The Golden State Warriors fired coach Mark Jackson on Monday; one day after the team was eliminated from the playoffs, losing in the first round in a seven-game classic to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Almost immediately there was an outcry, with many pundits believing it was an extremely harsh decision, considering the success Jackson had achieved at his time at the helm.
During his three years as head coach, the team improved dramatically.
In his first season with the club, the team struggled to 23–43 record in the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12, as the team adapted to Jackson’s new style and systems.
However, in 2012-13, Jackson led the Warriors to a 47–35 record and a sixth place finish in the tough Western Conference. This marked the first time the Warriors had reached the playoffs since the 2006–07 season.
And this year, the Warriors improved to 51–31, the team’s first season with 50 or more wins since 1993-94, clinching another playoff berth.
The team, however, had championship aspirations, so the first round loss was considered somewhat a disappointment, and Jackson was given the bullet.
Though coaches should be judged on performance – and the Warriors performed relatively well this season, especially considering Andrew Bogut’s injury for the playoffs – something has been off at Golden State for awhile, and this decision was actually rumored weeks ago.
Two assistant coaches were let go under strange circumstances, there was talk of Jackson disrespecting Hall of Famer Jerry West – who is an executive board member at the club – and there appeared to be a personality clash between Jackson and owner Joe Lacob as well.
Whatever was going behind the scenes, all was not well with the Warriors. The decision is therefore a shock, but no real surprise. And I appreciate how stupid and confusing that sounds.
Yet from a pure coaching perspective, I think Jackson was overrated anyway.
He made great time-out speeches, his players loved playing for him, and he brought a long overdue defensive mind-set to the franchise.
However, his in-game coaching was terrible at times.
In the fourth quarter of game 6 against the Clippers, Draymond Green received his fifth foul. Jackson immediately replaced him with David Lee – who also happened to be on his fifth foul. On the very next possession, Lee fouled Blake Griffin – on a converted 3-point play no less – and subsequently fouled out with a lot of time left in the game. That’s just a horrible, irresponsible gamble.
With 12 seconds left in game 7, and the Warriors down four, the play coming out of a time-out ended up being a Steph Curry runner from three-point land. You would hope a team can get a better shot than that out of a time-out.
There were a number of similar coaching mistakes in the playoffs, and though one could use the excuse that Jackson was still learning his craft, such growing pains would be acceptable if the expectations for the team were lower.
Unfortunately for Jackson, the team had grown so much from a talent perspective, that it didn’t really have time to wait for him to catch-up. Rookie errors from the coach were hard to tolerate with this roster.
In any event, it wasn’t just the playoffs that highlighted potential reasons why Jackson may not have been a fantastic coach.
Part of the attractiveness of signing Andre Iguodala as a free agent was the potential to play Curry – the best shooter in the NBA – off the ball more often. Yet during the season, how many times did we see plays run with Iggy as the primary ball-handler?
There was also a strange reliance on the unreliable Jordan Crawford, the inability to get the best out of Harrison Barnes, and a penchant for over-relying on Curry – and to a lesser extent, Klay Thompson – to bail the team out when they were in trouble.
Meanwhile Jackson’s reluctance to play small ball at times seemed counter-productive, considering the Warriors roster is destined to play that style of basketball.
The simple truth is that the Warriors, at this stage of their development as a team, may simply need a better coach.
Yet ironically, I don’t think that had anything to do with Jackson getting fired.