United on Court, Divided off It, Warriors Face Tough Climb After Jackson Firing

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United on Court, Divided off It, Warriors Face Tough Climb After Jackson Firing
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Mark Jackson believes in a power greater than himself. He believes that power, funneled through him, linked his players together and made them far more formidable than they ever could be otherwise.

Joe Lacob believes otherwise—and now has taken on the task of proving it.

Lacob, the Warriors owner, fired Jackson, his head coach, Tuesday despite Jackson leading the team to consecutive playoff appearances, the first time the franchise has done that in 22 years. While dodging a precise explanation in an interview with Bay Area reporters, Lacob's remarks pointed to two issues: Jackson failed to properly respect his place in the team's hierarchy, and Lacob views his NBA franchise much like the 70-some businesses he acquired or developed as a venture capitalist.

"From a personal standpoint, having been in the venture capital industry for 30 years and 70 start-ups, 70 companies that have built and grown, it is very rare to see a CEO be the CEO from the start-up all the way to the equivalent of winning a championship," Lacob told the reporters. "I think … that [Mark] probably could do a little better job of managing up and sideways, is the way to put it."

Lacob said he believes both he and Jackson learned from their three years together; if so, the danger of setting brutally high expectations was not among the lessons for Lacob. He already has intimated that next year's team should improve on this year's 51-win total, the team's most in two decades, and any coach who found that daunting probably isn't cut out for the job.

That's why, although sources contend Jackson did not anticipate being fired on Tuesday, he and his staff are relieved to have been relieved. Whoever inspired it—Lacob by being omnipresent and hands on, Jackson by perceiving threats to his authority and his team's harmony—a culture of suspicion and paranoia enveloped the organization.

It was paranoia, sources say, that prompted assistant coach Darren Erman, who was convinced assistants Pete Myers and Lindsey Hunter were disparaging him behind his back, to click "record" on his smart phone and then tuck it inside his bag in the coaches' offices before the team faced the New York Knicks on March 30.

Erman's skittishness going in and out of the room apparently inspired the coaches to check what he had tucked away and prompted the phone's discovery.

Since secretly recording a conversation is illegal in California, the team had no choice but to fire Erman. Suspicions that Erman was working on behalf of management, while purely speculative, were enlivened, sources say, by Erman being treated as if he were still part of the organization after his dismissal. Erman was invited to both an employees' viewing party for one of the Warriors' first-round road playoff games as well as the NBA D-League Santa Cruz Warriors' home championship game. Assistant GM Kirk Lacob, sources say, also had dinner with him before he left for Boston to begin his new job in the Celtics' front office.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Jackson, for his part, never has been one to back from a challenge, even if it might be from his owner. He dressed in all black for the Warriors' seventh game against the Clippers as a nod toward the mafia back in his native New York, where mob guys dress in black in anticipation of being whacked. There's a fine line between keeping a team loose and mocking the powers that have created the tension. If Jackson truly cared about the line, he might've been more careful.

Some might say none of that matters now that Jackson has been fired. They would be right if Jackson were the source of the problems. How, though, can a coach so uniformly and implicitly trusted by his players be that much of a divisive force? Or, at the very least, the only one?

On the other hand, it's not as if the players are pointing the finger at Lacob and GM Bob Myers, either. Jermaine O'Neal, one of Jackson's staunchest supporters, and a man who evolved into the team sage, spoke glowingly after Golden State's playoff exit of the team's ownership and management even as he acknowledged that they were about to jettison the coach he so admired.

Perhaps the most extraordinary part of this drama is that the players were never affected, or at least their play wasn't. If anything, the surrounding chaos brought them together. And it's not as if they were oblivious to it. "We have more drama going on around us than the Clippers," said one player in the midst of their playoff series.

That solidarity, no doubt, will be intact next season. As much as they collectively love Jackson, second-year small forward Harrison Barnes said shortly after Game 7, and well before Tuesday's announcement, that seeing Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry depart last season made them painfully aware that their bond, no matter how special, was not impervious to the business of the NBA.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Warriors owner Joe Lacob (center) expects his team to improve on this season's 51-win mark under their next coach.

"We learned last year that people move," he said. "We didn't want to see Jack or Carl go. I can't speak for other teams, but we're a tight-knit group. We're like a family. And then to think that someone up top could go and change the culture … But we learned something last year: Things change, people go."

Even losing Kent Bazemore, the team's 12th man, right before the trade deadline angered Stephen Curry enough that after the trade was announced before a game in Sacramento against the Kings, Curry ran past Myers' press conference and yelled, "It's a business!"

Klay Thompson, Curry, Draymond Green and David Lee will play hard for whomever the Warriors hire as their next head coach because, first and foremost, not to do so would betray each other. A strong family doesn't fracture when a part of it goes, it comes closer. Lacob and Myers, on some level, know that and are counting on it.

However hard the Warriors play, though, a question remains about just how good this roster is, especially in the fiercely competitive West. The prod of expectations, unmet for several seasons, can turn into an anchor that has dragged down more than a few NBA teams. 

There is also an edge that comes from working for an enterprise that ignores what you consider your most ideal working conditions and associates. The Warriors' players believed Jackson could take them where they wanted to go. Lacob clearly lost his faith in that. The challenge he now faces is preventing his team from losing that same faith in him.

 

 Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.

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