Monday, July 18, 2011

Ten Reasons I Have Come Around to Mark Jackson

On May 22, in the middle of another boring workday, fellow Diss-cussant Kurt Scott posed a question on my Facebook wall: “How you feeling about the W’s coaching search? My list would look something like: 1. McHale … 834. Mark Jackson.”  He quickly amended it:

Kurt Scott That's assuming Lakers snatch up Adelman, as I believe they will. In which
case my list looks more like 1. McHale 2. Shaw ...835. Mark Jackson.

I spend most of my workday on Facebook, so I quickly responded:

Jacob Greenberg clearly we're trying to make a splashy hire. i think i've come around to the idea of mike brown, and i think he's more into the w's job than the lakers job (who wants to follow phil?). my list is 1. mike brown 2. kevin mchale 3. dwayne casey 4. brian shaw....834. jeff van gundy 835. donald sterling 836. mark jackson

Taking into consideration the fact that Jeff Van Gundy has no plans on returning to coaching anytime soon, and that Donald Sterling is a racist motherfucker, it goes without saying that I was unexcited about Mark Jackson as a potential candidate for head coach of the Golden State Warriors.  So, imagine my joy on June 7th when I read that Mark Jackson had been hired as the Warrior’s head coach. What the hell? He was my absolute last choice.  Rarely ever in life do we get our very last choice—usually, some sort of compromise can be made with the powers that be to ensure one doesn’t walk away completely disappointed.  But not this time.  Hand down, man down.

But that was June 7th, and since then I’ve had some time to reflect upon the hire the revamped Warriors front office made.  Clearly this was a splashy move, just as much about the arrivals of co-owners Joe Lacob and Peter Gruber, consultant Jerry “The Logo” West, and GM-in-waiting Bob Meyers as decision-makers in the organization as it was about the hiring of a former player and broadcaster with no head coaching experience.  As such, in my earliest assessments of the Jackson hire, I was convinced the Warriors front office and new ownership group was less concerned about developing a young, promising roster, and more concerned about promoting the potential celebrity power of the Lacob-Gruber ownership team. 
Since then, however, I will say that my stance has softened somewhat.  No longer wary of the Jackson hire, I am now cautiously optimistic that the Warriors may have actually gotten the best (available) man for the job. And, of course, I have irrefutable proof in support of my statement.
So, without any further ado, I present to you: Ten Reasons I Have Changed My Mind about Mark Jackson. 
1.      Because Mike Brown, Kevin McHale, Dwayne Casey and Brian Shaw aren’t walking through that door.
Mike Brown was my first choice, but he took the more high profile Los Angeles Lakers head coaching job.  McHale, my second choice, was hired by the Houston Rockets. Casey, my third choice, was on the Warriors’ wish-list, but elected not to interview him while he was coaching during the NBA finals for the Dallas Mavericks, and made their hire beforehand.  Brian Shaw, whom I thought would be a nice hire for the club, became this year’s odd man out.  Shaw served as Phil Jackson’s lead assistant in Los Angeles and is originally from Oakland, and is overdue for a head coaching position (though based upon Kurt Rambis’ lack of success in Minnesota, perhaps candidates from the Phil Jackson coaching tree shouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt).  He seems to have an easy going demeanor, and would have been a fresh, welcome face for the franchise.  But Jackson had a much higher profile than Shaw, which I think worked in his favor.  Shaw, who has since been hired as Associate Head Coach of the Indiana Pacers to assist recently-promoted head coach Frank Vogel, will get his own gig someday.  I wish it had been with the Warriors though.
2.     Because I have finally come to terms with the Keith Smart firing.

