Jackson on a mission to change the culture in Golden State
ATLANTA -- It's the seventh game and 11th day of an Eastern Conference road swing and the Warriors are understandably drained. Three nights before they pulled off a last-second stunner against the defending champions in Miami only to follow it up with a letdown loss in Orlando.
Warriors coach Mark Jackson is among those running on fumes. But the former floor general, who spent 17 years in the NBA, is also aware that rolling over isn't an option. Jackson has infused that type of resilient attitude into the long-struggling franchise this season. Rather than end the road trip with a whimper, Jackson's bunch bounces back to blow out the Hawks and complete an impressive 6-1 trip.
"It was important for us to do that to show we're for real," Jackson said of his Warriors, but maybe also himself. "We're going to be in this for the long haul."
Few outside of the Warriors' locker room could have predicted Golden State's turnaround this year. The team has made the playoffs just once since 1993-94 and has torn through 11 different coaches over that 18-year period, which has included only two winning seasons. But the Warriors (16-8) are off to their best start in more than two decades, a sign that fortunes might finally be swinging in their favor.
Since leaving his job as an ESPN TV analyst, Jackson has been on a quest to change the Warriors' culture, not blend in with the old one. The second-year coach said he hasn't felt the burden of Golden State's past because it's simply not his. So while the 6-1 road trip managed to break several team records, the coach has no interest in comparing his Warriors to teams of recent years.
"I'm sincere when I say it's not our history," Jackson said. "I have the utmost respect for the Warriors' history and all the great players and teams. But it's not our history. Last year was our history. We own that, sadly so. But I'm extremely happy about being a part of this group."
Much like in his playing days, Jackson -- who is No. 3 all time in assists -- is willing to let others have the glory. When asked about his coaching success, Jackson passes the praise on to his players, referring to them as an "all-time great group of guys," a noteworthy statement coming from someone who played for seven teams and experienced a lot of locker-room mixes. But it's to Jackson's credit that Golden State's collection of young talent, led by guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, has meshed so well with veterans such as David Lee, Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack, creating a team that not only plays together but also genuinely enjoys the process.
"If I go into the gym before practice, I got a gym full of guys," Jackson said. "After practice, I've also got a gym full of guys. I can be at the facility at 9 p.m. and guys are coming in, watching film, getting shots up. It's unbelievable. I've never seen anything like this."
That level of dedication and cohesion helps explain the Warriors' unlikely transformation. Golden State has long been known as an offensive juggernaut, but it has also had a reputation for disappearing on defense and the glass. But this year has been dramatically different with Jackson finding his footing at the helm.
The Warriors rank 12th in the league in offensive efficiency (points scored per possession) and ninth in defensive efficiency (up from 26th last year), giving them their most balanced product in years. And after finishing 28th in rebounding last season, Golden State has skyrocketed to third this year despite missing center Andrew Bogut, who has played only four games because of an ankle injury. How beneficial has that turnaround on the boards been? After beating the Hawks, the Warriors improved to 15-1 when winning the rebounding battle. Players are buying into Jackson's rebounding gospel, crashing the boards unlike before. Against the Hawks, Golden State received the unlikeliest of boosts from Curry, who pulled down eight rebounds (his most since April 2011) from the point guard position.
The happiest man in Golden State's locker room might be Lee, the team's top rebounder the past two years and the NBA's fourth-best overall this season at 11.5 per game. Lee has always played with talented perimeter players since joining the Warriors three years ago, but for the first time he's also now surrounded by other willing rebounders.
"It's no fun to be on an island 1-on-5 rebounding," Lee said. "I've found that out the hard way.
"[But] we've made it an emphasis this year," Lee explained. "We're not playing with two smaller guards this year. Our wings have been doing a much better job with Harrison [Barnes] and Klay. And our bigs are taking it as a challenge. We were one of the worst in the league last year and it's time to turn that around."
Offseason additions have boosted the rebounding. Backup forward Landry, never known for his rebounding, is averaging a career-high 6.8 boards in 25.8 minutes. The 6-foot-8 Barnes gives Golden State its first athletic small forward in years who can crash the boards. Fellow rookies Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green were both strong rebounders in college. And even Jack, a backup point guard, is regarded as a solid rebounder for his position.
"The credit goes to our ownership and management," Jackson said. "They stepped up by giving us better talent via the draft, free agency and trades. But more importantly, at the end of the day we have a team that's totally invested in one another. They care about one another. They don't want to let each other down."
They also care about their coach. Jackson had zero coaching experience when the Warriors plucked him from his seat next to ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen, but he learned the finer points of running a team during his time as an NBA point guard. His seven-year television career not only gave him a unique view of the league but it also gave the league a unique view of him. Viewers listened to his insights and theories (and those catchphrases) on a regular basis, and Jackson presented himself as a potential locker-room leader to NBA teams.
Few basketball lifers can match the 47-year-old Jackson's perspective and knowledge. An All-America at St. John's and an All-Star in the NBA, he's seen the game from the floor, watched it objectively from the broadcast booth and is now coaching it from the bench. But despite being back in an NBA locker room on a regular basis for the first time in years, Jackson said coaching an NBA team is nothing like playing for one, summing up the contrast with the most obvious difference: "I'm no longer wearing a uniform."
Golden State already has knocked off the Hawks, Heat, Clippers and Nets on the road this season, demonstrating the same type of fearlessness with which its coach once played. Like Jackson, the Warriors are by no means a finished product, but they're done making excuses and they're embracing the challenge ahead.
"We understand we're shorthanded. We're small. We're undersized," Jackson said. "We lost our two best defenders in Andrew and Brandon [Rush]. But our team supports one another and competes for one another. And if you do that, great things can happen."