down in a blaze of unrealistic expectations and dangerously wandering eyes.
"You get the feel that no matter what happens, our coach won't be our coach next year," Warriors reserve center Jermaine O'Neal said, via Sam Amick of USA Today. "You just get that feel."
O'Neal called it a "feel." I'd just as soon have went with a "fear."
A fear that the Warriors' brain trust will align itself with grass that can't be any greener. A fear that Jackson's motivational mastery will soon guide a different club down a path to success long forgotten by the franchise.
Under his watch, the Warriors built something out of nothing. If the architect of that rise is forced out, this budding contender could crumble.
"You want players who believe in their coach and that's what the Golden State Warriors have when it comes to Mark Jackson and his players," wrote Zach Harper of CBS Sports.
This has to be the starting point for any conversation surrounding Jackson's future. There are plenty of other layers to the discussion (the turmoil in his assistant ranks, his ball-stopping offensive schemes) but this is where the discussion must takeoff.
When Jackson grabbed the coaching reins in 2011, the franchise had made just one playoff trip over the past 17 seasons. During that stretch, the Dubs averaged just 30.2 wins per year and burned through 10 different coaches.
Jackson had no expectations to meet, because there hadn't been any in place for more than a decade.
That changed early on in his tenure. He made players accountable at both ends of the floor and did it not by punishing missteps, but rather by rising their collective confidence to the point they started expecting better things for themselves.
Better things surfaced shortly thereafter.
A 47-win season in 2012-13 (Golden State's second-highest win total in nearly two decades) was trumped by a 51-win performance this time around. The Warriors' .622 win percentage tied for their fifth-highest in franchise history, second-best since 1976.
Golden State shocked the third-seeded Denver Nuggets in the opening round of the 2013 playoffs and pushed a Los Angeles Clippers team with intriguing championship credentials through a hard-fought seven games despite being without rim protector Andrew Bogut (rib) for the entire series.
"If it isn't clear by now, after the Warriors gave the Clippers all they could handle even without starting center Andrew Bogut, Jackson has something special about him as a coach," Marcus Thompson II of Bay Area News Group wrote.
His players picked up on that something special a long time ago. They've never once wavered in the public support of their head coach.
"I love Coach more than anybody, and I think for him to be in a situation where his job is under scrutiny and under question is totally unfair," All-Star guard Stephen Curry said, via Diamond Leung of Bay Area News Group. "And it would definitely be a shock to me if anything like that were to happen."
This roster has a unique bond with its leader. Andre Iguodala could see that before he stepped foot inside Oracle Arena's home locker room. He cited "the coach and the culture" as his reasons for wanting to get to the Bay as a free agent last summer, via Thompson.
There's a genuine appreciation (for some players, something far greater than that) for Jackson and the attitude he's given this team. Displacing him could disrupt the chemistry (arguably Golden State's most important asset) and send the Warriors spiraling back to the forgettable futility they were trapped in before his arrival.
"Curry is obviously the team's best and by far most important player into the future and his unflinching 100% support of Mark Jackson will and certainly should be influential within Warriors HQ," Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News wrote. "If he is upset with management for a prolonged period, that will have loads of psychic repercussions."
Jackson may not have the best relationships with co-owner Joe Lacob, general manager Bob Myers and team consultant Jerry West, but he doesn't need to. New York Knicks president Phil Jackson had terse relationships with the front offices of the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls during his respective tenures there, but they didn't keep all parties from collecting 11 championship rings in their time together.
This is a players league and coaches have to be able to relate to their players. Jackson does that as well as any coach in the NBA.
So Do Results and Potential
Under anything but blue-and-gold glasses, it's hard to look at the 2013-14 Warriors' season and see a failure. This might not have been an overwhelming success, but the Dubs definitely didn't underperform.
Try to find the major disappointments on this roster. It isn't easy.
Harrison Barnes regressed in his sophomore season, but he lost his starting spot to Iguodala and showed he's not ready to be a No. 1 option even on a second team. David Lee lost some volume on his stat sheet (18.2 points and 9.3 rebounds, down from 18.5 and 11.2) but his efficiency remained almost identical (19.1 player efficiency rating, down from 19.2 last season).
