Mark Jackson won 23, 47 and 51 games in the regular season in three years as Warriors coach. (Associated Press / Jonathan Bachman)
The rumors will begin to swirl about why Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson was fired after two straight playoff appearances for a franchise that hadn’t accomplished such a feat since before Bill Clinton took office.
But no matter the reasons, if they’re valid or bogus, it would behoove the Pistons to take a long look at making him their next head coach.
Of course, the Pistons have big issues to answer this offseason, one where every branch could be subject for wholesale change (front office, coaching, personnel), and if they’re seriously considering Warriors GM Travis Schlenk, the likelihood of those two reuniting would be slim to none.
He won’t come cheap, which means giving Jackson — or any coach worth his salt — the Maurice Cheeks contract should be out of the question. Pistons owner Tom Gores was able to easily fire Cheeks because ownership only agreed to give him two guaranteed years at $2 million, not the annual $4 million price they paid for Lawrence Frank in 2011.
Jackson reportedly wasn’t a favorite of Golden State ownership, and had to dismiss two assistant coaches, Brian Scalabrine and Darren Erman, in the span of 12 days. Erman reportedly secretly recorded conversations during coaches’ meetings and discussions with players, while Jackson and Scalabrine had personality conflicts.
But he changed the culture and won games, 51 this past season and 47 last year, helping turn a free-wheeling, offensive-minded team to a one that ranked fourth in defensive rating this season — and did it without the services of big men Andrew Bogut (who missed the playoffs) and David Lee missing chunks of time with injury.
The criticisms of Jackson could be valid. You could gripe about his offensive sets being more suited for the 1990s — heavy on isolation and not enough off-ball movement. You could also gripe about time management, but his success is unarguable.
The players swore by Jackson, who has a big personality and isn’t shy about expressing his religious beliefs. He made the most of his career as an undersized point guard who wound up finishing fourth on the all-time assist list, and became a highly-successful ESPN commentator before making the unlikely leap to the sidelines in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.
Last year, the Warriors gave the San Antonio Spurs their toughest test in the West with a six-game showdown in the conference semifinals, and battled the Los Angeles Clippers to the final minute of the seventh game in a highly-competitive, emotionally-charged series.
But stability on the sidelines should be the next biggest point of emphasis — a coach who can grow with his players — someone like Doc Rivers.
Many know Rivers as the championship head coach in Boston who could be putting it together again with the Clippers. But his first act, in Orlando in the early 2000s, produced undermanned but tough teams as he learned the ins and outs of coaching.
Rivers was the coach of the eighth-seeded Magic team that gained a 3-1 lead on the Pistons in 2003 — with a team that featured a young Tracy McGrady, yes, but his second best player was Drew Gooden — before the Pistons figured it out to win the next three games to claim the first-round matchup.
Rivers grew into becoming perhaps the best coach, best leader of men, in basketball. The coach Rivers nearly outwitted in 2003, Rick Carlisle, was fired in part because he kept rookie Tayshaun Prince on ice way too long and he didn’t play the game of appeasing management and ownership well enough.
But Carlisle improved, at his next stops were Indiana and Dallas, where he led the Mavericks to an upset in the 2011 NBA Finals over the Miami Heat. The coach Carlisle ran circles around, a young Erik Spoelstra, learned how to work unconventional methods around extraordinary talents LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, winning the last two NBA titles.
Whatever Jackson needs to work on can be improved. He’s nowhere near a finished product, but garnering support in his locker room was something he earned instantly — something that has been in short order in Auburn Hills recently.
Jermaine O’Neal, wily veteran, and Steph Curry, franchise cornerstone, spoke out in support of Jackson multiple times during the playoffs — and after. Even though it was a foregone conclusion around NBA circles that Jackson would be let go, it’s rare to hear such universal support from a locker room.
“That’s why I’m so adamant,” said Curry to the Contra Costa Times about wanting Jackson back. “I remember what it was like before he got here. I remember what it felt like coming to practice when we were a losing team.”
Who knows whether it’s a match made in heaven or whether Jackson will hold out for a bigger job — or even if he could get through to someone like Josh Smith.
But the Pistons shouldn’t be scared off by Jackson, because winning should be the only thing that counts at The Palace nowadays.