The basketball Rorschach test by the Bay
May, 5, 2014
By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsMark Jackson is beloved by his players, but is he what's best for them? A decision awaits in Oakland.The question was posed to Stephen Curry after his 2013-14 had already ended: “Was this season a success or a failure?”
“It’s hard to put it in black-and-white terms like that,” Curry responded; sensibly, I might add. Life doesn’t often fit into a binary of bad or good. After expounding a bit, noting where the Warriors finished, he continued, “It’s hard to say it’s a failure of a season. Obviously we had our eyes set on bigger goals.”
That’s where the Warriors are right now. They came up short of their objective, but want to defend how far they got. Is a hard-fought first-round exit enough? If, as it’s often said, the Warriors would run through a wall for their coach, then why did such intense motivation only add up to 51 regular-season wins and three more in the postseason? Why did it lead to home losses against mediocre teams?
The other side is that, after losing Andrew Bogut, they had no business being in that series with the Los Angeles Clippers, and were leading late in Game 7. The season may have ended in disappointment, but their brief playoff performance was far from disappointing.
That’s the Mark Jackson Warriors for you, a cloudy basketball Rorschach test. If you like him, you’re inclined to see an embattled, underappreciated coach, willing his men to the playoffs through unfair trials and tribulations. If you dislike him, you’re inclined to see a glorified motivational speaker whose questionable decisions are what separate the Warriors from contender status. There’s little agreement between the two sides on how good a coach Jackson is. Because of this, there’s little agreement between the two sides on how good the Warriors were supposed to be.
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezMark Jackson has built a rapport with his players, but is it enough to cover up X's-and-O's miscues?
There’s a great case for bringing him back. He’s unafraid to lead, thick with personality, and meaningfully supportive of his players. He doesn’t overwork them in practice, knowing from personal experience that an 82-game season takes its toll.
Many fans find Jackson easy to connect with because he’s so emotive. Unlike the traditional guarded coach, Jackson’s humanity is on display. In April, a reporter teased Jackson after a news conference. “You’re sensitive, Mark,” he said with a smile.
The response from Jackson was swift and loud, “I am NOT sensitive! I am NOT sensitive!”
Fortunately, Jackson isn’t this guarded in his coaching. He just doesn’t coach scared. Foul trouble? Keep playing. Three-pointer in transition? Fire away. He’s willing to trust younger players, and he’s willing, on a whim, to trust Hilton Armstrong with post-ups in a playoff game.
He’s also not afraid to tell his guys he loves them, even if it’s in the heat of battle. His players love him back, and Curry will tell you as much. Jackson’s openness has led to a lot of positive relationships.
Sensitivity isn’t a problem, but the attached defensiveness became one. In the aftermath of this Warriors season, many NBA fans shake their heads at how Golden State management could be uncomfortable with a coach so beloved by his players. Did owner Joe Lacob & Co. not see how the Warriors fought in that playoff series?
Much of the mysterious friction can be traced to the coach’s own discomfort, his inability to quell an insecurity that paradoxically mingles with a swelling confidence.
Before Game 2 against the Clippers, before the Donald Sterling incident became public, Doc Rivers was in his “Aw, shucks” mode, talking about how he can only control so much, letting us in on how he questions himself: “You really do, honestly. I’m not kidding around. You do all the time. You second-guess yourself a lot when you [win], too. But when you lose, you really do; probably more so in the playoffs.”
Jackson followed Rivers’ presser with far less projected security. After Game 1, Andre Iguodala had credited Armstrong with a key strategic suggestion, and Jackson pushed back hard on this story.
“It wasn’t a tweak. You guys fell for that? That was nice,” Jackson laughs. “[If] we needed Hilton to give us that, we’re in trouble.”
Maybe Jackson just wanted to set the record straight, but why even bother pushing back against the narrative his starting small forward offered? It’s not a bad look to seem amenable to player suggestions. Nobody would hold it against him.
Though they aren’t blameless in what happened, the two assistant coaches Jackson had issues with are gone -- one fired in front of the team without adequate grounds, the other caught attempting to record what he felt was a campaign against him, sources have confirmed to ESPN.com.
While it’s easy to portray management’s discomfort with Jackson as a bunch of suits hell-bent on ruining a good thing, place yourself in that suit. Are you comfortable committing long-term to a coach who reportedly emotionally clashes with employees to such a degree? Perhaps you are, but committing to that guy comes with some risk. Jackson is fond of saying, “I’m low-maintenance.” He might be a fine coach, but he is high-maintenance.
The insecurity can mushroom into what sounds like paranoia. Apropos of very little, he’ll say: "The way that this team conducts itself, in spite of everything that we've gone through, all the lies, all the adversity, all the sources, I could not be prouder, because what we are doing collectively speaks against it. Somebody's lying."
Somebody’s lying? Who? How?
“Please don’t twist my words,” he commands the media, after Bogut publicly responded to Jackson’s theorizing that the big man might have hurt himself sleeping. But who’s doing the twisting? That part is left vague.
There’s a “doth protest too much” element to the denunciations of critics. Jackson hates the word "dysfunctional," using it sarcastically multiple times after a story by Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski introduced it to the Warriors lexicon. But how else could you characterize the ousting of assistant coaches? Job-ending disagreements, undermining, secret recordings -- all these things speak to a lack of harmony on the bench.
Yet somehow, the 2013-14 Warriors were functionally dysfunctional. We saw the best defensive Golden State team in decades, a gloriously nasty collection of physical defenders like Bogut, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. Iguodala supplemented the physicality with knowledge and craft, filling in whatever gaps opened up on the perimeter.
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesWith hopes high in Oakland, will someone else lead Stephen Curry and the Warriors into next season?
We saw Curry make good on the hype he generated in last year's playoffs. We saw Thompson develop further as a defender. The Warriors were a good team this season, there’s little doubt about that.
What we didn’t see was a Warriors offense that played up to expectations. In two seasons, Jackson has yet to field a better-ranked offensive team than Keith Smart’s Monta-ball Warriors.
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.
For a second straight season, they eschewed small ball till the playoffs, when again it worked famously. There’s much talk of how big a mistake it’d be for the Warriors to fire Jackson. That could well be true, but here’s a question that’s posed less often: Why didn’t Jackson learn from his mistake? Why did it take another playoff injury for the Warriors to discover floor-spread potency?
Now we’re back to the basketball Rorschach test, where Jackson’s supporters can argue that at least he made the right adjustments when the games mattered most. That’s if they’re deploying an argument other than the repeated “His players will run through a wall for him.”
The players can offer to run through walls and still never break the one that divides Jackson from management. For all his fine attributes, that insecurity festered enough to become self-fulfilling. Fifty-one wins probably wouldn’t be an issue if Jackson’s reign was a calm one. His job would be safe. Few would be debating his fate or his merits. Instead, fear of judgment may have manifested the feared judgment.