I'll spare you the suspense.
The Warriors fired him Tuesday afternoon, as first reported by USA Today's Sam Amick:
Mark Jackson will not be back as Golden State Warriors coach, @USATODAYsports has learned. Story to come.— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) May 6, 2014
The team confirmed the news with a press release shortly thereafter:
"It’s never easy to make a decision of this nature," said General Manager Bob Myers. "Mark has accomplished many good things during his three years with the organization, including his role in helping elevate this team into a better position than it was when he arrived nearly 36 months ago. We’re appreciative of his dedication and commitment since his arrival and are extremely grateful for his contributions. However, as an organization, we simply feel it’s best to move in a different direction at this time."
"Mark Jackson has had a big impact on the improvement of our team and the success that we’ve had over the last couple of years," said Owner & CEO Joe Lacob. "Nonetheless, we must make some difficult decisions in our day-to-day operations of the club and this would certainly qualify as one of those examples. We wish Mark the best of luck in his future endeavors and thank him for his contributions over the last three years."
Jackson won't be looking for work long, assuming he wants to fill one of the many coaching vacancies—both currently open and expected to become open—throughout the ranks of professional basketball. Somewhat surprisingly, he's not the one who should be feeling the most pressure, even if he's the one whose contract was terminated.
It's the front office of the Golden State franchise—Myers, Lacob and everyone else—that should be feeling the screws tighten, and not just because they made the unpopular decision.
Jackson Was Popular
Granted, the NBA is a business, and decisions are made largely because they promote success and not popularity. But it's still a bit tricky when a decision is made with full understanding that it will upset a number of prominent players.
The Warriors supported Jackson. Their chemistry thrived under him, and players developed close relationships that helped them succeed on the court. As Marc Stein wrote for ESPN.com before the news broke, "If you're going to dismiss a coach who gets the sort of buy-in that Jackson gets from his guys, you better be sure you're upgrading. Because the level of buy-in Jackson has within the Dubs' locker room is by no means the NBA norm."
Much of it, unfortunately for the Golden State management, came from the team's No. 1 player—Stephen Curry.
"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," Curry said after the Game 7 loss, via Diamond Leung of the San Jose Mercury News. "And it would definitely be a shock to me if anything like that were to happen. I'm going to voice my support for Coach."
But was Curry the only one?
Absolutely not. Here are a few other testimonies, all courtesy of Leung:
- Klay Thompson: "I love him. I love playing for Coach Jackson. I hope he's back. He makes it so fun to go to work every day. I got so much better under his tutelage in three years. I don't know where I'd be if I didn't have him the last three years."
- Draymond Green: "That's definitely what Coach has built, guys who are going to give max effort. That's what he preaches every single day. And you fall in line, everybody. You just fall in line. If you have a great leader, you fall in line."
- Andre Iguodala: "His presence affects the entire team just from a respect level, from a spiritual level, making every guy a better man. And those are the things you'll remember looking back on your career, not only how you grew as a basketball player but how you grew as a man. It's a very rare trait in a basketball coach."
As Stein mentioned, it's rare to get this type of buy-in from an NBA team.
When management decides to fire such a popular figure, they're starting a journey down a dangerous path. Not only are they risking the support of the players that earn them money, but they're also making it clear to all free agents that decisions won't be made to appease them.
You like a coach? Sorry, he's not safe.
Now, how far does that extend? Will the management be willing to cut a popular player or trade away a glue guy if it saves them money?
There's no way of knowing, both for writers like me, fans like you and—most importantly—players who could potentially be putting on a Golden State uniform.
And just imagine the inordinate levels of pressure the next coach will face. Talk about being set up behind the eight ball.
Not Meeting Expectations
It's funny how quickly expectations can change in the NBA.
The Warriors morphed from floundering franchise into potential powerhouse in only a matter of seasons, and those seasons just so happened to coincide with Jackson's tenure at the helm.
Since Don Nelson left the bench during the 1994-95 season, the Dubs had made the playoffs only once before Jackson took over. They did so in 2006-07, the first year Nelson was back in charge of the team. You might remember that as the year that Baron Davis led a spirited charge, and the Warriors shocked the world against the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks before losing to the Utah Jazz in the conference semifinals.
Then there was a four-year playoff drought before Jackson took over.
The first-year head coach wasn't able to steer his team into the playoffs right away, but the Warriors improved dramatically during his second season. They improved from 23 to 47 wins, then took another step forward this year by winning 51.
But it wasn't enough.
The expectations had skyrocketed after the offseason arrival of Andre Iguodala and the success that Curry and the Dubs had enjoyed during the 2013 postseason. All of a sudden, a franchise that hadn't won a championship since 1975 was expected to be a title contender.
