Being a coach in the NBA today can be tough. Last season Vinny Del Negro, George Karl and Lionel Hollins all lost their jobs after having notable success with their teams. Del Negro coached the Los Angeles Clippers to their best season in franchise history, Karl did the same with the Denver Nuggets and won Coach of the Year; Lionel Hollins led one of the best defensive teams, the Memphis Grizzlies, to the Western Conference Finals.
It seems pretty harsh, but the reality is coaches are on tighter leashes than ever, and will be removed when it seems that they are not the right person to take a talented team to the next level. Even coaches like Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City and Frank Vogel are facing pressure with their teams struggling so far in the first round. After three seasons with Golden State, it seems like Mark Jackson may not be the coach that can take the Warriors to that next level.
Jackson was brought in as a rookie head coach with no prior experience. He was never an assistant, never a front office executive, never a head coach. That’s not actually a problem, especially with other coaches like Jason Kidd in Brooklyn and Jeff Hornacek in Phoenix having success as rookie coaches with no past experience. However, what is problematic is that Jackson has heavily relied on his assistants to come up with the tactical strategies while he has in many ways been a figure head, and source of motivation for his players.
Last season Jackson looked to Mike Malone for the majority of the team’s tactical strategies. Unfortunately for Golden State, the Sacramento Kings hired away Malone and left Jackson without his lead assistant. Then, earlier this season, Jackson demoted assistant coach Brian Scalabrine to the Warriors’ D-League affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors, citing a difference in philosophies. Then in early April, the team fired assistant coach Darren Erman, for “a violation of company policy”, which again left Jackson without his top tactician, this time on the eve of the playoffs. While it’s possible that the issues with both Scalabrine and Erman went beyond Jackson’s control, it is disconcerting that Jackson’s discord with the Golden State front office stems in large part from his inability to manage his assistant coaches.
This season the Warriors went 51-31 in the regular season, and had the third best defense in the league. Golden State is currently locked into a tough series with the explosive Los Angeles Clippers, and are heading into Sunday’s game down 2-1. Without defensive anchor Andrew Bogut, the Warriors face an uphill battle as they try and find a way to slow down Blake Griffin.
During its coverage of Game 3, TNT showed footage from the Warrior’s huddle, where Jackson spent the majority of the time talking about playing harder and being aggressive, repeating the line “battle and compete.” In the same segment, Doc Rivers was briefly shown talking about defensive strategy, the importance of player movement and reminding his players to get the ball out in transition where they have a clear advantage. While this was just a glimpse into each coach’s in game interaction with their players, it seems to match up with the perception that Rivers is the more tactically sound coach.
Also, with players as offensively gifted as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala (underrated playmaker) and David Lee, the Warriors should have a higher rated offense. While Jackson deserves credit for molding this team into a strong defensive unit, he needs to be held accountable for his inability to make the Warriors a top offensive team.
This team has all the pieces to be a championship contender. It has young talent, veteran experience, wing defenders, a defensive anchor in Andrew Bogut when he’s healthy, perimeter shooting, versatility and a superstar in Curry. However, the team is clearly outmatched in its series against the Clippers and a huge part of that is Doc Rivers out-maneuvering Jackson. In fairness to Jackson, he is without his defensive anchor Bogut, who is out with a broken rib. If Bogut were healthy, the Warriors would have a chance of slowing down Griffin. Without Bogut, the Warriors seem to have no answer for the athletic power forward.
In addition, Jackson has the support of key players, like Andre Iguodala, who said that the team is playing to save their coach’s job. A huge portion of coaching is having the players try their hardest for their coach, but in this case it seems to not be enough.
Jackson is in a similar situation as Del Negro was last year. He has proven that he can coach a talented team into the playoffs, but it is questionable as to whether he has the experience or tactical-skill to push his team to the Finals. While it seems harsh, no one today would dispute that the Clippers made the right move by removing Del Negro and replacing him with Doc Rivers. While there may not be another championship coach waiting for the Warriors to call, there are plenty of names available that could turn this team into an offensive juggernaut, even someone like Alvin Gentry, assistant coach to Doc Rivers and head of the Clipper’s league-leading offense.
As previously stated, Jackson is not necessarily a bad coach. But the Warriors have enough talent to compete for a championship and they can’t squander that opportunity by hoping and waiting for Jackson to become a championship-caliber coach.
- Jesse Blancarte