The Golden State Warriors are an interesting mix. They have the enthusiastic new ownership of Joe Lacob, an ambitious coach Mark Jackson, and some pretty good young talent in Stephen Curry. The Lacob/Jackson dynamic is particularly interesting because Lacob expects to contend and Jackson talks a very good game on this same issue. The Warriors have steadily improved under Jackson but he is facing huge pressue to show that they are a potential serious title contender.
In reality, the Warriors are a very good team (44-27 and are sixth in SRS right now) but don’t look like they are anywhere near the best of the West (OKC, San Antonio, Houston, and the Clippers). Despite the steady improvement, Jackson has been dogged by rumors that he is high maintenance and not easy to work with. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo reported this week that Jackson forced the reassignment of assistant coach Brian Scalabrine. This was noteworthy because ownership apparently likes Scalabrine as a coach and believes he has a future with the organization. This comes off the heels of Jackson reportedly being on bad terms of his former assistant Michael Malone, another person management like and who was credited with turning the Warriors defense around.
The portrait painted by Wojnarowski is that Jackson has too much ego to effectively run a team. The story did sound like a bit of a plant by someone who wants to submarine Jackson (it also reported that Jackson campaigned for the Nets and Clippers jobs while under contract and cannot get the extension he probably wants in Golden State). Not to put too much stock in anonymous stories, the report did remind me that Jackson definitely has some prima donna tendencies in the past and took aim at people he really should’ve left alone.
In 2002-03, Jackson was the backup point guard in Utah to John Stockton. Both players were near the ends of their careers but Jackson was not content to be a backup and apparently campaigned to take Stockton’s job. This sounds ludicrous on its face. Stockton was 40 at the time but was still putting up a 21.0 PER and was essentially the same player he was for the past decade (save for the fact that his minutes had declined to about 28 per game). Jackson was 37 and presumably should have been happy with a backup role at that stage of his career. Granted, this was the first year that Jax had not been a starter (besides when he was benched for Maurice Cheeks back in 1990-91) but it was clear that his career was winding down and he would’ve signed as a starter somewhere if he could’ve found such a place. Jackson was in the phase of his career where any steady gig should’ve made him happy, especially since he was not nearly as effective as Stockton (Jackson had a then career low 12.2 PER for Utah).
Even so, Sports Illustrated’s Ian Thomsen reported that Jackson was lobbying loudly for more playing time and Jackson didn’t exactly deny it, saying: “I’m a born leader, and if people take that as manipulation, then maybe they haven’t been around leaders. I make no apologies for embracing people and talking to people and making them feel like they’re important. Maybe in the past those stray dogs have been left on the side, but that’s not the way I treat people.” So there you have it…at age 37 with no starting job, he still thought he was better than Stockton and that his natural leadership skills transcended his ability.
As surprising as this seems, the Jazz didn’t just cut their mediocre, old backup point guard who was challenging a Utah legend. Rather, Jackson played out there year and signed with Houston. On the Rockets, Jackson was even more cooked, playing only 43 games and putting up a horrendous 8.9 PER before retiring to broadcast. A really great post-mortem of this bizarre fiasco was done by Jazzbasketball.com in January, which concluded, after examining all evidence, that Jackson was (and is) a jerk. Our cursory review supports this conclusion emphatically.
So, Jackson had quite a big ego back in 2003 and Stockton wasn’t even the first Hall of Fame point Jackson implied he was better than. In 1998, Knicks announcer Clyde Frazier noted during a Knicks/Pacers game (Jackson was then a starter for a really good Pacer team) that Jackson was supposed to be the heir apparent to Clyde in New York but Jackson didn’t quite live up to the hype for the Knicks. Jackson caught word of the comments and reacted pretty out-of-proportion saying: “Well, c’mon Clyde, get a grip. Be secure in yourself. First of all, allow your partner to make the statement. But I never wanted to be the second coming of Clyde Frazier. Because I didn’t want to look like a pimp…. Another reason I wouldn’t want to be Clyde; I wouldn’t want to give up 3,000 of my assists.”
Frazier didn’t bite on the pissing contest, noting that Jackson’s comments were personal while Frazier was merely stating that Jackson fizzled out in New York. In fact, Jackson really was a big star for the Knicks. He won Rookie of the Year in 1987-88 and led the team back to the playoffs for the first time in years and was an All-Star in 1988-89. Things fell apart from there when Jackson lost time to rookie Rod Strickland. Both players became testy with management and fighting over minutes. When it was apparent one had to go, the Knicks traded Strickland for the vet Cheeks (a terrible trade for many reasons) and Cheeks took the job. Jackson won the job back in 1991-92 under Pat Riley and played well and earned a measure of redemption. But Riley wasn’t totally convinced the slow footed Jackson was the right point for a title team and traded Jackson as part of a package for Charles Smith and Doc Rivers of the Clippers.
Maybe Jackson didn’t totally bomb in New York but it is clear that, at best, he went from potential star to nice player by the end of his tenure. I get that Jackson might’ve been testy because he went through a lot in New York but for him to even imply that he wouldn’t trade careers with Frazier, a seven-time All-Star, with two titles and a Hall of Fame induction, sounds moronic. Jackson was 32 at the time and probably was old enough not to overreact to a perceived slight.
I don’t think it is totally fair to take two incidents from 1998 and 2003 and use them to confirm that Jackson is a bit of a putz and should be fired now. Jackson was not a super athletic player but he parlayed his solid fundamentals and great passing into a very nice career, even though several teams gave up on him. I assume supreme confidence and ego was needed to keep going under the pressure of the NBA as a player. I also think it’s fair to conclude that Jackson might not have changed much. This doesn’t mean I think the Warriors should fire him. There are plenty of great coaches who were total douche bags. Still, Jackson should probably be a little more self-aware because it might cost him his job, even though his results in Golden State are pretty impressive so far.