There had been a stench hovering over the Golden State Warriors for months, when they didn’t race off to a torrid start, when they struggled at home, when assistant coach Brian Scalabrine was reassigned, and finally when assistant coach Darren Erman was fired.
All of those issues were attributed to head coach Mark Jackson, but all those issues were not his responsibility. He took the brunt of the blame for the chaos and first-round elimination from the playoffs by being fired last week by majority owner Joe Lacob, formerly of the Celtics.
Jackson’s team had won 51 games and took the Los Angeles Clippers to seven games in the first round without the services of starting center Andrew Bogut (not shocking). And yet it appeared even if Golden State had advanced to the second round, Jackson wouldn’t last long as coach.
It was the classic case of philosophical differences, a headstrong coach with strong convictions and an owner who witnessed the ultimate success with the Celtics and believes he knows the proper way to build a franchise. Jackson is a fine coach and should be tops on the wish lists of teams such as Minnesota and Detroit. But Jackson’s clashes with Scalabrine and team adviser Jerry West didn’t endear him to management.
It wasn’t that Jackson disliked West; he disliked his constant presence and asked him not to attend practices. Jackson wanted the type of control reserved for more established coaches, not first-time ones. His having a residence in Los Angeles and not in the Bay Area bothered team management but as he astutely pointed out, Doc Rivers stayed at the Four Seasons for most of his tenure in Boston and worked out an agreement with Danny Ainge to be able to travel to Orlando on team breaks and offdays.
It appears Jackson’s issue was not in dealing with players, they were fiercely loyal. It was a misunderstanding that coaches aren’t CEOs of the franchise, or very few are. That’s in the Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson neighborhood. Jackson’s GPS didn’t even detect that neighborhood, not after just three seasons as a head coach.
Privately, Jackson knew he was gone. He wished his relationship with Lacob was better but wanted more respect from management for his decisions. And while the Warriors won 51 games in the ultracompetitive Western Conference, they were the sixth seed and were forced to face the championship-caliber Clippers in the first round.
But Jackson didn’t sign Bogut to a long-term contract and watch as yet again he was derailed by injury. He didn’t trade for Andre Iguodala, thwarting the progress of lottery pick Harrison Barnes, whose numbers in his second year were essentially worse than in his rookie season.
“There are some things if I was them, I would do better,” Jackson told a Bay Area radio station last week. “The results on the court spoke for themselves. Identify who I did not have a good relationship with. That’s what I’d like to know. I’d like to know who had a problem with me and I treated wrong. Tell me who and we can move on. I’ll leave it for them to answer that. I am at peace with what has taken place in three years.”
Jackson definitely had issue with a Yahoo! Sports report that he was likely to be fired that was tweeted during his meeting with Lacob and general manager Bob Myers. He also was annoyed with a series of unnamed sources that developed throughout the season detailing the dysfunction in the organization and on Jackson’s coaching staff.
It seemed Jackson was too concerned with outside forces that he could not control rather than keeping the Warriors’ house in order. Removing two assistant coaches during the season is unusual and the fact that he reassigned Scalabrine, considered an affable person with a bright coaching future, fairly or unfairly reflected on Jackson.
The fact that Erman would record meetings with coaches when he was present and not present was a reflection that he did not trust those around him, and that also reflected on Jackson.
It’s rather sad because the Warriors appeared a team on the rise with Jackson. The players adored him, including All-Star guard Stephen Curry, who said after the Game 7 loss to the Clippers, “I love Coach more than anybody. For him to be in a situation where his job is under scrutiny and under question is totally unfair and it would definitely be a shock to me if anything like [a firing] would ever happen.”
Now Lacob not only has to score with the next hire, he has to win back the locker room with his decision. Time will pass, Jackson will likely get another job this summer, and the Warriors will hire a capable coach, but there will always be a question whether the marriage between Jackson and the Warriors would have lasted longer with better communication.
Game 7 loss to Lakers still haunting Rivers
Clippers coach Doc Rivers and his club escaped in the final minutes to beat the Warriors in Game 7 of their Western Conference first-round series. Before the game, Rivers discussed his memories of coaching his share of Game 7s, but the one that stands out occurred on the same court on which he currently works.
