The Golden State Warriors took on the discombobulated, LeBron James-less Cleveland Cavaliers last Friday and beat them soundly. Even more interesting than the game on the floor was what was happening on press row, where ESPN's Mark Jackson was working his first Warriors game since being fired as their head coach in May.
On the face of it, Jackson's firing after the Warriors first round playoff loss to the Clippers was surprising, as he'd led the team to their first back-to-back playoff appearances in over 20 years. But the pairing was always fraught with drama. Mark Jackson's vocal Christianity was at odds with owner Joe Lacob's low-key Judaism, as well as the Bay Area's general lack of religiosity. There were complex racial politics involved. (I urge you to read Marcus Thompson's meditation on the role race played in Jackson's firing.) One of Jackson's assistants was fired after he was caught secretly recording meetings, while another was demoted to the D-League right before the playoffs. The whole thing was such a mess that you knew Jackson would have a few things to say about it on TV. Luckily for us, he did not disappoint.
7:52 Left in the First Quarter
Recent Cavaliers acquisition Timofey Mozgov checks into the game, and the broadcast crew begins talking about what impact he will have on a defense that is ranked in the bottom third of the league and desperately misses center Anderson Varejao (and that LeBron James fellow, who finally returned from injury last night). Here's Jackson:
You think you trade for Mozgov and you say, "Ok that seals up the defense." To me a rim protector is overrated in this league, and I say that because you look at the Warriors. No Andrew Bogut, and their defense and stays, or even improves, because of the principles, the identity, what they force you to do. At the end of the day the Cavs have to get to that level.
Ostensibly this commentary is about Timofey Mozgov, rim protectors, and the Cavs defense. But not really. It is really about Andrew Bogut.
Jackson's worst relationship in the Warriors locker room was with Bogut. Jackson cultivated a rah-rah, close-knit, us-against-the world, religious locker room. Bogut didn't fit in. He's an odd libertarian Australian guy to whom basketball is a career, not a lifestyle. He gets in his work, but would rather be on his own than at a team dinner. He would rather talk strategy than pray.
Besides basic personality differences, the two clashed over injuries. Bogut is often tagged with the dreaded "injury prone" label, something he stridently disagrees with, arguing that he has simply been the victim of a couple freak accidents. Last February, while Bogut was dealing with a weird shoulder injury, Bay Area media questioned Jackson about it before a game, and he basically threw Bogut under a bus:
"As far as I know, it was not on the court," Jackson said. "It wasn't in practice. It wasn't in a game. I'm not really sure. It may have been sleeping, and I say that in all seriousness…"
Bogut was very, very angry about the comments and reacted afterwards:
"It's gotten worse and worse, so I just wanted to address it," Bogut said. "The sleeping comment is absolutely ridiculous. I don't know where it came from."
"It's definitely not the case I just woke up, slept on my shoulder wrong and have a bone bruise and swelling in my shoulder from sleeping, very highly unlikely I believe."
Mark Jackson then went on a long rant blaming the media for the entire kerfluffle, but it was strong evidence of how little the two talked. Jackson would also pull Bogut at curious moments, often not playing him for large swaths of fourth quarters in fear that opponents would Hack-A-Bogut and send the awful free throw shooter to the line.
One of the lines in Jackson's commentary—"their defense and stays, or even improves, because of the principles, the identity, what they force you to do"—also speaks to his constant battle for credit. Jackson bristled when assistant Mike Malone or players were credited for the Warriors's defensive turnaround (Malone continued getting praise even after he left to coach the Kings) that he thought was his own doing. By arguing that rim protectors are overrated and noting how good the Warriors defense has remained while Bogut has battled (yet another) injury, Jackson is saying a few things:
- Look at Andrew Bogut, who is soft and injury prone
- If any individual is given credit for the stout defense, it should not be Bogut because the Warriors are just as good without him
- Individuals don't matter for defensive success, schemes do. Who develops schemes? Coaches do. Who was the coach that developed the defensive scheme the Warriors used last season? I was.
After the game, Bogut responded on Twitter to Jackson's comments:
Bogut downplayed the beef in a blog post yesterday, declaring that don't hate each other—but they also don't speak.
6:00 Left in the First Quarter
As the broadcast returns from a time out, the Warriors' arena scoreboard operator throws Jackson on the jumbotron, and the fans give him a standing ovation:
Despite having most of the Warriors team having played under Jackson, it didn't really seem like the players got into the standing ovation, with the exception of Stephen Curry, Jackson's biggest fan. The broadcast didn't show a clear bench shot, but you can sort of Truther it with the video below: you can pretty clearly make out Andrew Bogut standing in the middle of the court doing nothing.
