Mark Jackson has his weaknesses, and his Warriors threatening to crash the Western Conference Finals.
By: Ragnar Carlson
Some questions get a bad rap. Here’s one: “Mark, there’s been some criticism of your strategy down the stretch in close games. Have you seen any of that, and if so what are your thoughts?”
Dead in the water. There is only one appropriate response to this sort of query, and Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson gave it this week: “I don’t care about any of that.” And why should he? Warriors owner Joe Lacob and GM Bob Myers should care, though, because the question addresses both Jackson’s strategy in these playoffs and the Warriors’ thinking about a possible contract extension. Which is to say: Is Mark Jackson is the right coach for this team? It’s not only a good question, it’s the most important one this franchise faces.
Let’s dispense with the fake shock about debating Jackson’s status as he leads his team into Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals. This is a billion-dollar business. You can bet that among the people who will make the decision, the questions relevant to Jackson’s future with the Warriors – how long, and at what rate – are even now being fully entertained
The criticism of Mark Jackson breaks down something like this: his rotations and substitutions are often inscrutable, and he is slow to make proper in-game adjustments. More experienced coaches have exploited these weaknesses to great effect throughout Jackson’s tenure.
Less empirical but more alarming is Jackson’s apparent obliviousness and evident imperviousness to these shortcomings. He shows little sign of a coach interested in learning anything. Which is to say, little interest in growing.
Growing, and pains
If that’s the case, it’s self-evident that Jackson will not be the right coach for this group for long, no matter his success to date. Jackson is a Hall of Fame point guard with an obvious players’ touch, but his players are developing every week, to say nothing of the season-to-season leaps ahead for players mostly well ahead of their primes: Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Festus Ezeli – key contributors all – are still completing their rookie seasons. As they grow, will Jackson grow with them? Will his message be the right one over the life of an extension that would run at least three years? Will it even work in one?
This team may be stronger than its regular season record revealed, but even Jackson and his players have been clear that they are playing with house money: a theme in San Antonio this week was “we weren’t even supposed to be here.” Jackson himself said after the breathtaking Game 1 loss that it had been a “great game for us.” Not in itself, of course, but as a experience to growth through and learn from as his team learns how to win a championship.
This is Jackson’s great strength. His tremendous confidence extends to and rubs off on his players. In situations where the Warriors have no business competing, they do compete. And they win. We saw it when they went into Miami and Los Angeles early in the season and handled two very hot teams. We saw it again Wednesday night.
Jackson’s faith-based approach is less successful with observers. When he speaks to and about his team, the things Jackson says often seem at odds with, or at least not to have the ring of, truth. The “great game for us” remark seemed to confirm that the coach is too invested in his own bravado to recognize when things aren’t working. But Jackson doesn’t intend his words to be true. He wants them to become true.
Most of us use language to describe basketball. Jackson uses it to create basketball. It’s understood that nearly all coaches do this, but for Mark Jackson is the primary – it seems at times the only – vector of his coaching.
Is it enough?
If only so that this essay can be dismissed out of hand, let’s explore the parallels between this unextended second-year coach and the greatest NBA chief of the modern era.
The similarities between Mark Jackson and Phil Jackson are obvious enough: Both are players turned players’ coaches, leaders who find success by making teams and players believe they could be winners in situations where there had previously been only failure. Both are master communicators, and both employ public and private language to great strategic effect. On the flip side, both are viewed as relatively weak tacticians, even as lucky beneficiaries of extraordinary player talent. Jackson and Jackson wear different jewlery, but they are coaches in the same mold.
One clear difference: To his Zen Master repertoire, Phil Jackson adds what is sometimes called “constructive controversy.” He dispenses hard truths in public and private, often calling out his own players not just in practice, but in the media. He’s not above generating internal tension with a well-timed public slight of his own players. The theory is that growth occurs when we are uncomfortable.
Mark Jackson, from what we can tell, does none of this. By all accounts, his message to his players is that they are better than they believe themselves to be, that if they are willing to have faith in themselves and each other, anything is possible. The effect is a culture of belief that borders, at times, on the absurd. As Jackson strode into the interview room after Monday night’s crushing defeat, a reporter muttered, “here comes the bravado.” Jackson delivered, touting his team’s performance, denying any connection to the near-total collapse his team suffered in Game 6 against Denver, promising better results. It was a ridiculous performance, in some ways painful to watch. Then the Warriors went out Wednesday night and made it all true.
It’s working. Right?
The players Jackson has today – to a man – are much improved over the ones he started the year with. The team is in a playoff battle with a veteran championship team, one it is increasingly expected to win. Jackson deserves tremendous credit for helping them get here, as nearly every Warrior has repeatedly emphasized.
That said, they won’t be the same players next year that they are right now, either. What happens when this young team has grown up, when “you can do it” is nothing they don’t know? When “we’re all in this together” is all well and good but whatshisname keeps messing up the program. And come to think of it, you keep leaving him in there to do it. Coach.
Tight as these Warriors are, the weeds of dissent – the things that make repeating success so hard in any team sport – are already seeded. They always are. Read closely some of the comments this week about the role of defense in the team’s success. Or about where the Warrior guards’ open shots are really coming from. About what gets covered in the press and what doesn’t. Winning brings fame and fortune, and there’s not always enough to go around. Golden State features a No. 1 overall pick, a stud center with a personality to match, as a supporting player. As recently as when he came back from injury in January, Andrew Bogut presented himself as the leader of this team. In May, he’s the same guy the Warriors traded for, the same guy he’s always been, and yet he’s lucky to make the first paragraph. If that continues, it will become a problem. Believe it.
And yet every team has them. Mark Jackson makes tactical mistakes too often, but by any reasonable standard he has been masterful – masterful – for these Warriors, turning their broken franchise into a winning one and solving the problems of youth, inexperience and self-doubt.
On April 24, Mark Jackson called Curry and Thompson the best-shooting backcourt in basketball history and the sports world was aghast. On Thursday morning, ESPN hosts were putting the Warrior guards in the conversation with Michael Jordan and Steve Kerr, and Jackson was looking somewhat less the fool.
Jackson may have been late with his timeouts, and he was definitely slow to adjust his lineup to quell the Spurs late run in Game 1. Take that away from him. But two nights later, Jackson played three rookies a total of 85 minutes and won a playoff game in San Antonio. Give him that.
Time will catch up with Jackson eventually. His players are young and fresh and ready to believe, but they won’t be that way forever. Maybe not even another season, depending on how this magical ride ends. Because there’s a reason the story of Cinderella ends at the party: the next day, she’s not a chimney sweep anymore. No more daydreaming. She knows now. It’s her slipper. She will be queen.
That’s a different gig than being the prettiest girl at the ball. For one thing: a lot more people up in your business. For another: pressure.
Jackson himself is obviously up to that pressure. Are his players? We don’t know. Probably not yet. Most likely, like so many others before them, they will have to grow into it, and to do that they will need excellent coaching. As the Warriors mature, as they grow ever closer to the champions Jackson believes they can be, it’s likely that part of that coaching will have to be about hard truth.
But that’s tomorrow. Golden State is still at the ball, having the time of its life, and Mark Jackson is the one that brought them here. He doesn’t have to be the right coach for the imagined Warriors of the future. After all, he’s new here too. He gets to learn and grow too. All Jackson has to do today is be the right coach for these players right now. As Golden State takes the floor for the first of two games in Oakland, it’s hard to see how anyone else fits.