You could make a case that Mark Jackson is the most polarizing coach in at least modern NBA history. Talk to his supporters, and you'll get a passionate portrait of a man who remade the Golden State Warriors, taking them from a laughingstock to consecutive playoff berths and a 2013 first-round upset of the Denver Nuggets, successfully laying the foundation upon which a dynasty was built.
"Anybody who doesn't give that man a whole bunch of credit for what he was able to spearhead and get started out there, I think they're just not in reality. They just don't know the situation," Jarrett Jack, who played, and thrived, for the 2012-13 Warriors under Jackson, told CBS Sports. "I was in those huddles. I was in those locker room sessions. The way he talked to us, the amount of confidence he gave us. Go look at the kind of defense the Warriors were playing before Coach Jackson showed up, and look at them now. ... Anybody that tries to downplay his role in [what the Warriors have become], that's not right."
Talk to Jackson's critics, and you'll get an entirely different story. They'll tell you he alienated the front office, corrupted his own locker room and misused the prolific offensive resources at his disposal, stubbornly grinding down a team that was ready to fly. Under Jackson, the Warriors were the No. 12 ranked offense in each of the two years preceding his firing. In Steve Kerr's first season, with virtually the same roster, they jumped to No. 2 offensively while winning 16 more regular-season games and the franchise's first championship in 40 years.
"If Mark had stayed [as coach], there's a real chance the Warriors never would've won a championship," a former Golden State official told CBS Sports. "And then we would still be sitting here today saying a jump-shooting team can't win a title."
Such divisiveness continues to frame Jackson as his name regularly lingers around the edges of coaching vacancies. The latest is the Brooklyn Nets job, which is currently occupied by interim coach Jacque Vaughn in the wake of Kenny Atkinson's firing. ESPN insider Brian Windhorst recently lent credibility to the rumor that Kevin Durant is a Jackson supporter.
As you talk to people across the league, you'll find that the bulk of Jackson's advocates are players. Stephen Curry was always in his corner, publicly lobbying for Jackson to keep his job with Golden State in 2014. Andre Iguodala went on "The Breakfast Club" podcast last year and called Jackson one of his "favorite coaches of all time" while positing that Jackson has, in his opinion, been blackballed from the NBA.
Meanwhile, former Warrior David West recently went on a Twitter rant when Tom Thibodeau was hired by the New York Knicks, suggesting that white coaches like Thibodeau, despite past failings, continue to get second and even third opportunities to lead teams while black coaches like Tyronn Lue, who won a championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Jackson, who laid a championship foundation, are still waiting for a second shot.
West has a point. Say what you want about Jackson's shortcomings as a coach, or the bridges he burned, but those Warriors were a hell of a dangerous team. In the 2013 playoffs, they upset the third-seeded, 57-win Denver Nuggets, who were the best home team in the NBA that season, before coming a lot closer to upsetting the San Antonio Spurs in the second round than a lot of people probably remember.
A total of 106 minutes were played through the first two games of that San Antonio series, with Game 1 going to double overtime, and the Warriors had the lead for more than 94 of them. They were leading Game 1 by 16 points with under four minutes to play before letting that one slip away, only to bounce back and win Game 2 -- in San Antonio when just about everyone assumed they were too deflated to put up a fight -- by leading over 46 of the 48 minutes. Despite an ankle injury that had Stephen Curry playing basically on one leg back in Oakland, the Warriors had that series tied 2-2 and had every right to be up 3-1.
"We 100 percent would've beat San Antonio if we didn't blow Game 1," Draymond Green told CBS Sports.
All of which is to say, let's not forget how high of a level Jackson had the Warriors playing at just one year removed from a 23-win season. Completely flipping the negative momentum of a long-bumbling sports franchise such as the Warriors is no small feat. It's darn near impossible in a lot of situations. Go ask the Cleveland Browns. Look at the Knicks. Is there a more prime example of an NBA organization in need of someone with a proven track record of turning around a perennial loser?
To that point, Jackson's situational value is where further disagreement exists regarding his coaching prospects. Multiple sources who spoke with CBS Sports pegged Jackson as eminently more qualified as a foundational coach. He's proven he can get young players to play with confidence, commit defensively and ultimately make the difficult transition from bad to good.
