The Golden State Warriors, mired in futility for the better part of two decades, pinned their hopes to a former NBA point guard with no coaching experience and a reputation for ruining nationally televised basketball games on ABC and ESPN.
After the Warriors hired Mark Jackson as their 11th coach in the last 17 seasons (yikes!), internet real estate—including here at Bleacher Report—was filled with flattering and uncritical sentiments. Reactions to the Jackson hire, generally, along with the other changes to the Warriors front office, have been painfully sanguine.
It was my sincere hope that enough sober voices would be heard on this hire so that conversation regarding the Warriors head coach, and ultimately the team's future, would be steered towards dialogue that is both constructive and productive, at least enough so that I wouldn't be forced to blast Jackson's pseudo-credentials against my will.
But, to my chagrin, this has not been the case. Sentiments regarding the hire have been embellished, fueled largely by a drunken happiness lacking in substance or merit. From fans, this may be a product of years and years of futility and embarrassment as the league's doormat, forcing a search for comfort in a basketball world that has provided little of it, with a mindset that any type of change, in and of itself, is a positive step forward. From media journalists, this is, in part, the product of a lack of courage and the mere fact that keeping their job is contingent on people returning their phone calls.
I simply ask: Why is everyone so giddy about this hire?
My aim is threefold:
- Show that reasons offered in support of the idea Jackson fits the "mold" of a competent and quality head coach are neither compelling nor valid.
- NBA coaches are not as important as everyone makes them out to be, and are often used as pawns and scapegoats when convenient for the franchise.
- Draw attention to the increasing emphasis on coaches being hired based on vague intangibles like "leadership" and "charisma" that makes the position out to be, in practice, one massive public relations campaign, rather than a substantive, championship-driven campaign.
What was your initial reaction to the Mark Jackson hire?
Evaluating the Mark Jackson Hire
Is Mark Jackson, or will he ever be, a quality head coach? Will Mark Jackson have success (i.e., win many more games than he loses) with the Warriors?
Right now, I don't know the answer to these questions. Neither do you. Neither do the Warriors. The kicker is that outsiders like us may never really know (unless he is excruciatingly incompetent). Without glaring blunders by a coach in a game, we outsiders tend to assess them by way of our perception (which isn't always real), emotions and intuitions.
We must first admit this before having a serious conversation about the ramifications and implications of a coaching hire. I realize that we fans don't like having considerable gaps in our web of knowledge, so we fill them with unjustified speculation masquerading as insight, and if we do it often enough we start to believe it.
Also, notice how these two questions are separately posed and are not mutually exclusive. Mark Jackson may very well turn out to be a great coach, yet he could still get canned in two years if his team does not win enough. The reverse is a plausible scenario as well; Jackson's coaching abilities may mirror his nonsensical and trivial commentary bits on television, yet he still may become the toast of the town if the Warriors upgrade their roster and start to win. Or none of these could be the case.
This gives us a nice segue into a telling example of what I am talking about.
You know Doc Rivers, right? He comes to mind because a co-worker of mine recently rebutted the statement that Jackson has never coached before with "Doc Rivers never coached before either."
Widely regarded as currently one of the best coaches in the league, Rivers was run out of Orlando during his fifth season with the Magic after starting 1-10. He had a career record with the Magic of 171-168 (.506).
To say he never had a standout roster in Orlando is perfectly fair.
Rivers, who would later become a TV analyst himself, was the victim of what Magic Chief Operating Officer John Weisbrod called a "bottom line business." Very true, but what he meant to say was it is a business that reacts to outcomes by making changes for the sake of change itself.
The Boston Celtics liked enough of what they saw from Rivers and gave him their head coaching gig in 2004, where Rivers became widely derided for his ineptitude by the 2006-07 season when they finished dead last in the Eastern Conference (24-58). From 2004-2007, the Celtics under Rivers were 102-144 with one playoff season in which they won just 45 games.
In a brilliant column written during the '06-'07 season, ESPN columnist Bill Simmons pleaded for Rivers' dismissal, highlighting reasons that justified canning him—from an inability to coach defending the high pick-and-roll, to failing to settle on a nine-man rotation, to name a few—and how both local and national Celtic beat writers and columnists were unwilling to call Rivers out because they had developed close relationships with Rivers, who by all accounts is a very likeable guy. (Ring a bell with Jackson?)
"I'm a Doc guy. I can't help it," Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe said of Rivers. "I've known him too long. I have too much respect for his intelligence, common sense and good will...Do I know for sure that he can convey all the basketball he knows to others? No, I do not..."
I've always viewed Ryan as somewhat of a clown from his time spent on ESPNs circus of a show Around the Horn, but he is able to point out, albeit unintentionally, that knowledge from having played the game is good and can never hurt, but sometimes that isn't enough, sometimes not even close. The reverse can be true too—a charismatic, brilliant motivator and communicator won't be enough if you don't know squat about the game or how to teach it.
If cornered, I would argue that a little of both pertains to Jackson.
Jackson got the Warriors coaching job by way of his perceived leadership and presence, along with his rhetoric on defense despite not having played any of it for 17 seasons. Mark Jackson, a "defensive guy"? I mean, talk about a misnomer? It's like hiring Deion Sanders as a coach to get players to start tackling, or making Allen Iverson a coach to stress to his players the importance of practice.
And, in case you didn't notice, Rivers, a la Jackson, has been acclaimed for his speaking ability, presence and leadership as well.
Back to Simmons on Rivers.
Simmons never got his wish. Instead, that offseason, with the help of good ole pal Kevin McHale, the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen (in separate trades) in their prime to form a trio of All-Stars—perhaps future Hall of Famers—with Paul Pierce. The Celtics rebounded from dead last to go 66-16 in 2007-08, earning the No. 1 seed and going on to win the NBA championship. All of a sudden Rivers is the most brilliant man on the planet, and still holds onto that title. Mysterious isn't it?