4:46 Left in the First Quarter
Jackson's broadcast partner Jeff Van Gundy opines on how people should judge Jackson's legacy in Oakland:
Everybody wants to focus on the divorce, versus what happened during the marriage. It was a great marriage. It was three years of excellent basketball. In the West, to change it around, is so hard to do. You think about it. The Warriors, for 20 years the Warriors were never known as anything other than a fun show at times who played good offense at times. But to become the balanced team that they became under Mark, he should be so proud, as should the players, of what they accomplished.
As summaries go, this isn't half bad. With Jackson as head coach (along with a new owner, a new front office, and a healthy Stephen Curry) the Warriors went from laughingstock to playoff shoo-in, and he undeniably deserves some portion of credit for that. How much? Depends on who you ask. I'm inclined to say "some but not the most," placing him in line behind the front office and Steph Curry, but reasonable people can disagree.
Unfortunately, though, Van Gundy continues talking, crediting the Warriors' breakout season to offseason personnel moves rather than a coaching change, and you realize he's just sticking up for his buddy.
This year, to me, they have such a much better roster. Bob Myers, the general manager, did a heck of a good job in the offseason of improving their perimeter depth, that they are a legitimate championship caliber team now.
Of the eight Warriors who have played the most minutes this season, only the player who has played the seventh most, Shaun Livingston, is new. Only 15 percent of the Warriors minutes are being used by players who were not on the roster last season. (Eighteen percent if you include Festus Ezeli, who was on the roster but missed the entire season with an injury.) Adding only one player to the main rotation is actually pretty remarkable roster continuity in the modern NBA!
The tenuousness of the argument becomes clear when play-by-play man Dave Pasch attempts to provide evidence to back up Van Gundy:
They added Shaun Livingston, who was with Brooklyn last year. Draymond Green has doubled his scoring and rebounding numbers from a year ago.
That's right: the only two examples of an improved roster Pasch can come up with are the aforementioned Livingston and Draymond Green...who was on the team last year. And frankly, using Green as an example actually speaks to one of Jackson's failings. Green's talent, and the way the Warriors were better with him on the court last year, was clear to those who watched the team regularly, yet Jackson refused to play him over David Lee or Harrison Barnes. It is only under Steve Kerr that Green fully blossomed to the point where the Warriors didn't miss their highest-paid player and starting power forward for the past four seasons (whose job Green snatched) while Lee spent the first quarter of the season injured.
And Steve Kerr has acknowledged too, "look I came into a pretty good situation here with the job that Mark did, he turned things around defensively." They were fourth a year ago in field goal defense, first this year, with Iguodala coming off the bench because they have more depth.
Andre Iguodala is indeed coming off the bench, not because of magically increased depth, but because Steve Kerr put him there. With the acquisition of Iguodala before last season, Jackson opted to shuffle Harrison Barnes to the bench. Kerr decided to do the opposite, reasoning that Iguodala was a better fit to lead the second-unit offense than Barnes, a decision partially dictated by Shaun Livingston—nominally the backup point guard—beginning the season injured.
Steve Kerr did come into a good situation with the Warriors. Considering the other team he was considering coaching are the LOLKnicks, he came into a really good situation. But this isn't a markedly different situation than Jackson faced during his final season in charge. Very little of the team's improvement has to do with roster changes: Kerr has just (so far) done a much better job with basically the same tools.
Finally, after Van Gundy blows platitudes at both, Jackson finally weighs in:
I'll say this. Steve Kerr has done an outstanding job. They are the best team in basketball today. He deserves a lot of credit. And I think while giving him credit, there's no reason to take credit away from the past. You cannot disrespect the caterpillar, while raving about the butterfly.
YOU CANNOT DISRESPECT THE CATERPILLAR WHILE RAVING ABOUT THE BUTTERFLY
Holy shit that's a great line. That's why Mark Jackson is a broadcaster! On the great list of Mark Jackson catch phrases, I think that one slots behind "Mama, there goes that man" but before "hand down, man down." It's also meaningless—you can't disrespect the manure while raving about the flower; you can't disrespect slavery while raving about the pyramids—and doesn't at all explain anything about basketball, but hey, it sounds good.
1:23 Left in the First Quarter
Marreese Speights knocks down a jumper, providing Jackson an opportunity to gush about him:
Another quality big man that has outstanding range. He's in much better shape this year, and a proven guy. Love Mo Speights and what he is doing this year.
The Warriors signed Speights last season to be a key bench scorer, stepping in for the vital Carl Landry, who was given a bonkers contract by the Kings. But Speights played poorly and always looked uncomfortable on the court, while this year he is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Jackson chalks this difference up to his previously poor conditioning, something Speights has copped to.