Rivers said he never has forgotten the pain of losing Game 7 of the NBA Finals to the Lakers in 2010, a game the Celtics led for most of the first three quarters before falling apart in the fourth. In that game, the Celtics were outscored, 30-22, in the final period before losing, 83-79. The Lakers attempted 37 free throws to Boston’s 17 and the duo of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol combined for 33 rebounds.
“Actually, in this building,” Rivers said when asked of his most vivid Game 7 memory. “Thank God we don’t have to see those [Lakers championship] banners. That’s probably why I hung up those other things [Clippers banners] so if we do have a Game 7, I’m not reminded of it. That’s the one, obviously. I don’t know why our brains work that way. I’ve won some Game 7s and I couldn’t even tell you one. I guess Cleveland being the one I remember. But the only one you think about is the one you didn’t win, the big one.”
Off the court in Clipperland, the NBA named former Time Warner chairman Dick Parsons as the team’s interim CEO. The Clippers were able to shake off the distraction of racist comments made by Donald Sterling and not only defeat the Warriors but overwhelm the Thunder in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.
“For us, it was basketball,” All-Star point guard Chris Paul said. “If we had lost this game  it wasn’t like they were going to let us go to the next round because of what we’ve been through. I think it just showed our will, our fight.”
In the waning seconds of the victory, Rivers turned to the sellout crowd at Staples Center and began waving and pumping his fist.
“You just don’t see that from him too much,” Paul said. “I’m sort of like that, too. I let go with two seconds left. It’s been emotional. Our team, whether you can see it or not, is very tight.”
Clippers forward Blake Griffin said Rivers’s show of emotion was inspiring.
“It meant a lot because I think he of all people has been through probably the most,” Griffin said. “He really had to deal with it for those first couple of days because we as a team decided not to speak on it and he was the guy that everybody was kind of looking to. He’s the leader of our team and emotionally I can’t imagine what he was going through. You could tell he had a sense of relief once this was over, that we got through a physically tough and mentally tough series.”
WIZARD OF WASHINGTON
Breakthrough season saves Wittman’s job
Wizards coach Randy Wittman was on the hotseat before the season began, as was general manager Ernie Grunfeld when owner Ted Leonsis demanded a playoff appearance after years of disappointing play and off-court drama.
Well, Wittman, in his third NBA coaching job after being fired in Minnesota, has delivered as Washington is entrenched in an Eastern Conference semifinal battle with the Indiana Pacers and looks like the better club.
The building of the Wizards was long and methodical. Drafting John Wall first in 2010 and teaming him with Bradley Beal, the third overall pick in 2012, was a brilliant move. They will be one of the league’s most formidable backcourts for the next decade.
The Wizards also acquired Nene, who has finally avoided injury pitfalls that derailed his years in Denver, along with Marcin Gortat, although acquiring him from Phoenix cost the Wizards a first-round pick. Add to that a career season from the oft-traveled and wildly inconsistent Trevor Ariza, and the Wizards have one of the league’s more versatile rosters.
For an organization that was considered a laughingstock after the Gilbert Arenas gun incident in 2009, its resurrection has been even more of a surprise because of Wittman’s tenuous status when the season began. He only received the job when Flip Saunders was fired and he was the lead assistant. And he barely survived the past few years when the Wizards were unable to make an impact in Eastern Conference.
All of their assets have blended into a wonderful combination — a mix of speed with Wall, shooting with Beal and Ariza, and muscle in the paint with Gortat and Nene. After beginning the season 2-7 and appearing as the same ragtag bunch as before, the Wizards didn’t reach .500 until Jan. 20 but then avoided any major losing streaks and finished 44-38, playing their best basketball at season’s end.
“Just the resiliency of it, 82 games is a long season, there’s a lot of ups and downs and we didn’t fall into the up-and-down portion of it,” said Wittman, who also coached the Cavaliers between 1999-2001. “We kept it to a minimum. That’s always a key to getting to the position we are today. You have to figure out ways how to survive and I thought that’s what we did this year. We won games when we didn’t have good offensive nights. We were able to win games with our defense and that’s always important.”
