A lot has been written in the day or so since Mark Jackson was fired by the Warriors on Tuesday. Much of it focuses on what seems to have become a circus off the court in the Bay Area, in terms of explaining why a pretty successful coach was unceremoniously dumped just days after Golden State lost an epic seven-game series despite missing its defensive anchor. All of that is true, so far as it goes: picking fights with one’s bosses has never been a healthy career move.
But that well-publicized owner-vs.-coach friction has largely obscured the fact that the biggest reason Jackson was fired was simply not winning enough, and the perception that the team underperformed its talent.
Not to belabor a point made often, and well, in basketball circles over the course of the season, but the perception of Golden State as an offensive juggernaut is simply false – this Warriors team was built on defense, finishing fourth in the NBA in Defensive Rating by allowing 102.6 points per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, the team was barely above average on offense, ranked 12th at a 107.5 Offensive Rating (as compared with a league average of 106.7 ppoints/100 possessions). Even among Western Conference playoff teams, Golden State ranked best in terms of defense, but second-worst offensively.
Of course, getting a team which prominently features Stepheb Curry and David Lee to perform that well defensively is an achievement, but the reason the perception of the Warriors’ offensive dominance persists is that given their talent, they should have been better.
The criticism centers on Jackson running an offense straight from his early-’90s playing days, relying on endless isolations and post-ups (two of the least-efficient methods of scoring) and eschewing the ball and player movement his roster seems built for.
If there was one play to sum up the frustration, it would be this:
With 1:30 left in an elimination game, and the offense features one screen of Curry and an isolation post-up for Harrison Barnes because he has a “mismatch.”
This is not simply selection bias. According to the SportVU tracking data available on NBA.COM, the Warriors ranked as the third-slowest team in the league to move the ball. To put it another way, the average time a Golden State player held the ball on each touch was longer than for 27 other teams. In fact, among playoff teams, the Warriors were by far the slowest in terms of moving the ball:
Considering the Warriors have above-average passing talent at four positions in Lee, Curry, Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala, this ball-stopping offense (which surely contributed to Curry’s high turnover totals) is as much an aesthetic crime as a strategic one. It should be noted that there is no strong proof that slower ball movement is an inherently bad thing, but in the case of the Warriors, it simply doesn’t match their talent.
The other major on-court criticism of Jackson was his inability to properly stagger lineups. Though the data is somewhat skewed by the fact that Iguodala missed 19 games, Bogut 16 and Curry five, the Warriors still averaged just less than 10 minutes per game with none of their three best players on the court, and in those minutes, Golden State was outscored by 9.9 points/100 possessions (per NBAWOWY). In the playoffs, this issue remained as over seven games, the Warriors had neither Curry or Iguodala on their floor for an average 4.4 minutes per game, during which time the team was a net minus-27, playing at a deficit of almost four points per game over those minutes. This, in a seven-game series in which four of the games were decided by five points or less.
So while major factors in Jackson’s dismissal might have been personality-driven, there is more than a little evidence that he simply didn’t perform well enough given the team’s talent and that another coach might take this Warriors team and do even better.