The year: 2008. The culprit: The New York Knicks. The crime: After running Isiah Thomas and his abysmal 56-108 record out of the Big Apple, the Knickerbockers selected Mike D’Antoni as their new head coach over one of ESPN’s 25 Greatest Knicks ever, Mark Jackson.
“Had Mike not shook loose from Phoenix, I probably would have hired Mark,” Knicks president Donnie Walsh told the New York Times after hiring Mr. Pringles. “But I felt I had to put Mike over Mark because he was a proven N.B.A. coach. What I told Mike when I interviewed him was that we were going to lose for two years until we got things straightened out with the cap. I didn’t think it was fair to put a first-time coach in that situation. You know, it was a judgment call.”
Fast-forward to 2012. The second-year head coach has the Golden State Warriors sitting at 16-8, the team’s best start since ’91-’92 when Chris Mully and Timmy Crossover led the team to 55 wins, the second-most in franchise history.
“I think he’ll eventually be a great coach,” Walsh said. “I always liked Mark. He’s so bright. And I think the biggest thing is that he knows what he doesn’t know. He will have the right people around him to help him grow into the job.”
Hindsight 20/20 is a bitch, ain’t it, Donnie? After finishing 23-43 in his rookie campaign cookin’ up X’s and O’s, Jackson is beating the sophomore slump with the clipboard by having his team firing on all cylinders. It’s no secret that the Warriors have never had a problem lighting up the scoreboard—we all saw that with Nellie Ball, but they always seemed to have a problem stopping opponents on the other end. This year, though, Golden State has bought into Jackson’s defensive philosophy lock, stock and barrel. Ain’t no “hand down, man down” happenin’ under Jackson’s watch, believe that. The Warriors have gone from allowing opponents an average of 101.2 points per game last year to 98.38 points per game this year, while upping their own offense from 97.8 ppg last season to 99.58 ppg this season.
They’re also crashing the defensive boards, bumping up the rebound percentage from last year’s 69.1 percent (worst in the NBA) to this year’s 75.1 percent (best in the NBA). And they’ve done all this without Andrew Bogut, a central piece to the puzzle. Most analysts rightfully credit Jackson for the team’s turnaround, but the former St. John’s standout deflects the credit to his players. Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack are holding down the bench mob, while the rooks, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes, are maturing faster than expected. Additionally, Stephen Curry and David Lee are both playing at an All-Star level. Lee was recently crowned Western Conference Player of the Week for tallying 22.8 ppg on .606 shooting from the field with 12.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.0 steals per contest. During that stretch, the Warriors went 3-1 with wins over the Heat and the Hawks.
Jackson racked up 10,334 assists in his 17-year career (3rd all-time), but his biggest assist has been in facilitating the resurgence of Curry. After telling the sharpshooter that he should be more aggressive in looking for his shot, Curry has been dropping J’s on cats from all over the court to the tune of 19.7 points per. Curry’s ability to get wet from the perimeter has also opened up the passing lanes, allowing for better ball movement and open teammates.
Like Walsh said, Jackson knows what he doesn’t know, so he’s not forcing Curry to be Mark Jackson circa ’88, when he won the ROY for zipping dimes to Patrick Ewing.. But even so, it ain’t no half steppin’ for Steph. The baby-faced assassin has upped his gives from 5.3 last year to 6.5 this year and by the way he’s battling and scrapping on D, has prompted his coach to use hyperbole in describing him to the press corps.
“I don't think it. I know it," Jackson told USA Today. "I've seen the best in the league, and there are some awfully good point guards in this league. But when you look at his body of work and the fashion that he's leading this basketball team, he certainly is. He's playing at an elite level. That can't be debated."
Embellishment or shrewd motivation? To be a great coach is no longer simply being a great tactician. Today’s coach is much more. Today’s coach needs to be able to relate to players and lead by example. Jackson’s courtside manner is reminiscent of Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who also has an unmatched knack for appealing to his players. Doc has been in the trenches, so players respect that. Jackson has been there, too, so it’s likely that he can grow to be Doc 2.0 in the Bay. That’s provided that he continues to surround himself with capable assistants and learn the intricacies of game planning and schemes like Rivers.
But for the short term, if Jackson gets the Warriors to the playoffs this spring after a five-year drought, there’s a good chance that former colleague and ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy will point to the Brooklyn native, lean over to Mike Breen and turn Jackson’s famous phrase back at him: “Mama, there’s goes that man!” Nah, Jeff, Breen might say, “Mama, there goes that coach.”