Coach Smart was a dead man walking from the minute he awkwardly announced his own hiring at the end of September. Lacob and Gruber wanted to purge any influence of the Cohan-Nelson regime and Smart, as Nelson’s former lead assistant, would have needed a miracle (read as, a playoff berth) to save his job. Smart guided the Warriors to a 36-46 record, a ten game improvement from the previous season, but not nearly enough to reach the playoffs in the competitive Western conference.  
A lot of the time I liked the job Smart did with the team. The 2009-2010 season, Don Nelson’s final as head coach, was a disgrace, as Nellie neither inspired his players to play hard nor did he care when they failed to do so. Under Smart, however, the Warriors generally gave great effort, looking crisp on offense (when all the pieces were healthy) and crashing the boards with gusto.  Nevertheless, it never translated into wins, nor marked improvement in a number of key areas. This was embarrassingly apparent on the defensive end, where the Warriors showed a remarkable lack of progress. Improving from the 2nd worst defense in the NBA to the 4th worst defense in the NBA is not enough progress to keep your job—nor should it be, frankly.  Alas, Smart had to go.
3.     Because Mark Jackson was a top-shelf NBA point guard for a very long time.

Jackson was a compelling, if understated, figure from the moment he entered the league.  Jackson is a forefather in a long line of New York born point guards.  He grew up in Brooklyn, was an elite player at both Rucker Park and at Bishop Loughlin (a NY high school basketball traditional powerhouse), and starred at St John’s University.  However, where Stephon Marbury, Erick Barkley, Sebastian Telfair, Rod Strickland, Jamaal Tinsley, Rafer Alston and Pearl Washington failed, Jackson succeeded. Drafted 18th by the Knicks he would go on to have a stellar 16-season career.  While his most glamorous accolade is the 10,344 assists he recorded, good for third all time, he helped the teams he played on in ways that are hard to convey on the stat sheet. Mark Jackson was a winner.  Pure and simple.  In his 16 years, with 9 different teams, Jackson only missed the playoffs 3 times.  That’s unbelievable. Clearly, Jackson understood how to run a team better than the vast majority of point guards who have ever played in the NBA.  This is undoubtedly impressive, and perhaps a sign of good things to come.
4.     Because some of Mark Jackson’s resume is very solid….

Yes, Jackson is #3 on the all-time assists list, behind only John Stockton and Magic Johnson. But he was also very good in less glamorous ways.  For example, he’s 13th all-time in games played, 26th in minutes played, and 23rd in steals. Not eye-popping statistics, but certainly nothing to sneeze at either.  He also won Rookie of the Year in 1987, and was an All-Star the next year.  This certainly cements his place as an elite point guard, both in the era in which he played, and also in terms of larger history. 
5.     …and some of his resume is not – but perhaps in a good way.

Critics might point out that Mark Jackson failed to live up to expectations, especially considering how surprising his first few years in the league were.  New York point guards have arguably the most pressure out of any player/position/location to perform throughout their careers, and doubly so if they play professionally in New York.  Modern NBA fans can remember the scrutiny Stephon Marbury came under after he forced a trade to the New Jersey Nets from the Minnesota Timberwolves, and later from the Phoenix Suns to the New York Knicks.  Whether he was playing well, poorly, or playing at all, Starbury’s performance was dissected and discussed to levels that surely surprised all fans.  Mark Jackson, in many respects, was no different.  After securing the ROY award in 1988 and leading the Knicks back to the playoffs, Jackson and Ewing teamed up in 1988 in a tandem that many felt would compete for a championship in the near future.  A strong 50-32 season, narrow loss to Jordan’s Chicago Bulls further cemented the Knicks’ presumed greatness, as well as a city’s lofty expectations for its native son.