The ascension began last season when the Wizards recovered from a 9-31 start to win 20 of their next 36 games. Leonsis made his declaration during the summer, placing pressure on Wittman and Grunfeld to produce immediately.
“Once we got everybody back last year and had a healthy squad [we saw] what the team could accomplish in a full season,” Wittman said. “At the end of the year and seeing that, that’s what we rode, that momentum when we got John [Wall] back and Nene back, what we could do and what we could accomplish.
“That’s all we talked about coming into this year. You have no control over health, and we’ve been fairly healthy and that’s helped us maintain.”
Wittman is finally receiving the accolades after being considered a lame-duck coach for most of his Wizards’ tenure.
“That was what we talked about when we got together at the end of September, we don’t want to focus on anything else but putting ourselves in the position to be where we are today,” he said. “That’s always satisfying when you go through an eight-month period of the grind of it and you reach the last game and know you have something else to play for. It’s absolutely gratifying for those guys. Those are the guys who have gone through some tough times in years past and now they are reaping the reward for it.”
Premium prospects locking down agents
Former Duke standout Jabari Parker has chosen the Wasserman Group, with noted agent Arn Tellem, to be his representatives as premium prospects continue the process of choosing agents. Parker, however, was close to committing to Klutch Sports Group, which is headed by Rich Paul, a close friend of LeBron James.
It appeared Parker was headed to Klutch Sports until a last-minute change of mind, leaving the growing company without one of the projected top picks. Former Kansas swingman Andrew Wiggins signed with Bill Duffy, who also represents Rajon Rondo; Kansas center Joel Embiid signed with Wasserman; Dante Exum signed with Rob Pelinka; Kentucky’s Julius Randle signed with George Bass; Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart signed with Wasserman; and Indiana’s Noah Vonleh signed with Jeff Schwartz, who represents Paul Pierce.
The Detroit Pistons are seeking a general manager and Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren is considered a strong candidate. Zarren, of course, turned down an opportunity with the Philadelphia 76ers last year before they hired Sam Hinkie. When Ryan McDonough left the Celtics to become GM of the Phoenix Suns, Zarren became Danny Ainge’s right-hand man, and he has a good amount of influence in the organization. The Pistons have some cap space with Charlie Villanueva and Rodney Stuckey off the books, and perhaps a lottery pick depending on whether they land at eighth or lower in the May 20 draft lottery . . . The NBA career of Andrew Bynum is likely over after the Indiana Pacers announced that the big man would not be with the team for the rest of the playoffs. Team president Larry Bird thanked the Pacers’ medical staff for attempting to revive Bynum’s career, but his surgically repaired knees don’t appear capable of taking even minimal pounding. He played just two games for the Pacers. Bynum is just 26 but earned more than $79 million in his eight-season career that began out of high school. He played in 82 games just once in his career, at age 19, and reached one All-Star Game, in 2011-12 . . . Michael Jordan is doing his best to disassociate himself from apparent controversial comments that are published in Michael Jordan: The Life, a book by Roland Lazenby that describes the Hall of Famer’s early years. Jordan’s representatives sent out an e-mail saying that Jordan made his statements about race to Playboy Magazine in 1992, not to Lazenby. Jordan did not interview with Lazenby for the book . . . The removal of Clippers president Andy Roeser from his post to take an indefinite leave of absence was a necessary move if the NBA planned to move on from the Donald Sterling era. Roeser, although behind the scenes, was Sterling’s top confidant in the organization, and he released that ill-timed Clippers press release hours after Sterling’s racist statements were released, accusing Sterling’s girlfriend of extortion. The Clippers have had a high turnover of team employees over the past few years because of their upper management, and Roeser was considered too close to Sterling for the NBA to make a clean break from his ownership grip and move forward. Now comes the difficulty of wrestling the team from Sterling’s wife, Shelly, who appears intent on continuing her control of the franchise.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.