Mark Jackson's future in Golden State is uncertain, to say the least. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
The politics of basketball are generally more complicated than they seem. Only so much can really be put on the record to begin with; even the most scrupulous reporting can only account for so much detail and context explicitly, leaving a landscape to be captured in snapshots alone. Those reports might give an accurate view of certain specifics -- the news at hand, the formal agreements involved, and a basic explanation of both -- but the entire story often runs deeper and spreads wider than could be reasonably conveyed in short form.
Such is certainly the case with the latest reported bit of NBA palace intrigue, set off by a story from Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski. The report details the reassignment of Warriors assistant Brian Scalabrine, who later that same day was dismissed from his post and sent to work with the Warriors' D-League affiliate in Santa Cruz. The exact basis for the move wasn't made immediately clear, though Wojnarowski pinned the story, in a way, to Golden State head coach Mark Jackson:
Scalabrine, who joined the staff in July, was Jackson's choice as an assistant coach. For two straight years, Jackson has had issues with assistant coaches that he hired. Michael Malone and Jackson would go weeks without speaking to each other a year ago, league sources said. Malone left Golden State to become the head coach of the Sacramento Kings.
Jackson, in his third year at the helm of the Warriors, has one year left on his contract, but has come under increased scrutiny within the organization for how he has run the team and worked on the job. There have been no conversations about an extension for Jackson – nor are they expected to take place, sources said.
When asked about Wojnarowski's report -- which also asserted that Jackson's lack of job security had led him to chase openings with the Clippers and Nets -- Jackson predictably responded that "none of it was true." Believe what you will, though claims of Jackson's icy relationship with Malone, the recent shake-up of his staff, and his general defensiveness against any claim of "dysfunction" all jibe with a certain characterization. That Jackson seemingly goes out of his way to insist that he's in complete control doesn't help matters; fair or not, monologues declaring that there will never be a problem in his locker room come across as more anxious than commanding. There's something to the idea that the most comfortable leaders never have to remind anyone that they're in charge.
Still Jackson has the fullfaith of his players, and one can't exactly blame him for wanting to make his authority known. You won't often find a warning shot from owner to coach as overt as the one Joe Lacob fired at Jackson earlier this season through Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News. To respond to a question about Jackson and his staff by saying that elements of the team's play this season have been "a little disturbing" leaves little room for interpretation. That's not the kind of remark you'd expect from a franchise in playoff position after plugging along through various injuries, no matter its internal expectations.
All of which leaves Jackson a bit precarious in his current role. Were he the clear pick to continue as head coach of the Warriors, his contract might well be extended already. Yet Wojnarowski noted in his report that the two parties haven't had any serious discussions on the matter, which is both fair in light of Jackson's shortcomings and unusual given the Warriors' turnaround in his tenure. From the perspective of ownership, it seems clear that the franchise's progress to date isn't sufficient to secure Jackson's job going forward. This is a team that fully intends to continue its march onward and upward, the implications of which -- as noted by Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders -- can create a difficult working dynamic:
Before we get too far down the road on this, there is an important concept to keep in mind: Warriors’ ownership isn’t overly patient. They promised fans a winner and they want it yesterday. Internally the management team is facing a lot of pressure for success and that might not necessarily create the best conditions for a coaching staff. Add in a layer of inexperience from Jackson and you are bound to get some level of dysfunction.
…So when you look in on the Warriors understand that while Jackson may very well be part of the problem, there is a sense of urgency that’s driving a lot of the pressure. The Warriors want to win and they want to win big. Ownership seems committed to doing whatever it takes to get there, and that could be fostering a culture that’s creating the problems.
That indirect influence could be the most problematic factor of all. Putting Jackson on edge isn't a self-contained problem; it could create any number of unforeseen issues as a product of general atmosphere; it ripples to assistant coaches that could become concerned for their own role with the team or begin angling for a job; it drifts into the locker room when players are asked to choose sides; it influences the way the team is covered and shapes fan expectations; and it could limit Jackson's functional autonomy as a decision maker with the postseason just weeks away.
All of this matters a great deal, particularly with the formal referendum on Jackson coming so soon. The broad strokes of tension between an impatient front office and a prideful coach have been drawn plainly. What's far less apparent is the manner in which that tension plays out.