No, it's not.
Simmons could have been dead wrong about Rivers. Or he could have been dead on—that an NBA coach with so much playing experience and basketball knowledge was so insufferably incompetent as a head coach, yet he was still able to win the grand prize with the right players—and falsely receive credit and recognition for it.
If you are under the impression that I am using the Rivers example as anecdotal evidence to suggest Jackson's coaching abilities and career is bound to follow Rivers, then I must clarify that is simply not the case. I am pointing out that the "credentials" frequently pointed to, as indicators of a quality head coach, often do not translate into anything. And when it does, it often doesn't translate into results (wins). It also demonstrates the backwardness of the NBA coaching landscape.
Now, we move to the said "credentials" and traits from Warriors fans and a spineless media—who will have to converse with Jackson quite a bit over the coming years, further illuminating the shortcomings of professional journalists and beat writers when it comes to critically assessing team decisions.
They have babbled over Jackson the coach, and the team's decision to hire him. I think that's ridiculous, but fine. So be it. But they have also conveyed the impression that there are no reasons to find this hire laughable.
Now we have a problem. And it needs to be addressed.
The Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob made it known that he preferred an experienced coach, and during the press conference introducing Jackson, he stated that he was the most experienced candidate of the bunch, despite it being completely false.
Surely what he was referring to was Jackson's 17 years as a player, but to qualify this as coaching experience can only be said by someone who does not know what they are talking about.
To put it in perspective, there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of former players—including many point guards that were better players than Jackson—who have played the game for a long time. Playing the game is not an indicator of a capacity to coach, or to coach well.
Michael Jordan was arguably the best player ever, yet since his playing career he has destroyed everything he's touched—including Kwame Brown's confidence (by horrendously taking him No. 1 overall), and in turn, his career—in every other capacity in the league.
As for Jackson's career as a TV analyst, I am a proponent of the idea that hearing someone talk about the game as a color commentator can give you glimpses into their intellect, perspective, knowledge, nuanced understanding and their capacity to teach the game.
Yet Jackson's reputation as an analyst bottoms out at "Hand down, man down," which, as Kelly Dwyer plainly pointed out, is a "PHRASE THAT MAKES NO SENSE."
C.A. Clark of SB Nation put it best:
Jackson's analytical stylings are like a cross between Hubie Brown and Scotty Brooks, except if you were to remove any indication whatsoever that the speaker has ever even seen the game of basketball. No more phrases that make no sense within the context of basketball, like "Mama, there goes that man." No more phrases that make no sense within the context of the english (sic) language, like "Hand down, man down." Really, it is impossible to get excited enough about this.
The last part is my sentiment exactly. How can anybody be excited about this outside of Jackson's friends and family?
Jackson claims to have watched both the best and worst analysts to find out how to become good at it. Maybe he mistakenly thought Reggie Miller was one of the good ones, but either way, he needed to keep watching or do something else. Bingo! He found a franchise willing to give him $6 million over three years to do something he's never done. Wow.
This is a guy, who on CSN Bay Area had the audacity, despite the fact that becoming a head coach in the NBA was his lifelong dream, to say he declined assistant coaching jobs on the basis that he could make a better living as an announcer. Some dream, Mark. Way to be a go-getter. He said it was because of his bills, and then I waited for him to bust out the Latrell Sprewell, "I have to feed my kids" card, but, thankfully, it never came.
Jackson, a man preaching hard work and accountability on the defensive end, has taken the shortcut every which way he could since he left the game. Not only did he spurn valuable experience on an NBA bench, he unexpectedly quit working as a New Jersey Nets announcer to do cake work for ABC.
Jackson claims he is "humbled" by the opportunity to coach the Warriors, then proceeded to guarantee Warriors fans the playoffs...this year. I still can't get excited.
First off, guaranteeing anything—especially in sports—is always folly. I know some fans like it, but that's because they like confidence. But guarantees are exhibitions in false confidence. They are an "I'm in over my head but I want to make an impression" kind of sentiment.
What is the most important quality when hiring an NBA head coach?
Making a guarantee like that is neither confidence nor humility; it is intemperate, arrogant and disingenuous; a signal that one is in a deer-in-headlights kind of moment, and it illuminates one's false sense of self.
What Does It All Mean?
One must remember that the higher the level of players and competition—the NBA being the highest, of course—the impact of a coach becomes increasingly marginalized. This is a perfectly normal negative relationship (e.g., when A increases, B will always decrease) that occurs in other fields, not just sports (e.g., parenting and adulthood: as one matures and grows older, parenting becomes less and less influential).
The only caveat here is that completely incompetent coaches have the capacity for a far greater (negative) impact than brilliant and savvy coaches have the capacity to make a (positive) impact. This applies to professions across the board: It is easier to bring a group down than it is to get them to perform over their heads.
We can, however, assess Jackson's track record to try and gauge if there are any indications that favor the possibility of him being a quality NBA mind. We already know he is not "qualified" in any traditional sense to lead an NBA team, but this is not enough to say that he isn't, or won't become, a quality head coach. Heck, lots of individuals in our vast workforce were not "qualified" to do their required tasks, but some of us have the qualities—the ability to learn, take instructions, persevere, etc.—to develop a capacity for them.
And when Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle recently wrote, "The next step—or leap—is remaking the roster, a process that is more involved and probably ultimately more important than the coaching search," he was making an understatement. There is nothing probable about it; it's a certain fact.
To say that the Warriors "probably" took a gamble hiring Jackson is an understatement as well. The "knowledgeable bay area fanbase" just took a hit by staying mum on this hire, and regardless of what the future holds, this hire is far from impressive.