Mark Jackson and the Perils of the Inexperienced Coach with a Talented Team
By: Tim Greene
For the Golden State Warriors, this season has seen more twists, turns, and dead-ends than the hedge maze from The Shining. Warriors fans can only hope that, unlike the woe-begotten Jack Torrance, Steph Curry and friends find their way out before the deep freeze comes.
As of this writing, the team sits at 29 wins and 19 losses—close behind the Phoenix Suns, with the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets, and Minnesota Timberwolves trailing close behind.
The team’s prospects have yo-yo’d continually—an 8-5 start shaded into a 5-7 run while wing supreme Andre Iguodala was sidelined with a hamstring injury. Following Iguodala’s return, the Warriors reeled off 11 wins in their next 12 games, including a ten-game win streak. While heavy on weak Eastern Conference foes, there were some quality wins in there too—the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers are legit title contenders, and Washington, Denver, and Atlanta are playoff-quality competition.
The streak ended abruptly on January 8th, in a close loss to the then-moribund-but-now-surging Brooklyn Nets. Including that game, the Warriors are 5-6 in their last eleven, with several bad home losses. Everyone wants a scapegoat when things are going poorly, and Warriors fans haven’t disappointed.
Having barely passed the season’s midpoint, we’ve already seen, at the minimum, calls for trades of David Lee (“doesn’t play defense; can’t hit jumpers”), Klay Thompson (“too inconsistent”), and Harrison Barnes (“indecisive offensively, defensive sieve; Draymond’s better”). The front office moved Toney Douglas when Coach Jackson failed to find a way to utilize his strengths. Given the Twitter buzz and comments overheard at games, some fans wouldn’t hesitate to toss Marreese Speights off the Bay Bridge if they had the chance.
But throughout it all, there’s been a special vitriol reserved for Warriors coach Mark Jackson.
In the lows of the Iguodala-injury doldrums, fans over at Golden State of Mind called for his head, citing Jackson’s threefold inability to motivate his players, provide team leadership, and display any semblance of tactical sense. J.M. discussed some of the same concerns a couple of weeks ago here at WarriorsWorld.
Is it really as bad as it seems? The situation calls for further inquiry.
NBA head coaches, like their charges, tend to fall into characteristic patterns. Broad strokes, coaches can be split into two major camps: system guys and flex guys. (To be clear, this isn’t the only distinction one could draw, but it’s the one I’m drawing here.)
One can find successful coaches in each camp. Phil Jackson (“Triangle”), Don Nelson (“Nellie Ball”), and Mike D’Antoni (“Seven Seconds or Less”) are system guys. They do best when their players fit predefined roles.
D’Antoni’s system was a disaster with the Kobe- and Pau-led 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers, as well as the previous year’s Melo-led New York Knicks. But SSOL was deadly in Phoenix and the adapted version may be the only reason this year’s Lakers have won any games.
Flex guys like Brad Stevens, Rick Carlisle, and Gregg Popovich tailor their gameplans to their players. For these coaches, there’s usually a system—broadly defined—but it’s less about fitting players into set roles than finding ways to maximize the skills of the guys they have.
The best flex coaches fold in sets and plays from a variety of systems in an effort to highlight to their players’ strengths. Got a bunch of shooters? Find them shots in their best spots. Got a great post presence? Give him the ball down low and let him create.
There are good and bad coaches of each type. Mo Cheeks’s ad hoc system in Detroit has the Pistons looking horrendous; it’s hard to imagine Josh Smith looking any worse. Mike Brown alternatingly ran versions of the Triangle and Princeton offenses with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Lakers, but only really found success with a system best described as “give Lebron James the ball and, uh, I dunno, let him do whatever.”
Most inexperienced coaches, Jackson included, tend to be variants of the flex guy. To some extent, it’s a direct result of that inexperience—they simply don’t know any better than to operate by feel. And, as in all walks of life, gut instincts are often proven wrong. That’s why new coaches tend to be surrounded by lifer assistants like Mike Malone or Lawrence Frank—to provide counterbalance where overconfidence might reign.
I’m not going to bang the drum here for Malcolm Gladwell’s mythical “10,000 hours to expertise” hypothesis. But very few people are immediately great at whatever they try; in fact, nobody is, absent a translatable cognate skillset. And coaching requires a very different temperament and skillset from playing, which is why most, if not all, good head coaches have had at least some experience as assistants.
When inexperience mixes with overconfidence, the results can be frustrating.
