Is Mark Jackson Getting The Most Out Of The Warriors?
USA Today Sports
There have been recent whispers about Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson occupying the hot seat.
Mama, there goes that man?
Looking on from afar, it may be tough to determine whether his job is truly in jeopardy. But here’s what we do know — Golden State’s record at 32-22 is very real, and for a team many thought could win the West, they have underachieved this season.
To unequivocally blame Mark Jackson for the Warriors’ unimpressive record is unfair. Coaches, for one, don’t have total control of players and their output. Also uncontrollable are player injuries, the strength of one’s schedule, and the ever-present aspect of luck that plays a key role in close games. Some of these things haven’t exactly been on Mark Jackson’s side.
But at the same time, a head coach in the NBA has his fingerprint on just about everything in management, and Jackson needs to accept a good amount of responsibility. To find out if Jackson is deserving of the hot seat, we’ll need to take a closer look at what he’s bringing to the table.
The Warriors are blessed with talent on defense: they enjoy what is perhaps the best defensive 2-3 duo in the league in Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala, a top-notch paint protector in Andrew Bogut, and a versatile stalwart in Draymond Green (note: IPVd puts Green’s defense as the 17th highest amongst qualified players). But the impact of Mark Jackson’s instilled principles, his injected discipline, should not be overlooked — upon taking the reins, Jackson immediately expressed interest in reworking the defensive framework of the team, and used his pastorly self to motivate players to buy into the system. He carefully monitored their pick-and-roll defense and adjusted accordingly — initially asking for frequent hedges by Warriors bigs, he has since moved on to a more conservative approach:
This tactical adjustment negated the sluggish, often ill-timed tendencies seen by Warriors bigs, and placed more responsibility on paint protection — a welcome change for Festus Ezeli, Andrew Bogut, and now, Jermaine O’Neal.
Coach Jackson seems to have a good sense for managing a defense. He gives freedom to his peskier help defenders by allowing for roaming, and he will make small tactical adjustments from game to game — throwing double teams or hedges at deserving players. A couple of Warriors on his squad have far surpassed defensive expectations — O’Neal and Green in particular — which Jackson does well to recognize and allots them ample minutes.
Mark Jackson, a pastor and great player in his own right, has no issue in holding the attention of his players and getting through to them. With Jackson more than any other coach, being a motivator — one who instills proper values, teamwork, diligence — comes before anything else.
But from a basketball standpoint, how important is this quality, really?
The accomplishments of Gregg Popovich, Jeff Hornacek, Frank Vogel, Eric Spoelstra, and Rick Carlisle — widely deemed as some of the greatest coaches of today — suggest that this quality may not be so important. While it is necessary for coaches to have a blend of experience, knowledge, intuition, and motivational techniques, the nature of these men is different from that of Jackson. They are tactical experts.
The Warriors sets, highly exploitative of the team’s slick outside shooting ability, can be surprisingly innovative and often times impossible to stop:
It is these characteristics of Jackson’s offense, though, that fool people into falling in love with a system that is flawed.
Offensively, the Warriors survive — and sometimes, thrive — on the following:
1) Favorable spacing
2) Nifty one-and-done half-court sets (as above)
3) The pick-and-roll
4) Individual talent
Despite an absence of one-on-one players (outside of Stephen Curry) the Warriors have used the second-most isolation possessions in the entire NBA (11.1% of possessions according to mySynergySports). A high number of isolations is generally indicative of a lack of an underlying offensive structure and in the Warriors’ case, this is the reality. They don’t resort to a specific type of coordinated actions when transition play is a no-go, or the initial action fails; they tend to force an attack via one-on-one in the way of posting up, isolating, or a simple pick-and-roll. Teams with a deeply embedded offensive philosophy — e.g. Motion, Flex, the Triangle, Princeton, Octopus, or Flow — are much less inclined to go down this path. Below, we can refer to mySynergySports.com data to get an idea of Golden State’s efficiency (PPP) vs. tendencies (percentage of total plays) and compare it to the league’s average team (click to enlarge):
The above shows that despite Golden State’s infatuation with isolations, they’re merely average at carrying them out. And there’s something funky going on with spot-ups, too. Golden State is great at them — to nobody’s surprise given the shooting ability of Thompson, Curry, Barnes, and Iguodala — but they shoot them infrequently.