But the transition from good to great is a different challenge. Once a team reaches the point of championship expectations, when the broad strokes of motivation give way to the finest of basketball details, the cautionary tale of what the Warriors became when Jackson left continues to linger.
Through that lens, the Nets would not appear to be a great fit. They're ready to compete for a championship now. Durant and Kyrie Irving have three titles between them. They don't need motivational speeches as much as they need a coach who can fully optimize all-time offensive resources and establish a mastery of the subtle tactical adjustments that often separate the teams with championship talent and the teams that actually win championships.
And yet, there's something about the particular motivations of Durant and Irving that feel uniquely in line with perhaps Jackson's greatest strength as a leader: creating an "us against the world" environment. He was known to sell Warriors players on the idea that nobody, perhaps even their own front office and management, believed in them. Can you imagine him breathing life into the narratives that Durant can't win without the Warriors and Irving can't win without LeBron?
Throw in Jackson's bone to pick with his own naysayers, and this Nets team would be nothing if not seething from within. That may not mean a lot if your team is just a bunch of bitter journeymen who don't feel they ever got their due, but when two talents like Durant and Irving decide to flip the ticked-off switch, that could be a pretty powerful dynamic to rile up.
Plus, Jackson's matchup-hunting, isolation ethos mesh better with Durant and Irving than they did with the Warriors, who weren't collectively equipped to rely on self-created offense. Sure, Curry could do it. But it wasn't maximizing him, and asking a second-year Klay Thompson and rookie Harrison Barnes to back guys down into the post and shoot contested fadeaways just because they were taller than the defenders that switched onto them was ill-advised to say the least.
Thompson especially needed ball and player movement to unleash his potential. Curry went from an All-Star under Jackson to a back-to-back MVP under Kerr, whose continuity offense went beyond the first option and forced panicked defenses to chase the two scariest shooters in NBA history for full possessions. That's when the Warriors became the Warriors.
Durant, on the other hand, is the best one-on-one player in the world when healthy. Irving isn't far behind. For as much success as the Warriors and Durant had together, there was, at least in the final season, a bubbling tension in the gap between the way Durant wanted to play as an individual and the way Kerr and the coaches wanted to play as a team. Meanwhile, there were whispers right away that Irving was unhappy with Atkinson's modern, spread-the-floor/share-the-love offense in Brooklyn.
For better or worse, Irving would have the ball A LOT under Jackson. He would presumably run a zillion pick-and-rolls, as Curry did under Jackson, and a lot of those pick-and-rolls would probably be with Durant, an action Kerr shied away from with Curry and Durant. (Whether the Nets ultimately stick with Vaughn, or hire Jackson or some other new coach, a popping big man that can knock down shots should be high on their priority list to pair with Irving and Durant).
None of this is to say Jackson is necessarily the right man for the Brooklyn job, or any other job. It's hard to overstate how ugly things got in Golden State. There was an assistant recording private conversations for fear of the way he was being backstabbed by Jackson for crying out loud. Paranoia like that doesn't come out of nowhere. Jackson's manipulative manner and insecure ego were never a secret.
It was known, for instance, that Jackson refused to hire more prominent assistant coaches, with the assumption being he didn't want to be outshined, let alone potentially replaced. In 2014, Warriors owner Joe Lacob told a group of venture capitalists that when he gave Jackson a blank check to hire the best staff of assistants in the world, Jackson told Lacob that he already had the best assistants. But at the same time, Jackson hated when those assistants got any credit. The following excerpt is the first two paragraphs from an ESPN piece by Zach Lowe in May of 2014:
I first interviewed Mark Jackson about 20 games into last season for a piece about Golden State's massive improvement on defense. Jackson went out of his way to point out, unsolicited and on the record, that it would be wrong to publicly credit any single assistant coach for the team's transformation.
It was a weird thing to say unprompted, my first window into Jackson's personality — a strange brew of braggadocio, inspiration, and insecurity. That personality ultimately cost Jackson his job in Golden State despite a near-unprecedented run of on-court success for one of the league's sad-sack franchises. There were some on-court issues, but Jackson and his staff did a nice job with this roster. They are gone mostly because the environment in Golden State became toxic.