But, like Starbury, things didn’t work out. After his All-Star season, where Jackson averaged 17 points and 9 assists per game, his stats dropped off.  His scoring dropped to just under 10 PPG, and his assists dropped to 7 per game.  And most damningly, the Knicks lost 4-1 to the eventual- champion Pistons in the second round, disappointing fans and the media alike.  Like with Marbury, the axe came down unfairly on Jackson.  Jackson’s 1988 All-Star appearance would be the only one in his entire career, and Jackson’s performance would continue to tail off in the subsequent two seasons.  During this time the New York media tore into Jackson.  Unsurprisingly, Jackson’s status as scapegoat made him a prime candidate to be traded, which the Knicks did, banishing him and Stanley Roberts to the Los Angeles Clippers for Doc Rivers, Charles Smith and Bo Kimble.  At this point it might be reasonable to assume that Jackson’s legacy would be tarnished by his failure to succeed in his home town – the prototypical model for failure that later generations of point guards from New York would follow for years to come.  
However, all Jackson did following his ouster from the Knicks was win basketball games. Jackson lead the Clippers to a second consecutive playoff berth in 1992-1993 (more on that later), and became an important piece for playoff teams in Indiana, Denver, Indiana again, Toronto, New York again, and even Houston in his final season in the league.  No, he never made an another All-Star team, and he only notched one Finals appearance with Indiana in 2000, but he remained in the top five in the league for assists for eleven of his sixteen seasons, only missed the playoffs three times, and played in the Conference Finals in eight of those seasons. In other words, if Mark Jackson’s resume is marked by a lack of individual success, it is impressive in terms of team success, and his ability to provide efficient, steady leadership, both as a pass-first point guard on the floor, and as an experienced, respected veteran presence off the floor.
My hope is that Jackson’s playing experience serves as a positive influence for the Warriors’ compelling but controversial backcourt of Monta Ellis and Steph Curry.  Monta is an elite scorer, boasting a 24.1 ppg average, but a flashy stats belie his inefficiency as a player.  His reputation as a shoot first guard, whose shot attempts are as plentiful as they are questionable, has cost him All-Star bids the last two seasons — and perhaps rightfully so. Curry, meanwhile, has shown flashes of brilliance in his first two seasons, but has yet to display efficiency on a nightly basis.  For all his positives—and indeed, there are many, such as a 18.6 ppg scoring average, and an impressive 44& from beyond the arc—his 6.2 assists per game average ranked him near the bottom of the list for starting point guards last season.  While Curry and Ellis are great individual performers, they have not yet learned how to play together in a way that will improve the team on a nightly basis.

The biggest question of this season will be whether Curry and Ellis, two smallish guards with (allegedly) similar games, can co-exist as dual faces of our resurgent franchise.  Will they be able to?  Probably not.  One of them (likely and hopefully Monta) will be traded to bring in more help.  But Jackson will use his experience as an elite team player to give them the best chance to succeed as a backcourt, and that’s what he should try to do.
6.     Because Mark Jackson is (I hope) less Vinny Del Negro, and more Doc Rivers.

I love Doc Rivers. He is, in my mind, the most versatile coach the modern NBA has ever seen.  Throughout his career he has done just about everything.  He started his coaching career in Orlando in the 1999-2000 season, having never served as an assistant, only as a player and broadcaster.  He assumed control of an Orlando team that had just traded away a prematurely declining Penny Hardaway, and similar to the New York Knicks from 2007-2010, were also in the process of clearing cap space in an effort to be a player in the much anticipated 1999-2000 offseason, when players like Tim Duncan, Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady were going to become available.  As such, he trotted out a team that featured Darrell Armstrong, Ben Wallace, and little else—and nearly shocked the world.  The team finished 41-41, and was eliminated from playoff contention on the last day of the season.  Rivers was named Coach of the Year, and the team’s spirited performance, and willingness to rally around their new coach, certainly sold Orlando as a destination to free agents.
Rivers has seen just about everything since then.  While Orlando missed out on Duncan, they did manage to sign Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady.  Rivers faced massive expectations to bring a championship to Orlando, but Grant Hill’s career-altering ankle injury, as well as Tracy McGrady’s ascension to self-centered superstar, ended those dreams.  He failed to advance from the first round in three years, and was fired in 2003-2004 after Orlando started the season 1-19.  Rivers returned to the broadcast booth for a few seasons before being hired as coach of the Celtics, who were beginning to rebuild under Danny Ainge.  Rivers guided the team to the playoffs in his first season, but failed to advance to the postseason over the next three years, and reached a nadir when his Celtics won 19 games in 2006-2007.  Under fire from his players (including Paul Pierce before his rise into all-time Celtic greatness), as well as the media, Ainge stuck with Rivers, and early in the 2007 offseason, pulled off a series of trades that brought Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to the C’s. The rest, of course, is history: Rivers’ Celtics have become a perennial contender, reaching the finals two of the last four seasons and winning it all in 2008. 