It's strange to think about, seeing as the 2013-14 Warriors won more games than any team the franchise has put together since Run TMC broke up, but this season was actually a bit disappointing.
And the question of who deserves blame is a tricky one.
There are really three parties at fault, and figuring out quantifiable measures of blame is an impossible task. The pie of responsibility has to be divided into slices, but there's no telling how large they need to be cut.
The first party is Lady Luck, the injury imp or whatever nonphysical being you'd like to refer to. Injuries plagued the team throughout the season, from Iguodala's hamstring woes at the beginning of the year to the rib injury that knocked Andrew Bogut out right before the start of the playoffs.
Golden State took the Clippers to Game 7 without the Australian big man, and it's not difficult to imagine them knocking off Chris Paul and co. with him in the lineup. Bogut, for all his offensive shortcomings and injury problems, is a game-changing defensive player.
And if the Warriors are still playing, we aren't having this conversation about Jackson. (At least not yet.)
But every team goes through its share of injuries—whether fair or not—and reacting to them is a large part of how success is determined in professional basketball. It's not easy to find a champion that hasn't been forced to overcome at least a few blows throughout the season.
Unfortunately, neither Jackson nor the front office handled the situation well.
As for the head coach, he was ultimately unable to exhibit a level of prowess with X's and O's that was conducive to winning basketball. While the defense blossomed under his tutelage, the offense was never able to follow suit, and he had difficulty reacting to the Bogut injury in a way that was beneficial to his squad.
Here's ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss on the subject:
Jackson’s “hockey substitutions” of five bench players at once created bad stretches on offense. The Warriors played too much isolation ball, relied on post-ups as though the team were playing in Jackson’s era. Curry’s an elite pick-and-roll weapon, though you couldn’t tell on the possessions when Jermaine O’Neal burned a shot clock going to work on the block.
The work Jackson did with X's and O's was by no means impressive. If you want to use the word "bad," you're more than welcome to do so.
But it's not like he was granted the perfect roster, either.
Was it Jackson who decided to give Bogut a three-year extension worth $36 million dollars? Was it Jackson who put together a lackluster core of backup players? Was it Jackson who traded for Jordan Crawford and Steve Blake this year, neither of whom meshed with the incumbents? Was it Jackson who drafted Harrison Barnes, who hasn't even remotely lived up to the expectations?
No, no, no and no.
Not one relevant person is free from blame here, though Jackson is the convenient scapegoat. Why? Let's have Bleacher Report's Tyler Conway take it away:
But when management and a coaching staff aren't on the same page, it's bound to end badly. There is shared blame here, yet it's much harder to fire an owner than a coach. The Warriors and Jackson should be better off now that they don't have to pretend to like working with one another.
Jackson, now fired and looking for work—which he shouldn't have much trouble finding, given his popularity with players and the vacancies in some high-profile situations—no longer has to deal with much pressure.
The same can't be said for the front office.
Ultimately, a Failed Experiment
Rewind a few years.
When the Warriors hired Jackson in 2011, it was a bold move. Not only had the former point guard never served as a head coach in the NBA before, but he had no coaching experience in any capacity at any level.
Think about the debate centering around Steve Kerr right now.
Kerr, much like Jackson, is a former player turned analyst who's suddenly going to become a head coach. When he signs with a team—and he will—the move is not going to receive a 100 percent approval rating, simply because he doesn't have experience.
And Kerr had worked in a basketball front office before, serving as the general manager for the Phoenix Suns. Jackson didn't even have that under his belt.
Nonetheless, the Warriors and owner Joe Lacob sure sounded confident in their decision, per ESPN.com news services:
He epitomized leadership as a player in this league for 17 seasons and we think that characteristic -- and many other positive traits -- will translate very well into his coaching duties with our young team. He was a leader and a winner both on and off the floor in this league and we're convinced that he is the right person to guide this team into the future and help us achieve the success that we are striving for as an organization."
Thinking back and remembering the context is always important, and doing so reveals the three years with Jackson at the helm as a failed experiment.
Maybe that sounds harsh, but it doesn't make it any less true.
Was firing Jackson the right move?
Jackson took a talented team and made them better, but he ultimately proved incapable of steering them to a championship in the face of adversity. It's partially his fault, but let's not overlook the men who put him in this position and took a chance on him.
Now there's doubt entering into the equation.
Management pulled the plug on their own experiment—in controversial fashion, no less—and is about to embark upon another one. Of course it's going to be met with scrutiny. Of course they're going to be held accountable for their actions this time around.
The pressure is on.