Mark’s Cousin Vinny
It can certainly be argued that Jackson’s closest coaching analogue over the last decade or so is former Clippers and Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. Both are former players of a certain type—utterly confident and well liked among their peers despite their underwhelming physical skills. Jackson was a bruiser of a point guard, while Del Negro’s game was distance-shooting, full stop. Both came into head coaching positions with little or no experience.
Mark Jackson, like Del Negro, shows complete confidence in his decision-making and can be intensely focused on doing things “the right way,” even if the conventional wisdom may be flawed.
For Del Negro, “doing things the right way” meant telling DeAndre Jordan not to shoot outside of five feet—ever—and ceremonially benching Jordan in the fourth quarter due to his poor free throw shooting. Jackson has done the same thing with Bogut who, despite being the Warriors’ defensive centerpiece, averages only a shade over five minutes per fourth quarter in which he plays, and has stayed glued to the bench in the fourth in 12 of the Warriors’ 46 games.
System guy-style rigidity can be valuable for some things (“never take long twos; always have a shooter in the corner”), but problematic for others (“continue chucking no matter how poorly you’re shooting, or how bad your looks are”). Flexibility can be two-sided as well. Tweaking the offense to find different looks may be beneficial, but yanking players in and out of the lineup on a nightly basis can damage their confidence and lead to poor play.
There’s a happy medium somewhere that Jackson has yet to find—and that some coaches never find, including Del Negro (so far). For every Gregg Popovich or Phil Jackson, there are five Tim Floyds and a handful of Larry Drews and Jim Boylans—guys who just can’t seem to discover the right balance.
To his credit, Jackson has often been more flexible—in a good way—than Del Negro was. ESPN TrueHoop’s Ethan Strauss suggested in November that Jackson’s flexibility might have more to do with the coach’s lack of fear of making the wrong decision than trust in analytics or preternaturally good instincts. But Jackson does have the ability to make good coaching decisions without falling into them by luck.
For example, and as Strauss described, when the Warriors’ defense failed to play up to expectations in the 2012-13 season, Jackson worked with Andrew Bogut and David Lee to develop a team defense that would minimize the negative effects of their less-than-fleet feet. This year’s squad uses far less hard hedging on the pick and roll as a result of these changes, which allows Bogut and Lee to hang back to contest shots near the rim.
With Lee and Bogut protecting the restricted area, the defense has looked significantly better. Lee’s bad habits have been minimized, and Bogut’s impeccable spacing and timing at the rim have been maximized. With new addition Iguodala helping at the wing, the new-look defense rose to fifth in the league in defensive efficiency in the early season.
But when Iguodala went down, the Warriors’ defense collapsed. With Barnes playing heavy minutes at the 2 and 3, the Warriors’ defense fell to 17th in defensive efficiency. Rather than tinker with the lineups when the team struggled against good competition—perhaps by slotting in Draymond Green, a defensive stud, over Barnes—Jackson stuck to his guns while his team struggled, game after game.
This pattern has repeated over the team’s most recent crest and trough. When Iguodala returned and the Warriors reeled off 11 wins in 12 games, their defensive efficiency soared to second in the league over that period, as they let in 4.8 points per 100 possessions fewer than the third-ranked Chicago Bulls. In the recent lull, the Warriors’ defense leaked like a sieve, ranking 13th in the league during the 3-6 stretch preceding wins on Thursday and Friday.
This year’s squad is simply too inconsistent on offense to win games against good teams if it’s not playing lockdown defense. Thursday’s win against the Clippers should be a blueprint for the rest of the season: stay within the offense and finish at the rim on the one side, protect the rim and challenge deep shots on the other.
Despite these game-by-game defensive woes, Jackson has been reluctant to give more time to Green individually, or to any lineups including his three best defenders: Bogut, Iguodala, and Green. They’ve played together for a total of 52 (!) minutes all year, and it’s almost criminal given how stingy they’ve been in that limited time. (Per nbawowy.com, opponents put up only .817 points-per-possession (“PPP”) on 42.5 percent effective field goal percentage (“eFG”) against the “BIG” unit. For comparison, the Indiana Pacers’ starting unit gives up .961 PPP on 44.4 percent eFG.)
Jackson unflinchingly abides by conventional wisdom in other ways, too. As Jack Winter recently described, he loves the mismatch to the point that he’s willing to grind the team’s offense to a halt aggressively looking for it in late-game situations. The Warriors consistently give away leads chasing these mismatches instead of staying within the three-point-centric offense and ending games with their outrageously efficient starting unit.