In his decade or so of coaching, Rivers has been the head of both rebuilding and contending outfits, coached super-teams and cap space cadets, and has both won—and lost—19 games in a row.  That’s crazy impressive, all without any previous coaching experience. And he just signed a five year contract with the Celtics to be their man for the foreseeable future.  Not too bad.
But what about Vinny Del Negro?  Admittedly, Del Negro doesn’t have the experience of Rivers, but in his limited time as a head coach, his track record is not nearly as interesting or impressive.  He was a surprise hire for the Chicago Bulls by Gar Heard and Jim Paxson, who had just underachieved greatly under Scott Skiles and Jim Boylan.  Del Negro was heralded as a fantastic head coaching prospect, though there was little evidence to support the claim. Del Negro was given a roster built around top pick Derrick Rose, featuring young exciting players like Joakim Noah and Luol Deng and quality veterans like Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon.   Unlike Rivers, Del Negro was given a roster that was poised to compete—perhaps not contend—but certainly compete.

Did they?  Well, yes and no.  Del Negro looked overmatched and confused in his first full season on the bench, running a team that played spirited yet porous defense and featured only two or three unimaginative offensive sets built around D-Rose’s ability to drive and pop.  The team was seven games below .500 at the trade deadline, and Del Negro’s butt was firmly in the hot seat, when they pulled the trigger on deals that brought John Salmons and Brad Miller to the team.  The team finished the season strong to qualify for the playoffs, and eventually faced the Celtics in a seven game series for the ages.  Even though it was clear the team was playing well IN SPITE of Del Negro’s coaching, rather than because of it, the Bulls exciting finish netted Del Negro another year. His second season, which saw the departure of Ben Gordon, yielded similar results: a 41-41 record and first round loss to the King James led Cavaliers.  A lack of progress, as well as lukewarm support from players, couldn’t save Del Negro his job.  Luckily he was hired by the Clippers, who are counting on Del Negro to transform the pieces around surefire franchise cornerstones Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon into something remotely into a championship contender.  For some reason, I don’t see Vinny doing it.

7.     Because Mark Jackson was the leader of the 1992-1993 Los Angeles Clippers, perhaps the most compelling and under-analyzed 41-41 team of all time.
If the 46-36 Houston Rockets hadn’t won the NBA championship in 1994-1995, pundits might’ve looked at the 1992-1993 LA Clippers as the most compelling surprise team of the modern era.  While most contemporary fans recall the 2006 Clippers team which took Phoenix to seven games in the Western Conference Semifinals as the lone successful Clippers outfit, few recall when Larry Brown coached the Clippers to two consecutive playoff berths in the early nineties, with almost two completely different rosters.  The 1991-1992 Clippers, led by Danny Manning, Ron Harper, Loy Vaught and Doc Rivers, rolled to a 45-37 record and a first round loss to the Utah Jazz in five games.  Shortly after the season the Clips pulled off a blockbuster trade, sending Doc Rivers, Charles Smith and Bo Kimble to the Knicks for Mark Jackson and Stanley Roberts.

Jackson provided the same stability that Rivers had provided in the previous season, playing all 82 games, and starting 81 of them.  He scored 14 points per game, added 9 assists, and also had an impressive 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.  While the Clippers slipped to 41-41, they still qualified for the playoffs based on strong play from Jackson, Ron Harper, and Danny Manning.  They even took the eventual-champion Houston Rockets to a deciding game five in the first round, narrowing losing 84-80.  Like his previous seasons, Jackson failed to produce All-Star quality numbers (especially with Western Conference point guards like John Stockton, Gary Payton, and Kevin Johnson firmly in their primes), but he was able to provide stability to keep a playoff unit playing high level basketball.  Moreover, he was able to keep a playoff team with no easily recognizable star—the top two choices were Danny Manning and Ron Harper, quality players, but hardly stars—competitive, largely through his unselfish passing skills.  These qualities will hopefully help Jackson as he coaches the Warriors, who like the Clippers, are without an easily recognizable star, and must win on team talent.
Jackson would play one more season with a Clippers team depleted by free agent departures (Ron Harper and Olden Polynice), chronic injuries (Loy Vaught), and dumb trades (Danny Manning for Dominique Wilkins) before being traded to the Indiana Pacers to reunite with Larry Brown, and eventually team with Rick Smits, Reggie Miller, Dale Davis, and Jalen Rose to reach the NBA Finals in 2000.  Not too shabby.
8.     Because of this highlight video.
Damn, Mark Jackson, you scary. Scary good.