So toxic, in fact, that Jackson got rid of two of his assistants, Brian Scalabrine and Darren Erman, beneath a cloud of cliquey, high-school drama. Scalabrine has since told his side of the story, and it doesn't put Jackson in a particularly flattering light. In another 2014 article, Lowe chronicled the borderline "poisonous" Erman situation.
The Warriors in the last six weeks demoted one assistant and fired another, and ESPN.com's Chris Broussard today reported that the team fired Darren Erman after learning Erman had recorded at least one coaches' meeting. Multiple league sources confirmed the gist of Broussard's report, and that Erman was concerned Mark Jackson and other coaches loyal to Jackson were insulting Erman to other players behind Erman's back.
The team had no choice but to fire Erman. However, the front office is fond of Erman and was upset at having to let him go, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter. The Erman firing and demotion of Brian Scalabrine have raised tensions throughout the Warriors' organization.
Jackson made a show of firing Scalabrine in front of players and other coaches, but he had no real grounds, and the front office made Jackson find a compromise, per a source familiar with the matter: demoting Scalabrine to the D-League. In addition, Jackson has asked that Jerry West, a high-level adviser in Golden State, not attend most practices and team activities, sources say.
The tension with Erman got weird. Midseason, the team moved Erman's parking spot to a less convenient place, likely at the behest of Jackson or one of Jackson's allies on the staff, per multiple sources familiar with the matter. They began changing his duties in strange ways. ... The atmosphere has bordered on poisonous."
It's impossible to imagine all this drama was happening within the Warriors and it was somehow everyone else's fault. Jackson was in the middle of it all. He clashed with certain players (hello, Andrew Bogut), assistant coaches, certain members of the front office, management, even beloved former Warriors TV analyst Jim Barnett didn't hold his tongue when reflecting on Jackson's Golden State tenure.
So manipulative was Jackson that he reportedly accused former big man Festus Ezeli of cheering against the team while he was sitting out with a knee injury in hopes that his absence would prove his value. Ezeli was reportedly so hurt by the accusation that he broke into tears while denying the claim to his teammates.
"[Jackson] couldn't get along with anybody else in the organization," Warriors owner Joe Lacob said shortly after Jackson's firing. "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."
This is how a coach who undeniably turned around a pitiful franchise gets fired just before the fruits of his labor come to fruition, and it's likely also how that same coach has yet to be given a second chance. The stain on Jackson's reputation is real. There are people in the league about whom nobody has a bad word to say, and he is not one of them. But again, there are plenty of people with plenty of good words to say, too.
"Coach Jackson was great at inspiring confidence," Harrison Barnes told CBS Sports earlier this year. "There were countless times when guys were in a shooting slump, in a rough patch, and he would go to guys and just tell them, 'hey, you belong in this league,' or 'you're the best player at your position,' or 'I have confidence that you can make plays to win us games.' Whatever it may be, he made you believe in yourself.
"I think for a young team, that was really big to have a coach that you know believes in you, that will trust you in big moments and big games even when you make mistakes," Barnes continued. "You weren't looking over your shoulder or second-guessing. He let you go out and play and live with the results."
A few years back I was messaging back and forth with a former Jackson assistant who told me he has "never had a better boss than Coach Jackson."
"It just kills me when EVERYONE dissects Coach Jax's shortcomings as if he's the only imperfect coach," the former assistant continued. "...It kills me when people in the media disregard his accomplishments and bash him for what he wasn't. And what really kills me [is] when media personalities don't think he's capable of being better the next time around. He's a widely respected man in the NBA among players and even a lot of executives. But the bad mouthing has gotta stop at some point."
The part about the masses assuming Jackson isn't capable of learning from his mistakes and being a better coach in a second opportunity feels particularly poignant. When we project young players, we do so with an assumption, even an expectation, that they will be in a state of continual growth, but we tend to view coaches as finished products from the start.
Jackson has had six years in the booth to watch the way the best teams are operating. In his private moments, you would hope there has been significant reflection on his time with Golden State, good and bad. Jackson was beloved for allowing his players the opportunity to learn through their mistakes, apply those lessons, and become better for the process. But he's yet to get the chance to do that for himself. He's been open that he wants that chance. But it can't happen until some team decides that he deserves it.