CHICAGO – The Golden State Warriors are having one of the most successful seasons in franchise history.
This exciting team with a backcourt already with a nickname — the Splash Brothers of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — has a chance to be just the fourth Warriors team in franchise history to have a 50-win season.
No, this is not a franchise with a classic history beyond being one of the founding franchises in the NBA. When the Warriors made the playoffs last season, it was just the second time in the last 19 seasons.
But perhaps even more significantly, the Warriors under coach Mark Jackson have undergone the much sought “culture change,” going from decades of being a change ends team with no defensive component to one of the top defensive teams in the NBA, fourth in opponent field-goal percentage and eighth in points allowed, behind just the Spurs and Grizzlies among Western Conference teams.
So, of course, the big talk is that Jackson may be fired after this season.
It is one of the more curious stories in the NBA this season with enough to fill a novel with behind-the-scenes intrigue and personal rivalries.
If it were only about basketball it would be so simple.
Part of it is since the Warriors, after losing in the conference semifinals last season to the eventual conference champion Spurs, were considered a top contender in the West.
They’ve played well, but going into the final month of the season even with a chance to win 50 games were still in danger of missing the playoffs in the strong Western Conference.
It all became complicated because brash young owner Joe Lacob, an unusually open-to-the-public media executive, proclaimed before the season the Warriors should contend for a title after a big offseason signing of Andre Iguodala.
That Iguodala is much overrated and hasn’t produced all that much hasn’t made it any easier, especially with Iguodala frequently injured this season. But when the boss says he wants to win, he means it.
The Warriors declined to extend Jackson’s contract, making him a lame duck for this season, which is rare for a successful coach. And then Lacob after commending Jackson in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News earlier this season, surprisingly, questioned the team’s readiness to play at times.
It was a shocking observation from an owner during a season that basically has been successful. It had, “You’re out” written all over it.
But the Warriors have responded well to Jackson.
Then earlier in March came a reassignment of assistant Brian Scalabrine to the D-League in what seemed a mystery and media reports of issues with previous assistant Mike Malone, who now coaches the Kings.
Both Jackson and Malone denied the accusation.
Nets coach Jason Kidd did, likewise, “reassign” assistant Lawrence Frank in Brooklyn and the team has prospered since. No one mentions that much anymore.
But Jackson can be a divisive figure for a pastor. He and his wife preach and he is a licensed minister.
He had a long, successful career as a top point guard, though he played for eight teams and twice in New York with occasional accusations of internal issues on those teams.
He would be beloved, like in Indiana with buddy Reggie Miller, and then questioned about motives, like in Utah.
He became a successful network basketball broadcaster with an approach that was part evangelical and part folksy.
But at the same time reports surfaced last month, vehemently denied by Jackson, that he looked into other jobs while still coaching the Warriors.
Because he sees an uncertain future?
Fabricated by rivals?
After all, it’s the NBA coaching world, a tough place to survive. In the midst of all this is one of the more unique circumstances in sports, the outward promotion of religion, namely Christianity.
It’s hardly uncommon among American pro athletes. Players frequently thank God during postgame interviews and every team has a pregame chapel. Some teams, like the Oklahoma City Thunder, do a pregame prayer. Previously, it was done in Charlotte.
The Warriors’ principal owners, Lacob and Peter Guber, are not religious Christians. But perhaps more so, the Golden State Bay Area in California is one of the more non-denominational areas in the U.S. with less emphasis on an organized religion above any others.
This while several players under Jackson have been more open to Christian religious symbolism.
But at the same time that belief system has formed a strong bond among Warriors players and support for Jackson. When media reports recently were raised about Jackson’s staff management, Curry immediately leaped to the defense and support of his coach and, likewise, Jermaine O’Neal, who said he couldn’t consider playing for a coach other than Jackson.
And then Curry backed up Jackson the best way possible with a strong shooting show to win a big game with playoff ramifications over the Memphis Grizzlies. Of course, that also raises the question of an us/them with management. And, after all, they do make the final decisions.
And as has happened many times before, it’s never just about basketball.
But it is about winning.
The Bulls in Michael Jordan’s early seasons were on the rise under first-time coach Doug Collins. In 1989, after Collins led the Bulls to their first conference finals in 14 years, he was fired. He was replaced by Phil Jackson.
Management called it philosophical differences.
The Bulls went on to win six championships, so it became a footnote in franchise history.
Mark Jackson is a first-time coach as well. Sometimes it takes being fired to mature in your job if you are an NBA coach.
Just about all get fired a few times whether mature or not.
It certainly seems like Jackson has to make a long playoff run this season to remain in his job. And then he still might not. Despite being one of the most successful coaches in franchise history.
What a business.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”