With a huge number of quality teams in the middle of the Western Conference, there doesn’t appear to be much separation between those fighting for homecourt advantage in the first round and the ones trying to sneak into the playoffs. And while most tried to upgrade their personnel in the offseason, the Golden State Warriors took a different tack. They are counting on improvement from their coaching staff, replacing Mark Jackson with Sterr Kerr.
Jackson was a polarizing figure in Golden State. On one hand, the Warriors improved their win total in each of his three seasons with the club, going from perennial lottery contender to playoff fixture. On the other, he was a very stubborn coach whose offensive philosophies seemed stuck in his playing days, a bit of anachronism in the modern NBA. And while he was beloved in the locker room, he didn’t have a great relationship with management.
If the transition from Jackson to Kerr causes an on the court improvement, it will likely come on the offensive end of the floor. Despite having a starting line-up brimming with firepower, the Warriors were 11th and 12th in offensive rating in the last two seasons. Many blamed that on Jackson’s fondness for isolations and post-ups, as Golden State was second lowest in the league in the number of passes per possession, according to SportsVU.
Kerr is promising to install a more free-flowing offensive system, one that includes many principles of the Triangle he learned from playing under Phil Jackson. The primary beneficiaries may be the Warriors second unit, as they traditionally struggled to score under Jackson, perhaps because they lacked the playmaking ability of guys like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and David Lee to create good shots out of 1-out-1 situations.
The new coaching staff probably won’t make many adjustments on the defensive side of the floor, where Jackson’s teams were among the best in the NBA. Despite giving so many minutes to defensive liabilities like Curry and Lee, the Warriors had a Top 5 defense in each of the last two seasons. Like many players who learned the game in the 1990’s, Jackson firmly believed the old adage that defense wins championships and emphasized that side of the ball.
And while he was widely viewed a “player’s coach” and not a tactician, Jackson more than held his own against some of the league’s best coaches in the last two postseasons. Both years, he had to deal with a significant injury to one of his primary frontcourt players and was forced to change the identity of his team on the fly. That’s easier said than done, as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s struggles without Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have shown.
In 2012, Lee went down with a hip injury in the first game of the playoffs. The obvious move would have been to insert Carl Landry into the starting line-up, but Jackson decided to slide Harrison Barnes to the power forward position, turning the Warriors into a four-out team overnight. With four perimeter players spotted up at the three-point line, Golden State turned the tables on the Denver Nuggets and beat them at their own game.
Since Kenneth Faried didn’t have the post game to take advantage of Barnes lack of size, the Warriors were able to improve their floor spacing on offense without sacrificing much on defense. Under George Karl, the Nuggets had been a contrarian power, taking advantage of the altitude in Denver to run slower teams off the floor. That didn’t work against the new-look Warriors, who had more firepower and more size, thanks to the presence of Andrew Bogut.
In 2013, Bogut went down before the start of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, a loss even more devastating than Lee’s. Bogut was the anchor of their defense and his ability to screen open shooters and facilitate out of the high post was a huge part of the Warriors offense. After falling behind 2-1 to the Clippers, Jackson made another great adjustment, sliding Lee to center and inserting Draymond Green into the starting line-up at PF.
He went back to the same playbook he used in 2012, knowing he could hide a smaller player on a limited big man like DeAndre Jordan. Just as important, Green’s ability to stretch the floor from the PF spot opened up the paint for Golden State’s offense and forced Blake Griffin to play defense 25+ feet from the basket. Even though the Warriors were dramatically undermanned, they almost came back to win the series, narrowly losing a Game 7 thriller.
In both instances, Jackson showed he understood the importance of spreading the floor as well as how to manipulate match-ups and force the opposing coach into a difficult situation. Karl didn’t want to take Faried off the floor and Doc Rivers felt the same away about Jordan - Jackson’s substitutions forced them to pay a price for sticking with their big men. That’s how the Warriors were able to punch above their weight in each of the last two playoffs.
The interesting question is what would have happened if Bogut had stayed healthy and Jackson had tried the same tactic. Since neither Lee nor Green could protect the rim, the Clippers were able to shred the Warriors defense as the series went on. A frontcourt of Bogut and Green, in contrast, would have still been able to stretch the floor and compromise the Clippers defense while also having the ability to shut off the paint and protect the defensive glass.
Throughout Jackson’s tenure in Golden State, the only guy who came under more fire than the coach was Lee, who has never really been able to justify the huge contract he received in 2010. While he’s a skilled player who puts up big stats, he’s not capable of scoring over the top of bigger players in the post, he doesn’t have the shooting range to stretch the floor and he’s not good defensively. In a lot of ways, Lee is the worst of both worlds at the power forward position.
As long as Lee is on the floor, the Warriors have to use a two-post offense that doesn’t maximize the talents of their perimeter players. Most teams who make that decision do so with the idea that playing two big men together will fortify their defense, but Lee doesn’t bring much to that end of the floor either. He has never been on an elite team in his 9-year NBA career and Golden State certainly seemed to play better without him in the 2012 playoffs.
And while Green gives up a lot of size on defense, he makes up for it by having long arms, very quick feet and a strong base. He made Griffin work for his points when matched up against him in the playoffs, something Lee has never been accused of doing. There’s even more benefit to playing Green on offense, since he gives the Warriors another shooter and another guy who can break the defense down off the dribble and create plays for others off the bounce.
If Kerr is given the freedom to make a move like that, he may be able to take the Warriors to the next level.
While Jackson had a lot of success in Golden State, he was far from a perfect coach, so there’s nothing wrong with replacing him. However, if Lee ends up having more job security than Jackson, Golden State has been wasting their time. For as much press as coaches get in the modern NBA, basketball is still more about Jimmies and Joes than X’s and O’s.