The Golden State Warriors didn’t have a blueprint for Mark Jackson to follow, just a vague idea of how the finished product should look with no direction on how to reach that point.
Three years into the job, Jackson had somehow put the foundation in place and was beginning his work on raising the ceiling.
The team asked—forced?—him to embrace the tank in his debut season, then watched him rack up 98 wins over a two-year span and lead back-to-back playoff trips, which was a first for the franchise since 1991-92.
Progress was being made on a plan the coach created for himself.
Down David Lee (torn hip flexor), the sixth-seeded Warriors shocked the third-seeded Denver Nuggets in the opening round last season. A six-game slugfest with the eventual Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs followed.
This time around, the Warriors scrapped for a full seven games with a championship-caliber Los Angeles Clippers squad as starting center Andrew Bogut (fractured rib) watched from the sideline.
Jackson wasn’t lifting the franchise’s standards, he was setting them. The Warriors had grown accustomed to losing—they averaged 30.1 wins in the 15 seasons before Jackson’s 2011 arrival—but the coach wouldn’t accept their fate as his own.
Yet, for all that heavy lifting, he was never rewarded for his work. In fact, NBA.com reports the coach was dismissed from his duties Tuesday, supposedly done in by philosophical clashes with the front office.
“Obviously [the decision] was not made exclusively on wins and losses,” Warriors owner Joe Lacob told the press.
There certainly appeared to be some dissension within the ranks.
Jackson lost two of his assistants—first Brian Scalabrine, then Darren Erman—over a 12-day period late in the regular season. According to Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, he reportedly had a confrontation with assistant general manager Kirk Lacob (Joe’s son).
Sources told Grantland’s Zach Lowe that he’d also asked that team consultant Jerry West be kept away from practices and team activities.
The off-court concerns were troubling, but make no mistake: This was a basketball decision. Moving the spotlight away from the standings makes it easier to justify firing the most successful coach the franchise has had in decades, but this is still a win-loss profession.
“Mark did win, but moving forward we want to continue to win in bigger ways if we can,” general manager Bob Myers told reporters.
Jackson helped build this team from the ground up, yet now he was seen as the one holding it back. The way Lacob described it to the press, it was like the organization had outgrown Jackson’s leadership capabilities:
There’s a different CEO that may be required to achieve success at different stages of an organization’s development. When you’re a startup company it’s one thing, when you’re a small-growth company it’s one thing and when you’re a mature company that’s trying to reach a billion in sales — or in this case win an NBA championship — perhaps that’s a different person. And we just felt overall we needed a different person.
The Warriors want someone who can carry this group to championship contention. They firmly believe they belong in that discussion.
Lacob has downplayed the importance of competing for a title and tried playing off the fact that the bar for Jackson would be set so insanely high.
“We said we wanted to be better than we were last year, and a reasonable expectation for better is to be in the top four. And to obviously have home-court advantage,” Lacob told Kawakami. “We did improve the team on paper versus last year and we thought that was a reasonable expectation.”
For a team saddling serious postseason expectations, this seems to be placing an awfully high premium on regular-season success. Championships aren’t awarded between October and May.
Pretending that 82-game trek is what spurred Jackson’s demise is a joke. And no one’s laughing.
No matter what story the Warriors are trying to sell, their actions speak louder than words. If this team isn’t thinking in championship terms, then something is seriously wrong.
RealGM indicates the Warriors have already shipped out two of their next four first-round picks and each of their next five second-round selections.
According to ShamSports, they have at least three eight-figure contracts on the books through 2016-17, a number that doesn’t account for any possible extensions for Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes.
They’ve committed to this roster as a championship-caliber squad, a status that’s debatable at best if not outright insane.
The Warriors have one player (Stephen Curry) who can consistently create his own shot. Playoff defenses can erase a primary option, as the Clippers—who are by no means an elite NBA defense—showed in the opening round.
Golden State has two sieves to hide at the defensive end (Curry, Lee), which helps explain the sizable gap between its good (22 games allowing fewer than 90 points) and bad (21 games surrendering 110-plus points) nights.
The intensity of a defensive power is there—at least, it was under Jackson—but the talent might not be.
Building a contender takes time. There are far too many all-time greats that went their entire career without scaling the game’s greatest summit to list.
For some reason, Lacob is trying to circumvent that process.
“Lacob has made two things clear from the beginning: He wants a championship and he doesn’t have a lot of patience,” SI.com’s Chris Ballard wrote.
Patience isn’t a virtue in this game, it’s a necessity—particularly for a team with only one player among the league’s top 20.
If the Dubs had patience, Jackson would have a job. Winning is supposed to cure all ills, and despite the message being sent from this office, that’s exactly what Jackson was doing.
Maybe a home run hire exists somewhere across the basketball landscape, but it won’t come free of risks.
Would someone like Steve Kerr, Kevin Ollie or Fred Hoiberg immediately vault the Warriors into contention? Of course not, and that’s making the assumption that any would have interest in this position. Ditto for the likes of Stan Van Gundy or Lionel Hollins.
And Tom Thibodeau? Good luck getting the Chicago Bulls to allow him to walk with three years left on his deal.
The Warriors clearly wanted a better coach than Jackson, but where’s the guarantee that person is even available?
“In their quest for offense, they might lose the defense necessary to win. In their search for submissiveness, they might get a coach who can’t lead through adversity,” wrote Marcus Thompson of the San Jose Mercury News. “In their hunt for a philosophy they prefer, they could lose the team chemistry on which they have thrived.”
Golden State won’t be the only one taking a gamble, either. Jackson’s replacement will walk in with the weight of the world on his shoulders and expectations to deliver something of substance immediately.
“It’s never this simple, but the first line of the job description should read: ‘Able to win more than 51 games and reach the second round of the playoffs while pushing for a title,'” wrote Sam Amick of USA Today. “Anything less makes this the wrong move.”
The way Jackson changed the culture in the Bay Area and brought hope to a hopeless franchise was simply miraculous.
The challenge facing the Warriors is even more daunting.
This team will discover sooner than later whether Jackson was truly a detriment to its success or the reason it existed.
Short on assets to give this roster the improvements it needs, I’m not sure the Warriors will like what they find.
More than its offensive firepower or defensive growth, this team’s biggest asset has been its chemistry. That’s in danger of collapsing if the right man isn’t tabbed for the job.
What comes next could be an unfortunate realization of its identity. Life for the Warriors after Jackson might not be any different than it was while he was stalking the Oracle Arena sidelines.
It might even be worse.