Thursday, April 3, 2014

Jackson has special bond with his players

DALLAS -- It can't be easy to have a birthday on April Fools' Day, especially when you're an NBA coach who, day after day lately, suddenly finds yourself fielding job-security questions.

Yet something tells me Mark Jackson is going to have only fond recollections about this particular April 1. 

"Everything worked out in the end," Jackson said with a smile when it was all over. 

That's not a sentiment you hear often from those in Jackson's gloomy line of work, but this indeed turned out to be a pretty idyllic Tuesday for the head coach. His 49th birthday began with the unexpected sight of celebratory Coach Jackson T-shirts being passed out by Warriors equipment manager Eric Housen and then actually worn by countless members of the traveling party. It ended with the Warriors escaping Dallas with a 122-120 overtime victory -- one watched courtside by owner Joe Lacob and most of Golden State's front-office team -- on a Stephen Curry rainbow dagger from the wing that dropped through despite the fact Curry looked as though he didn't even have the chance to get his feet set. 

"I almost started moonwalking," Jackson said of seeing Curry's bomb connect. 

Without the injured Andrew Bogut and David Lee and fresh off a demoralizing home defeat to the New York Knicks in which they managed a paltry 84 points, Jackson's Warriors attempted only six free throws and still found a way to inflict Dallas' third overtime defeat at home in the span of 13 days. 

The scenes at American Airlines Center, from morning to evening for those in the company of the visiting team, reminded you that the Warriors sport some of the league's most enviable togetherness. 

That has to register as one of the major factors in the coming days, weeks and months as Jackson's fate in Golden State is decided. 

Last week's reassignment of assistant coach Brian Scalabrine to Golden State's D-League franchise in nearby Santa Cruz has put Jackson and his Bay Area future in the crosshairs, mostly because it invites detractors to suggest that the curious timing of the move is symptomatic of more serious discord behind the scenes. 

"Now we're supposedly 'dysfunctional,'" Curry told an hour before tipoff Tuesday night, adding his own air quotes and insisting that you can't find anyone playing for Jackson who would make such a claim. 

The real deal? As Curry sees it? 

"Coach inspires every single person in this locker room," Golden State's franchise player said. 

But will that be enough to keep Jackson on the Warriors' bench beyond this season? We'll honestly know that only after seeing how far Golden State goes in the playoffs. 

The reality is that Lacob and his staff, after adding the multipurpose talents of Andre Iguodala to the group that made San Antonio work so hard to win the teams' second-round series last spring, expected a clear step forward this season. And nothing is clear about the Warriors' fate, thanks to that crazy jumble of teams from No. 5 through No. 9 in the West that will exclude one very qualified squad from the postseason and exposes pretty much everyone in the conference to the threat of an early exit. 

The Warriors, though, are advised to be careful. 

A first-round exit would certainly put Jackson in immediate danger. And you can probably do the math on how perilous things get if the Dubs miss the playoffs altogether. But the overwhelming support Jackson gets from his players, particularly Curry, is no small thing. 

I've always believed it's the most important thing in coaching, actually, beyond having good players. 

The clashes with Scalabrine and former top aide Mike Malone last season have doomed Jackson to unavoidable whispers about how he coexists with his assistant coaches. Skepticism about Jackson's tactical nous isn't going away either, until there's more than one impressive playoff run on his résumé. 

Yet allow me to say again that coaching success in the NBA -- after acknowledging that the pure talent any coach possesses is the most important variable -- rides more on player buy-in than anything else. 

So if the Warriors do decide to make a coaching change at season's end, they better be sure. They better be certain that they are making themselves stronger. You don't chuck away the sort of solidarity that Jackson has achieved with his guys over a few frustrating defeats at home or a flap involving the fourth assistant. 

You can't just turn to a more experienced X's-and-O's man -- even someone as accomplished as, say, Stan Van Gundy -- and bank on him building the sort of bond that Jackson undeniably has with these Warriors. You can learn many of the things Jackson doesn't bring to the bench yet. You're going to grow as a coach with time. But the way Jackson gets this group to respond can't be taken for granted, since it's by no means the NBA norm. 

So even a failure to get out of the first round, to me, shouldn't trigger an automatic dismissal in Jackson's case. Given how tough first-round matchups are bound to be in the West, they have to wait and see what all the circumstances are. 

Lacob's logic was sound after last season when he merely picked up Jackson's 2014-15 option as opposed to extending him even longer. He didn't want to overreact to one good postseason, which is understandable. So he ensured that Jackson would not be a lame-duck coach this season and put the onus on his young coach to deliver again. 

The question is: How can anyone suggest Jackson hasn't delivered? For all the hand-wringing about some of his lineups and rotations and reluctance to call timeouts -- as well as his fondness for isolation basketball and an ill-advised penchant for us-against-the-world rants that have fed into the notion that he's overly defensive about his work -- Jackson has the Warriors headed for their first 50-win season since 1993-94. 

Since Chris Webber was a rookie. 

Add that success to the buy-in quotient and Jackson's case only gets stronger. 

Asked if it's safe to say that Jackson's ouster would be received in the locker as an unpopular choice if it comes to that at season's end, Curry didn't hesitate, saying: "To me it would. Everybody has their own opinion, but he's completely changed the culture here in three short years. I don't think there would be a lot of smiles if that went down." 

To ensure that everything really works out in the end in Oakland, for the long term, Jackson might need those 50 wins and another trip to the second round at the very least, as well as a more seasoned staff going forward. Just know this as what ranks as Golden State's third trip to the playoffs in the past 19 years draws near: There are roughly 20 coaches in this league, if we estimate conservatively, who would trade for the sort of all-in commitment Jackson gets from his guys. 

From Curry especially.