9.     Because Mark Jackson, as the new face of the Golden State Warriors, bucks an (arguably) troubling trend of the NBA being a player’s league.

The byline of the 2010-2011 season was that when it came to team chemistry and transactions, “the inmates were running the asylum.” We saw this storyline play out a number of times—LeBron’s infamous “Decision” and Carmelo Anthony’s forced trade to the Knicks are the most readily referenced examples—and indeed, it seemed to curtail the power of a team’s executive staff. 
In this new NBA, there seems to be two schools of thought to combating the rising tide of player agency.  Some programs take a heavy handed approach to team building, and install “system guys” to change the culture.  The Timberwolves are an example of this, with GM David Kahn implementing a “five-year plan” to return to the playoffs, and head coach Kurt Rambis implementing the triangle offense and Phil Jackson’s disinterested courtside demeanor.  This top-down approach, which allows for little player creativity and development outside of the system, has yielded a grand total of 34 wins over the last two seasons, and have turned the once-fine Timberwolves (they were only always just “fine”) into a laughingstock.  It may have also ended Rambis’ chances of ever getting another head coaching gig.

Other teams try to emphasize player comfort and stability as a way to keep a good thing going—often with mixed results. Sometimes it works: the Atlanta Hawks have performed well under longtime assistant Larry Drew. But sometimes, it goes very, very poorly.  Consider the Detroit Pistons.  When Detroit let go of Flip Saunders in 2008, they went in-house and promoted lead assistant Michael Curry to the top job. GM Joe Dumars thought that the familiar face would provide stability for an already good program (the Pistons had been in the Eastern Conference finals the previous seven seasons), and maybe inspire the players to dig deeper for someone who had recently been a teammate of some of the remaining Pistons, and make another title run.  It didn’t work, however, as the arrival of Allen Iverson (and more importantly, the departure of Chauncey Billups) threw off the rotation and flustered the players.  Iverson, Tayshaun Prince, and Rip Hamilton all openly feuded with Curry, who was let go at the end of the season, and has failed to secure another head coaching job since.  Dumars turned to Jon Kuester, Mike Brown’s former offensive coordinator in Cleveland, who lasted two restive seasons with players who had long since disregarded the front office’s moves as legitimate or well-informed.  With Kuester now fired, and with the Pistons hiring their third coach in four seasons, Dumars has to choose between his key players (most of whom have ridiculously untradeable contracts or are clearly in decline) and his staff.  Most of the time, he’s gone with the players.  I don’t blame him.

Perhaps Mark Jackson bucks this trend.  While Keith Smart was a familiar, friendly face, he was also part of a familiar, flawed, system.  Most aspects of Don Nelson’s up-tempo playbook were just imported into Smart’s, and as a result, the team looked like a more spirited version of last year’s defensively challenged outfit.  In choosing a replacement, and having realized the flaws of in-house hires, Lacob and Gruber wisely chose not to go the Timberwolves route and install a coach from another notable system that may or may not have translated to the Warriors. Jackson is respected by players, coaches and media members alike.  He is his own man, and now has an opportunity to use his acumen and reputation to build a staff that can relate to both the front office and the locker room.  The hiring of Mike Malone, former top assistant in New Orleans, This bodes well, I feel, for not only on-court performance, but also general team chemistry.
10.  Because he is making the Warriors relevant again.
I’m not sure we’ll make the playoffs next season.  I’m not sure if we’ll even win 40 games next season.  But Mark Jackson will leave his mark on this team, and will raise the franchise’s popularity and relevance. 
Mama, here comes that man.

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