There is a stranger in the Western Conference playoff race.
A team that has had only two winning seasons over the last 18 years. A team that had a quiet off-season and was not predicted to contend for a playoff spot at all this season.
That team is the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors have surpassed all preseason expectations with a surprisingly strong first half. The Warriors reached 20 wins this season before New Year’s Day for the first time since 1981. What has changed in Golden State and how have the Warriors become a team that nobody wants to see on their schedule?
It started two years ago after the Warriors finished 10 games under .500 with a record of 36-46. Owner Joe Lacob felt the team was in need of a change and Mark Jackson was hired leading up to the lockout shortened season of 2011-12.
This would be Jackson’s first coaching job and it was a baptism by fire. The Warriors were never able to get on track during the lockout-shortened season. The lack of a full preseason was a challenge for each team to overcome, but it was even more difficult for Golden State and its new head coach.
The combination of Jackson implementing his style and strategy during a shortened time frame, along with injuries to key players such as Stephen Curry and David Lee, put the Warriors in a very difficult position. The Warriors then traded one of their best players, shooting guard Monta Ellis, during the season in a trade with the Milwaukee Bucks that landed them injured center Andrew Bogut.
The Warriors knew they would be without Bogut for the rest of the 2011-12 season as he recovered from ankle surgery, but they had already began looking ahead to the next year.
The Warriors offseason activity did not garner any national attention. The Warriors’ most significant moves were adding forward Carl Landry and guard Jarrett Jack. Both have had solid NBA careers, but have bounced around the league. The Warriors added a talented rookie in Harrison Barnes with the No. 7 pick in the draft but at only 20 years old, his impact this season would likely be limited.
With Bogut still recovering from a troublesome left ankle injury and no other significant moves the Warriors were once again expected to be a lottery team. The problem with this was that nobody bothered to tell Jackson and his team they were not supposed to contend for a playoff berth in the Western Conference.
The Warriors are currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference with a record of 30-22. Jackson’s team now plays more cohesively as a group and they have emulated his toughness and passion on the court.
Two stats that represent the effort and heart that Golden State now plays with are rebounding and defense. I spoke with All-Star forward Lee, who told me, “Our defense and rebounding have stepped up. Last year we were near dead last in both of those categories and this year we have done a much better job.”
Lee is right; the Warriors are now the best defensive rebounding team in the NBA after finishing 23rd overall in defensive rebounding last season.
Defense and rebounding often come down to effort and determination, two traits that Jackson has instilled in his team. I asked Lee what Jackson has done to turn things around in Golden State.
“He is good at motivating each and every one of us to get the most out of us and has kept a very even keel temper with us the whole season considering we have a pretty young team, a team that is doing something that hasn’t been done in our city in a long time,” Lee said. “He’s just been with us every step of the way and has kept us positive.”
Speeches only go so far for so long with a team if they lack authenticity. It is clear that Golden State has embraced the message that Jackson is preaching. Golden State did not become a winning team through free agency and an influx of new players; they became a winning team because Jackson has changed the entire culture in Golden State.
Despite a season that has presented numerous challenges, the Warriors remain in the thick of the playoff race in the Western Conference. The culture in Golden State has been completely changed and Jackson is the reason for that. Jackson often deflects any praise he receives and quickly credits his players for their hard work and dedication.
While the players deserve a great deal of credit for the turnaround in Golden State, it is clear they would not be in the position they are in without Jackson. As we approach the All-Star break, there is currently no better candidate for the Red Auerbach Trophy as Coach of the Year than Jackson.
Just don’t expect to hear that from Jackson himself.
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