Yesterday, only hours after Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson had created a “dysfunctional” atmosphere and was clashing with assistant Brian Scalabrine, the team announced Scalabrine was reassigned to the D-League Santa Cruz Warriors. In an interview with beat writer Diamond Leung, Jackson merely called it a “difference of opinions”. If you’re wondering what the hell is going on, and why everyone’s so cranky even though they’re sixth in the West, welcome to another Warriors Controversy Explainer.
While Wojnarowski’s report might seem to come out of the blue, the seeds of this conflict were sown months prior. The beginnings of this controversy are fully rooted in the events of last summer. Jackson was two years into a four-year contract, and even after making it to the second round of the playoffs the Warriors only guaranteed the final year of his contract, they didn’t extend it. Jackson expected—and perhaps deserved—to get paid. After all, Iguodala got paid. Bogut got paid, too. Cury had already gotten paid at the beginning of the 2012 season. Jackson did not get paid. And after 70 games of an up-and-down coaching performance—and something less than a vote of confidence from owner Joe Lacob—Jackson’s future with the Warriors is no closer to clarity.
Mark Jackson has always cultivated a sense of insecurity about his place as Warriors head coach. The runner-up to him in the coaching search was Mike Malone, who was made the highest paid assistant in the league to join Jackson’s staff. Malone often led practices and was seen by TV cameras diagramming plays in the huddle while Jackson stood to the side, fueling a perception that Malone did the “real” coaching while Jackson operated more as a manager of personalities. This tension was apparently already building in just their first year together.
It also could have led to Jackson adopting one of the more draconian policies in the league regarding access to his assistant coaches, who are not allowed to speak to the media at all. The only exception to this policy is the quick, meaningless 30-second TV interviews coming out of half. Typically the assistants offer Ric Bucher short, empty soundbites. But ironically, its this quick, meaningless interview that Warriors writer Ethan Sherwood-Strauss thinks may have gotten Scalabrine in trouble: “So Scalabrine spoke on TV about how GSW was trying to keep Spurs out of the middle of the floor. Not a big strategy reveal, but uncommon. Mark Jackson doesn’t have assistants speak to media, save for those CSN interviews. And I think they’re supposed to be bland/dumb in those.”
Before we get too far into possible conflict between Jackson and his assistant coaching staff, however, it is instructive to examine Wojnarowski’s report closer. We know its basic tenor is true, as mere hours after publication the Warriors announced Scalabrine’s demotion. It is also pretty clear that Wojnarowski’s source(s) are within the Warriors organization. Wojnarowski is too scrupulous of a reporter to be writing this based off of second hand sources, and in the past he has consistently used phrases like “the feeling around the league is” when he isn’t reporting directly. Of course, this prompts the question: who, exactly, are Wojnarowski’s sources?
We can eliminate a few potential candidates. The reports certainly aren’t coming from Jackson himself—you don’t use information from your anonymous source to then rip your anonymous source—and I don’t see a clear motive from management to making their coaching staff look like the Keystone Kops. It is possible management loves Scalabrine so much—Warriors GM Bob Myers was Scalabrine’s agent during his playing days—that they’re softening the ground by making Jackson look like a petty tyrant before firing him. But if that’s the case, there is no reason to go through the charade of letting Jackson demote Scalabrine before firing him. It seems that neither Myers nor owner Joe Lacob are the likely leaks.
The circumstantial evidence—and to be quite clear, this is speculation—points to the leak coming from somebody on the Warriors assistant coaching staff, likely second assistant Darren Erman, whom Wojnarowski has a longtime relationship with. Wojnarowski met Erman ten years ago while he was writing about the St. Anthony’s High School basketball team, where Erman was an assistant coach. He wrote very highly of Erman in the book, has written highly of Erman in the past, and broke the stories of Erman being hired and promoted by the Warriors. Scalabrine himself is also a possibility. Wojnarowski was very complimentary of the late aughts Boston Celtics teams that Scalabrine was a part of (and that Darren Erman was an assistant coach on), wrote a piece on Scalabrine retiring—not something he does for every NBA role player—and has broken multiple pieces of Scalabrine news. We already know Scalabrine has Wojnarowski’s phone number!