Paradoxically, Jackson often gives too much shrift to his three-point shooters during early game situations. When Thompson and Barnes struggle—which happens fairly often—Jackson’s answer is typically “shooters gotta shoot,” instead of developing the pick-and-roll game with Lee or Bogut to give the shooters room to breathe.
Boiling it down, Jackson’s biggest problem is at its base about knowing when to say “when” when it comes to relying on common basketball wisdom, and when to question his instincts. Sometimes players need to be held accountable for poor play. And, as coaches like Popovich and Carlisle can attest, sometimes game-specific circumstances call for fluid, rather than rigid, rotations and play calling. Even the best of the rule-based system guys understands that sometimes the rules have to give if they’re consistently failing to produce good results.
Unfortunately, the only way for a coach to fix these issues is through on-the-job experience—by getting a better feel for the game from the coach’s perspective.
And in general, the most successful head coaches—like Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, Indiana’s Frank Vogel, Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, and Popovich—spent years in the assistant coaching trenches before getting a shot at a top job. Without that seasoning, and as illustrated by the experiences of guys like Del Negro, Isiah Thomas, and early-2000s Doc Rivers, it can be difficult for new coaches to learn how to adapt on the fly. And this is particularly true when the team being coached is talented enough to win despite itself.
* * * * *
For all of the digital ink spilled on how poorly the Warriors have performed this year, the team actually has very few bad losses. Brooklyn is 10-3 so far in 2014, with quality wins against the Thunder and Heat. Washington’s primary five-man lineup of Gortat, Nene, Ariza, Beal, and Wall is near the top of the league in net efficiency—they’re no slouches when they’re on. Sometimes an equally talented team just outperforms you.
Moreover, barring losses to the Lakers and Bobcats, the Warriors have only lost to legitimate playoff contenders. The team also holds solid wins against Portland, Oklahoma City, and Miami—all of which teams have equally bad (or worse) losses against inferior competition. Even the league-best Pacers aren’t immune to sloppy losses to bad teams.
The keys, simply, are consistency and execution against the team’s primary competition—teams like the Clippers, Timberwolves, Nuggets, Suns, Mavericks, and Rockets. And that will often require significantly more on-the-fly adjustments and better rotation management than Jackson has provided so far this year.
Far too many Warriors games this year, including last night’s 95-90 win against the Jazz, have required Curry to turn on video game God Mode and simply hope that a variety of off-balance, contested threes will go in. Because Curry is a historically great shooter, it often works. But that’s not a recipe for a healthy team.
Consistency is about not having to be bailed out; it’s about every player doing his part, game after game, even when deep shots aren’t falling. A fireworks show from Curry is fun to watch, but shouldn’t be necessary to win close games. The ritualized fourth-quarter Chris Paul takeover was a major reason Del Negro was run out of LA, after all.
And still, even during the team’s recent slump, there have been glimmers of sunlight. The atrocious all-bench unit thankfully seems to be on its way out. Jackson has been trying out some particularly wacky lineups featuring Draymond Green as the nominal center, and has been running Thompson with the bench for added firepower.
Tinkering is good! The best coaches are inveterate tinkerers—if you think any potential contributor is ever permanently on the outs in San Antonio, you’re don’t know Pop. Last night, Jackson played the “BIG” lineup for 12 solid minutes, spurring the Warriors’ comeback and eventual win. Baby steps.
To be clear, even the best coach can’t squeeze blood from a stone. Teams need talent to compete. Luckily for Jackson, the Warriors have it in spades. But a coach who’s overconfident in his underdeveloped instincts can, despite his best intentions, easily keep a talented team from reaching its full potential. Los Angelenos, for example, can attest that Vinny seemed completely out of his depth heading the CP3-era Clippers squad.
Jackson could be the nouveau Del Negro. But there’s another coach out there with a similar background that could eventually provide a better analogue: Doc Rivers.
Doc found minor success in his early coaching career with Orlando, but didn’t truly find himself as a motivator and tactician until he’d been at it for nearly a decade. He learned via trial-by-fire in Orlando and Boston, and is now recognized as one of the league’s better head coaches.
The still-inexperienced Jackson could go either way. Given the wealth of talent on this team and the squad’s short window of championship viability, Warriors fans and the Golden State front office will have to decide whether they’re willing to wait to see which way Jackson breaks.
All stats per NBA.com unless otherwise stated. Thanks to ClipperBlog’s Patrick James (@patrickmjames) for initially suggesting the Del Negro-Jackson comparison.