0:58 Left in the First Quarter
You know, Mo Speights came to the Warriors and there were people talking about him as a pro, not taking it serious, there were people that didn't think, in other spots. It was a joy for me to coach this guy. He is a professional. He is a guy that takes the game serious, and I am excited about the success that he is having here in Golden State.
Wait a second, you just told us Speights was out of shape last season! Isn't that a textbook case of not taking basketball seriously?
Jackson is trying to dance around an easy-to-draw conclusion: While his weight certainly played a role, the main difference for Speights is how he's being used. Jackson wants to point to the improvement being external to his coaching—Speights's shape—but he also has to burnish his own reputation as a player-first coach, so he utters completely contradictory things within a minute.
10:35 Left in the Third Quarter
The broadcast team is talking about how insanely talented the Western Conference is this season when Jackson weighs in:
I've said it, even when I was coaching this Warriors team, in the Western Conference you can have a great year and lose in the first round. And all of a sudden folks will be disappointed. No, you lost to a quality team that has a chance, and it's the same story this year.
Jackson's Warriors, of course, lost to the Clippers in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs last year, and he would like you to know they "lost to a quality team that has a chance." The Clippers lost in the next round and didn't really have a chance, but that's beside the point. The disappointment came long before the series loss, when despite adding Andre Iguodala and another year of seasoning to a 47-win team, the Warriors only won four more games. The disappointment was that the Warriors even had to play the Clippers in the first place because they were only a six seed.
Van Gundy adds his two cents about how you achieve success in the loaded Western Conference:
Four teams it [losing in the first round] is going to happen to. That's why it is so important in the Western Conference to have stable ownership … Because if you lose early, and you overreact and make an unwise trade or over-reactive change, trade, coaching change. It is gonna set you back.
This is an odd partial reference to Joe Lacob, especially because it is obvious that "overreacting" and changing coaches has only improved this team. Lacob has also run a fairly stable ship, hiring smart people in the front office and mostly staying out of their way. But even aside from his firing, Jackson's feud with Lacob has gotten personal: the two got into a war of words earlier this season.
Lacob started it at a meeting of rich tech guys, griping that Jackson refused to hire good assistants, which is undoubtedly true. The only assistant from Jackson's crew last season that currently has a job in the NBA is Darren Erman...the assistant fired for secretly taping meetings. Meanwhile, Steve Kerr poached Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams—who were the top assistants in L.A. and Chicago—and made them two of the highest paid assistants in the league.
But it was Lacob's comments about Jackson's personality that really rankled his former employee:
"Part of it was that he couldn't get along with anybody else in the organization," Lacob said. "And look, he did a great job, and I'll always compliment him in many respects, but you can't have 200 people in the organization not like you."
"Anybody else" is somewhat of an exaggeration as most of the Warriors (including their most important player, Stephen Curry) players were fiercely loyal to Jackson—and I doubt Lacob asked every low-level marketing staffer their opinion on the coach—but it wasn't exactly a secret that Jackson had isolated himself from the rest of the organization. I mean, he reportedly (Jackson denied it) asked Jerry "The Logo" West not to attend any practices!
Jackson responded to Lacob in a sermon at the church that he leads:
[Lacob] said I was good for nothing, an owner that knew me for three years and spent a couple of minutes around me, an owner that had the audacity to say that 200 folks don't like me in the business.
6:06 Left in the Third Quarter
In the midst of a conversation about why LeBron James isn't an MVP candidate, Andrew "a rim protector is overrated" Bogut destroys Timofey Mozgov with a block:
It caused Van Gundy to gush:
And this is what Bogut does so very well. He rebounds, blocks shots, and passes, as good as any big.
Mark Jackson immediately steered the conversation back to LeBron.
The broadcast followed a pattern familiar to anyone who's followed the Warriors this year: folks taking oblique, plausibly innocuous shots that have meaning only to those looking to connect the dots. When Harrison Barnes said "It's hard when you get the ball in an iso situation and you have a set defense in front of you," he wanted to say, "Mark Jackson designed a shitty offense." When GM Bob Myers said "What I see is a group of people that enjoys one another, is unselfish and doesn't care who gets the credit. That goes for the coaches, too," he meant "Mark Jackson's pettiness rubbed off on the team." There are dozens more examples from interviews all season long.
This has been a harder game for Mark Jackson to play. Since he isn't interviewed regularly, any comments he makes about the Warriors would be picked apart. But a night back at Oracle afforded him the opportunity to show that two can play the shade game.
Photo via Ben Margo/AP