On the surface, the gain for Darren Erman and/or Brian Scalabrine is clear. Erman is the Warriors hot coaching prospect (lead assistant Pete Myers isn’t really seen as head coaching material), but it is more difficult to raise his profile under Jackson’s strict media rules. Certainly Erman would be a candidate for an open head coaching position, were one to open. Assuming Scalabrine knew he was going to be demoted, leaking tales of dysfunction gives the impression that Jackson doesn’t know what he is doing, rather than the impression that Scalabrine is a bad assistant coach. Perhaps more important than the precise identity of the leaker though is the fact that things have devolved to the point of anonymous leaks and mud-slinging.
But the confusing thing about it all is that despite Jackson’s faults—and the recent spate of controversy he’s found himself embroiled in during a winning season—he’s not actually in all that imminent danger of being fired. The fact of the matter—as Ethan Sherwood Strauss deftly helped us work through—is the coaching landscape is very favorable to him. For various reasons, none of the big name coaches really fit for the Warriors. There is no indication Stan Van Gundy wants to return to coaching. George Karl (who already coached the Warriors from 1986–88) got killed by the Warriors in the playoffs and afterwards threw Andre Iguodala under the bus. Lionel Hollins has a history of clashing with management, especially over advanced statistics, and the Warriors stats guru happens to be the owner’s son. Jeff Van Gundy is a New York broadcasting pal of Jackson’s and wouldn’t take a job his former player and colleague was fired from. Even if the Warriors were to wait until the summer to fire Jackson, they’re faced with the unenviable task of picking among ho-hum veteran coaches, or riskily hiring a hot assistant to coach a potentially championship caliber team. The timing just isn’t right.
It might be surprising to the outside observer—why is there all this controversy where there really shouldn’t be—but it isn’t to Warriors fans. The memory of the We Believe team, which was dismantled piecemeal by a brooding, vengeful front office lead by team president Robert Rowell in partnership with head coach Don Nelson, is dimming, but it’s hard not to have flashbacks to these recent, darker days. And can you blame us? Even after the departure of Cohan as owner and Robert Rowell as team president, even amidst a historic season with an All-Star starter, the team is finding a way to create unnecessary drama off-the-court. On the cusp of the first 50 win season since the 1993–94 season, there are storm clouds on the horizon. It’s hard not to feel discouraged.
Yet, at the same time, we can take some solace in the fact that, in spite of controversy, this Warriors team has two assets that a good team needs to have a chance and contend: a superstar and a cooperative, informed owner. In this regard, the Warriors are in a much better position than they were a few seasons back, when the dreaded “d” word—dysfunction—ran rampant through the organization. Many good teams undergo minor upheavals as they develop into bona fide contenders, from the late 1990s Lakers to the 2000s Mavericks. In both cases, these teams cycled through multiple coaches and supporting players in an effort to find the right complimentary casts for a star. Seemingly, this is the plan Lacob (and Myers) has for Stephen Curry, the team’s superstar, and one of the best players in the league. As long as Stephen Curry is healthy and content, and the team is competitive, the Warriors are in good shape. This is a far cry from just two seasons prior.
However, the Wojnarowski report, and the controversy between Jackson and management, highlights larger questions that could be facing the team in the coming months and years. Who is the face of the Warriors? Who is the voice? Certainly Curry is the public face of the team; the most recognizable, marketable player. But Jackson is the voice of the team, he preaches for the organization. When one looks around at the other elite teams in the league, it’s hard not to notice that Jackson stands as an exception to his peers, who seem content to keep lower profiles. Erik Spoelstra doesn’t offer sermons at the post-game pressers, and Scott Brooks keeps his chiding of the media to a minimum. In both cases, they let their superstars do most of the talking, both on and off the court. It is hard not to wonder if a coach who would help Curry become a more vocal leader, rather than insisting on being the vocal leader himself, would be a better fit for this team, as Curry begins to enter the early years of his prime.
As for what happens next, that’s anyone’s guess. The Warriors still have two more days off, and this story will not go away before then. Jackson will have to figure out how to spin this to his advantage, which likely will produce some testy moments between himself and the media. And, of course, a distraction is the last thing a team needs, especially one that would like to think of itself as a contender.
Those are our Warriors; changing before our very eyes, but in many ways, remaining very much the same.