The second team slipped from 19th in bench scoring to 24th, via HoopsStats.com. That should have been expected. The Dubs didn't have a Carl Landry (let alone a Jarrett Jack) on their roster this time around.
Look at the strides, though. You won't find a miss with nearly the same impact as Jackson's hits.
Curry made a well-deserved appearance in the All-Star starting lineup. He set career marks in scoring (24.0), assists (8.5) and efficiency (24.1 PER), all while posting a rock solid .471/.424/.885 shooting slash.
Klay Thompson showed signs of growth at both ends of the floor. He scored (18.4) and shot (44.4 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from distance) at career rates, despite bidding his defensive time on today's track star point guards.
Whatever ground Barnes lost, Draymond Green made up for and then some. A guy who isn't supposed to show well on the stat sheet did just that in the postseason. His across-the-board contributions (11.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks) and hard-nosed defense on Clippers All-Star forward Blake Griffin breathed new life into Golden State's playoff run.
Green turned heads throughout the process, none more notable than fellow Michigan State Spartan Magic Johnson.
"He's almost like a mini-Magic," Johnson said of Green, via Hugh Bernreuter of MLive.com. "You can't judge Draymond by how many points he scores."
Maybe Magic should've waited to heap on that praise. He spoke after the fifth game of the series. Green went on to pour in 38 points over the final two games.
That type of development has to be noticed. Considering everything the Warriors have invested in this group (Golden State gave up two of its next four first-round picks and won't have great financial flexibility before 2016), internal improvements are their best chance to raise their ceiling.
Well, that or an all-in type of trade.
While this playoff run ended shorter than Lacob and Co. would have liked, it can still serve as a valuable teaching tool.
"I'm excited to see this young basketball team experience a Game 7 on the road," Jackson said, via NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper, before Golden State's season-ending loss Saturday. "...It's new to Klay Thompson. It's new to Stephen Curry. It's new to Draymond Green...it's new to me."
The Warriors can learn from that loss, but that's an easier process if their teacher sticks around to deliver that lesson.
Best Fit for This Roster
These players have been into the trenches with Jackson. He's built them up through the press and they've responded in kind.
That collective success can't be erased. No name on the front office's wish list, no matter how buzz-worthy it sounds, can reap the rewards of that shared experience.
Jackson has his flaws, but he has his strengths, too. The executives have witnessed firsthand just what those strengths can mean for this franchise.
"Lacob and GM Bob Myers can’t be short-sighted," Kawakami wrote, "and they can’t decree that Jackson isn’t good enough for them if there is plenty of evidence that he’s the best thing the Warriors have had in a coach in years. Which he is."
So far, that hasn't garnered Jackson any fans inside the front office, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports reports:
Mark Jackson doesn't have one GSW front office ally who'll make a case to ownership to keep him. "He's on an island," league source says.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) May 4, 2014
It also hasn't stopped the Warriors from forming a list of potential replacements.
Where exactly is the definite upgrade over Jackson?
Who will be coaching the Warriors next season?
Hoiberg is intriguing, but he just received a raise from the Cyclones and may not want to leave his alma mater. Kerr has no head coaching experience and may prefer to get his feet wet under Jackson in New York. Van Gundy hasn't coached since 2012 and last found success with a four-out spread offense the Warriors couldn't operate without some significant personnel changes.
Could any of these coaches device better offensive schemes than Jackson? Perhaps, although lost chemistry can cripple an offense (see: Pacers, Indiana). Besides, if Jackson's open to the idea, there may be a tactical assistant who could have a similar impact without the chemistry risks.
Axing Jackson doesn't come without risks. His critics might say keeping him around doesn't either, but if those "risks" involve 50-win seasons and perennial playoff trips, perhaps those are ones the Warriors should be willing to take.
Remember, Golden State isn't dreaming without Jackson planting that seed of hope. It's time to put the idea of his firing to rest.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.