OAKLAND, Calif. – The locker room at the Warriors’ practice facility looks different this season. A grease board documents the conference standings. It has since Day One, when the team’s history and NBA logic said the idea amounted to demoralizing cruelty.
Oracle Arena, the Warriors’ home, sounds different this season. Everyone here is speaking a foreign language, adopting the native tongue of the East. A “defense, defense’’ chant has wafted through this building before, but usually with the weightlessness of helium balloons and the patois of someone who had inhaled from them.
It’s another noise altogether when the crowd really believes, when it fully savors the beauty of a great stop. On Wednesday night, the Clippers stopped by for a showdown of reformed slackers, and the 115-94 Warriors win presented many options for rapture. But the play that sent the place into the maddest celebration was Blake Griffin’s third-quarter heave from the corner that caromed off the side of the backboard. The shot-clock buzzer, ever the electronic heckler, compounded the indignity and the crowd’s bloodlust.
This is what the Warriors do now. This is the transformation that Mark Jackson had promised a year and a half earlier, when he stepped away from ESPN’s microphone and took the first coaching job of his life. He said he would remake the team in his image, with some Eastern Conference edge and an ability to stifle teams that were quicker, taller and broader. He said the Warriors would go to the playoffs, which they had done just once in the previous 17 seasons.
Jackson could always talk. He worked as a Southern California pastor in addition to the ESPN gig. And he could play, overachieving to the point of sorcery, just the way that coaches adore. But could he really run a team, or did the Warriors’ new owners, Joe Lacob and Peter Guber, choose a name brand over a bona fide head coach?
After Jackson’s first season, a 23-43 regression, his promises sounded as eccentric as the buzz phrases he employed while covering games alongside his former Knicks coach, Jeff Van Gundy.
When the team returned this season, Jackson arranged for the standings to appear in the locker room, very consciously listing the Warriors, then tied at 0-0 with everybody else, in 13th place in the Western Conference. ESPN the Magazine had predicted the team would finish there.
They currently sit in fifth place, at 22-10, just one win behind last season’s grand total. The record isn’t as shocking as the way it has been achieved. The Warriors rank third in rebounding in the entire NBA, a 27-place leap from last year. After consistently placing in the bottom 10 for opponents’ field-goal percentage, they have soared to second.
Except for the uniforms, Don Nelson wouldn’t recognize the team he coached twice, at a frantic pace. He might recognize Stephen Curry’s shooting, which surrendered none of its elegance in Wednesday’s matchup with Chris Paul. The rest of it is all Mark Jackson, from Curry’s maturation into a reliable team-defense player to the collegiate chemistry.
“The difference between the NBA and college is that in college, you have teammates. Here you got co-workers,’’ said Jarrett Jack, the sixth man and closest thing to Jackson’s doppelganger. He remembers his coach as a player, “the flair, the passing. I’m still trying to work on that shimmy he used to do.’’
Jack has played for five teams in his eight-year career, and he tells the younger Warriors to consider themselves fortunate.
“I say, 'There’s a whole other side to the NBA that you guys haven’t seen, and it’s good that you haven’t,'" Jack said. “I’ve been on teams where after practice is over, I don’t talk to them, I don’t see them, not until game time or next practice.’’
After Brandon Rush underwent surgery to repair two knee ligaments, the team chartered a bus so that everyone could go visit him together. During a trip to Charlotte last month, all of the Warriors shared a suite at a Panthers game the day before they played the Bobcats.
“We just genuinely enjoy being around one another,’’ Jack said. “A couple of guys didn’t have their parents here during Christmas, so my mom cooked and they came over. Charles Jenkins brought Tupperware so he could take food home.’’
Jackson set up the NFL outing in Carolina. Many coaches will tell you that winning creates chemistry more than the other way around. Not this one. When Jackson played for contenders in Indiana and New York, he said, players made a point to do things off the court together.
Trading shooting guard Monta Ellis late last season may have accomplished more than any bonding events. Fans loved his scoring binges, so much that they booed owner Joe Lacob about a week after the trade, disrupting a ceremony to retire Chris Mullin’s jersey. Mullin and fellow Hall of Famer Rick Barry each took up a microphone to mollify the crowd, which had plenty of other grievances.
But the Ellis trade, bringing center Andrew Bogut from Milwaukee, infuriated one of the most loyal fan bases in pro sports. Today, as ankle surgery sidelines Bogut with no return date in sight, the deal could appear to be even more disappointing than it did in March. Ellis’ gambling defense, however, would not fit into Jackson’s scheme. Ellis recently put even more distance between himself and the personality of the current Warriors when he equated himself with Dwyane Wade, except for "more wins and two championships."
In Bogut’s absence, power forward David Lee put himself in the company of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal. They are the only four players in NBA history ever to put together 12 or more games in a single season with 20-plus points, 8 or more rebounds and a shooting percentage of 50 percent or better.
Wilt, Kareem, Shaq, David Lee -- an NBA Mount Rushmore. Start carving it now.
As a commentator, Jackson once said that Lee, then with the Knicks, did not deserve an All-Star berth he had just received. “He was on a bad team putting up numbers,’’ Jackson said. “I don’t believe guys on bad teams should be all-stars unless they’re having incredible years.’’
Now he stumps for both Lee and Curry to make the team.
“Maybe I’ll hold my own game if these two guys don’t make it,’’ the coach said. “Maybe that’s the answer.’"
The talker in him got on a roll before and after the Clippers’ game. It doesn’t really take much.
On Griffin getting a flagrant-foul call after tumbling to the floor after rookie Festus Ezeli grabbed his arm: “He’s a good actor; I’ve seen him in those Kia commercials.’’
On his sixth man: “Jarrett Jack has been a steal... You watch Jarrett Jack (from a distance) and you think ‘nothing special.'"
On what he thought about Jack when he worked on TV: "I didn’t know anything when I was in broadcasting."
He repeated that line in another part of the press conference. Jackson had a shtick on TV. He didn’t have to get results. He had to convey his personality. He didn’t have to imprint himself onto an entire team, and over a losing culture.
"Hand down, man down," and "You’re better than that," his best-known catch phrases, weren’t going to do the job. A gesture like posting the standings in the locker room, the way the best teams of his playing days did, may have been more prescient than motivational. Jackson couldn’t really explain why he didn’t do the same thing last season, when he predicted a playoff berth.
But now that the writing is on the locker-room wall, it works as a reward. Recently, a few players came in on an off day and discovered that the standings had not been updated.
"They were upset," Jackson said. "I had to get the wall updated immediately."
They’re a willful bunch -- and exactly what their coach wants.