When the Warriors fired Mark Jackson two days after being eliminated from the playoffs, a couple of narratives emerged about why this decision was made, both of them missing the point. The first is that Mark Jackson was fired because he was in a power struggle with the front office. Over the course of the season Jackson seemed to constantly need to assert his authority, leading to the firing of multiple assistant coaches that he felt were trying to undermine him. The most damning example of his arrogance that I saw was at a press conference after a game in which he rested a healthy Jermaine O’neal and said he was “getting his Pop (Greg Popovich) on.” He noted that reporters would have slammed him if he had rested O’neal and they had lost, but that no one ever questions Popovich when he does it. When a reporter responded by reasonably saying that maybe perhaps Popovich has earned that respect with his track record of success while Jackson hadn’t, he responded “no comment.” Jackson insanely thinks that he and Greg Popovich are equals, or at least should be treated with the same respect as far as their coaching decisions. This is even more absurd and hilarious considering Popovich “got his Pop on” all over Mark Jackson when he rested his starters and still beat the Warriors in Oakland.
The second and more popular narrative is that Jackson shouldn’t have been fired because his players have so much support and belief in him. I’ve heard it said several times that the Warriors would “run through a wall” for Mark Jackson. Well that’s all well and good, and certainly players have to be motivated to have a successful team, but ultimately all that fiery passion and wall-breaking resulted in a 6 seed and first round playoff exit.
And that’s why all the controversy about Jackson’s relationship with the front office and his players is largely irrelevant; the simple fact is that on the court, the Warriors weren’t good enough this year to justify bringing Jackson back. This isn’t about the playoff loss to the Clippers, in which the undermanned Dubs put up as much of a fight as anyone could have hoped, it’s about the larger body of work in the regular season.
The Warriors should have been fighting with the Clippers, Blazers and Rockets for the 3-5 seeds, not sweating out the 6-9 seeds with the Mavericks, Grizzlies and Suns. They underperformed at home all season, losing to the Timberwolves, Wizards, and even the Bobcats in a game I attended that was so ugly I had to be checked into the hospital the next day. (Okay, maybe that was unrelated). Their offense was average, ranking twelfth in points per possession on the year, a mystifying number when you consider that two of their starters (Curry and Lee) are all-offense, no-defense players. This collection of offensive talent can be better than that. It has to be better than that.
One reason for the offense underachieving is that Jackson was unimaginative and stubborn with his rotation all year, and that is perhaps his greatest fault. The Warrior’s roster, with seven starter quality players (actual starters plus Barnes and Green), begs for a staggered rotation. Instead we saw 5 man bench units play all year, even after it was clear this wasn’t working. Jackson was content to let the second team play horribly inefficient iso-ball, and the bench offense was predominantly just post ups to mediocre post up players, like Jermaine O’neal and Marreese Speights. I remember watching a Warriors-Knicks game in which Speights posted up Tyson Chandler with 14 seconds left on the shot clock. That’s just stupid basketball, especially on a team with so many deadly shooters and offensive options available, and the head coach has to be held accountable for it.
That brings us to Harrison Barnes, who after a promising rookie season was woeful all year. Some of that is on Harrison, but a lot of it is on Mark Jackson. After thriving as a small ball four in the playoff series with San Antonio last year, Jackson hardly, if ever, used him in that role this year. He also barely got any run with the first teamers, instead being relied upon to be the primary option of the misguided bench unit, a responsibility he wasn’t ready for. Barnes was frequently given the ball in the post and expected to score out of that, something that he struggled to do from the very start, yet Jackson didn’t adjust. (You know who IS really good at scoring out of the post? David Lee. Maybe you play Lee with the bench unit and run the offense through him? Again, an idea that Jackson never really pursued.) In the playoff series with the Clippers, Jackson played Draymond Green at center in some super small lineups. Now that’s an interesting idea, and one I’m not necessarily against, except that Jackson never did that in the regular season. The playoffs is not the time to try lineups for the first time. The bench was broken all year, why didn’t he do this before? Not only did Jackson run a stupid offense, he didn’t even use his players correctly to get the most he could out of that stupid offense.
I’ve heard the excuse made that injuries hurt the Warriors this year, and that you can’t really evaluate Jackson because he didn’t have his full lineup all the time. But the Warriors were as healthy as they could hope to be; Igoudala and Bogut both missed time, but you’re not being realistic if you expect them to play every game. Compared with the rest of the West, the Warriors were actually on the fortunate side of the injury-luck spectrum. The Clippers lost Chris Paul for a quarter of the season, the Suns lost Eric Bledsoe for most of it. The only reason the Grizzlies were a lower seed than the Warriors is that Marc Gasol was out for two months. The Spurs rested Ginobli, Parker and Duncan to avoid injury and still beat the Warriors, at home.
Stepping back and looking at the situation in a broader context, firing Mark Jackson was about the only move this team could make to get better. The Dubs went all-in this year, they traded two first round picks for the disappointing Igoudala (more on him later), signed him to a four year contract and then extended Bogut for three years. Barring a blockbuster trade, which you can’t count on being available, this is the core group the Warriors will have for the foreseeable future. They were supposed to be title contenders, and under Jackson they weren’t even close to that. Some have said Jackson did the best you could do with this “limited” roster. I don’t believe that, I believe this is one of the most talented rosters in the NBA, and they can be much better than what they’ve shown. A lot of national writers talk about what a fun team to watch the Warriors are, yet that was not my experience watching them this year. The open court turnovers, the stagnant offense, the just objectively wrong rotations made them frustrating more often than they were fun. What is the best case scenario for bringing Jackson back? How are the Warriors going to be better next year than they were this year? Jackson has taken the Warriors as far as he can, it’s time for him to go. Good riddance.