There can be several contributing factors to a high or low frequency of spot-ups: a lack of shooters, penetration, or post play, or too much of these things. In Golden State, what we’re seeing is a product of a lack of dribble penetration (see: Thompson), and poor offensive execution. The execution aspect can be tracked back to Mark Jackson — he disregards the fact that the Warriors are terrific when getting a chance to spot up. All of this has actually led to a league-leading level of disparity between efficiency (PPP) and frequency (percentage of plays) with spot-ups (click to enlarge):
Spot-ups aside, the Warriors have the talent to be special on offense. All five starters are capable of either flirting with or reaching All-Star level play. The Warriors boast what is arguably the best shooting backcourt in history. They have highly capable off-ball players in Iggy and Curry. Iguodala, Curry, Lee and Bogut embody some of the most elite passers at their positions; and while their post play isn’t elite, O’Neal, Lee and Bogut are far from hopeless on the block.
There’s just no evidence of any of that coming together and forming what you’d expect. mySynergySports puts their half court offense at a mere 12th in the league. Their overall offensive rating of 106.6 is also only 12th-best (this just jumped up from 16th recently); their “clutch” production is a forgettable 18th-best in the league, per NBA.com/stats.
And a team’s clutch performance is worth putting under a microscope if exploring a coach’s influence — the end of games are a time when pace decelerates, defenses hone in, and out-of-timeout sequences are abundant. For the Warriors, their defense has remained effective in clutch time (101.1 DefRtg — a mark equivalent to the third best in the league), but their OffRtg sinks to 99.0. The oddly-functioning, stagnant offense can rear its ugly head — in far too many crucial situations have we seen a third or fourth option isolate, or a Draymond Green or Jermaine O’Neal post-up that never had a real chance.
Consequently, the Warriors have a 45% win percentage during close games, per TeamRankings.com.
Jackson’s Minute Allocation
The Warriors’ experimented with “small ball” in the playoffs last year against the Denver Nuggets. The positive impact of this, while real at the time, was overblown — Denver’s big men were woefully incapable of punishing Golden State’s tininess in the post, allowing the Warriors to escape one of the key dangers when pitted against a longer, burlier squad.
Jackson has done well to not dismiss the contributions from Warriors big men — Lee and Bogut provide a combination of scoring, passing, size, and defense (Lee, not so much) that’s invaluable to the current squad, especially when dealing with highly capable teams.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to think Jackson’s not overvaluing the Lee-Bogut two-man combination (click to enlarge):
From above we see that Jackson’s second-most adored unit — containing both Lee and Bogut — is one of the worst. David Lee is in each and every one of the Warriors’ top five-man units, but in many of the situations where the Warriors are playing “small” with him at center, Jackson just isn’t playing the unit very much. Again, we’re left with something puzzling regarding Jackson’s way of operating.
Jackson’s Overall Body of Work
Mark Jackson has undoubtedly been a big part of getting the Warriors to where they are today. His strong presence has been huge for a squad comprised of mostly soft-spoken guys, and there’s no doubting the fact he played a pivotal role in changing the team’s culture for the better. If looking for a coach to rebuild, preach defense, and help build a solid foundation, Jackson’s your guy.
But the Golden State Warriors are entering championship-or-bust territory, and fast. With this squad and their aspirations, Mark Jackson — who’ll ultimately be pitted against teams with overwhelming talent and/or tactical genius at the helm — is in over his head.
The heat of the seat, if real, is justified.