Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Dirt Behind the Warriors' Firing Mark Jackson

Everybody figured Mark Jackson would be the Golden State Warriors' coach for the next ten years. Yet he was just fired, right after the team's playoff's run ended.

What happened? In a situation like this there can only be one answer--behind-the-scenes dirt. Before we get to that and what Jackson did wrong, here's what he did right.

A former NBA star and television analyst, Jackson had no previous coaching experience when he was hired by Golden State three seasons ago, in June 2011. Yet he quickly transformed a perennially average team into one of the most feared powers in the NBA, powered by a pair of crowd-pleasing sharpshooters, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. For decades, the Warriors hardly ever made the playoffs. But under Jackson's guidance, they surged into the playoffs two consecutive years, even getting into the second round last season. Consistently packed with frenzied followers, their arena is one the toughest for visiting teams. This season the Warriors won 51 games and battled a favored team, the LA Clippers, down to the last few minutes before losing a brutal seven-game playoff series. All the while though, Jackson was a dead man walking.

According to sources close to the team, to keep his job he had to make it to the West Finals. However, ace defender, center Andrew Bogut, was injured just before the playoffs and was done for the season. The Warriors' playoffs hopes went with him. So did Jackson's job.

What most people didn't know is that, all season, there was an ugly soap opera raging behind the scenes. Jackson was at war with his bosses. He didn't like them and they didn't like him. Said one of the sources, Jackson's superiors considered him "arrogant, stubborn, inflexible, defiant, hypocritical and unable to take criticism." One of his enemies was Kirk Lacob, assistant GM and son of co-owner Joe Lacob--probably his biggest enemy.

Jackson was consistently doing things to anger management. For instance, when center Jason Collins came out of the closet and everybody in the league was being supportive,  Jackson was lukewarm. It turns out that Jackson, pastor of a church in Van Nuys, is a fundamentalist who's not favorable to gays. That's not a popular stance in the Bay Area, which includes San Francisco, a gay mecca. Team vice president Rick Welts, who's openly gay, was also offended. This was definitely a strike against Jackson. In a gay-friendly league, with more players likely to come out in the next few years, a coach not supportive of gays is a liability.

What galled the team front office is that Jackson, despite his sanctimonious, holier-than-thou attitude, doesn't practice what he preaches. When Jackson, who's been married for more than 20 years, was working back east about eight years ago, he had an affair with a stripper, who tried to blackmail him in 2012. The scandal, foiled by the FBI, went public, embarrassing him and the team.

Another problem Jackson had with management--he prefers to live in Southern California, to be closer to his church. The bosses wanted him to reside in the Bay Area so he could have easier access to team operations. But, as he did in other matters, Jackson ignored them.

It didn't help that some of his bosses didn't care for his coaching, particularly his penchant for one-on-one basketball and his tendency to make poor half-time adjustments. Someone who questioned his coaching moves was Warrior executive Jerry West, the former Laker great. Jackson, however, tuned him out, adding him to his enemies list.

Another black mark against Jackson--his handling of coaches. He had epic battles with Brian Scalabrine and defensive specialist Darren Erman, often in front of the players. Both were removed. Because of these conflicts with assistants, Jackson's management skills were always in question. Much of his staff, according to the sources, was unhappy and not too supportive.

Jackson has a reputation for being a player's coach. However, report the sources, some of the Warriors weren't in his corner. They felt he favored Curry and Thompson and treated others unfairly.

In spite of all the behind-the-scenes soap opera, Jackson still managed to produce a winner, even though handicapped by the loss, for the playoffs, of a key player--Bogut. That's a testament to his coaching skills.

But, in this case, coaching skills and wins and losses didn't matter. The off-court issues may seem relatively minor and not important enough to get Jackson fired but his bosses, fed up with all the transgressions, saw it differently. Only a trip to the Western Conference could have saved him--because you can't really fire a coach that takes his team that far.

Setting the bar impossibly high was the Warriors' less-than-subtle way of getting rid of someone who had alienated the key powers of the organization.