By Seerat Sohi
Be they people who take offense to his highly-publicized infusion of religion with locker room culture, media members who believe the Golden State Warriors' recent firings sprung from their head coach's lust for high acclaim, or an owner who publicly gave that coach a not-so-shining evaluation, everyone is a critic when it comes to Mark Jackson.
Every team featuring high-profile signings, lottery picks and heightened expectations has one of these: someone who falls on the sword in case everything goes wrong.
The coach-to-management bond is like any other relationship: No one starts acting funny or worrying about labels until they're given a reason to feel insecure. Jackson, the Warriors' embattled coach, knows he'll take the blame for a disappointing playoff run, yet he simultaneously holds a great deal of power. The situation has led to some stifling problems for Golden State, seeping from the front office onto the basketball court.
The Warriors' 7.1 net rating since the All-Star break, fourth in the league over that period, vaults them into contender status. Their starting lineup has been among the best in the league since opening night, but they've actually been better in absence of David Lee.
Sidelined thanks to nerve damage in his knee late in March, Lee missed seven games before he returned on Friday. With Lee replaced by Draymond Green, the Warriors' "killer lineup" was outscoring opponents by a staggering 16.1 points per 100 possessions.
Green is a stalwart defender who can switch on pick-and-rolls, stifle one-on-one opponents and provide optimal help defense. On offense, he's not a traditional marksman, but Green opens up the paint in a way that a traditional 20-10 big man never could. In fact, Green is shooting 38.3 percent from deep on 2.4 attempts per game since March 1. As if to bolster his case, the Warriors played Green at power forward against the Blazers this Sunday and he nailed a three-pointer to send the game into overtime.
At this point, only a blind man would call Lee's absence a blessing in disguise. During last year's playoffs, he was partially sidelined by a hip flexor. The Warriors' three-point-heavy small-ball attack thrived in an upset over Denver, flinging them into an impressive second-round showing against San Antonio. This season, they're 8-4 without Lee.
In a perfect world, Green's role would have increased at Lee's expense a long time ago. But the Warriors aren't just under pressure to perform, they're expected to perform and succeed in a certain way. For teams with big contract signings and draft decisions to defend, expectations go further than winning percentage.
Coaches feel the brunt of this pressure, designing lineups and assigning minutes in an attempt to keep everyone at ease, sometimes with winning as a secondary priority. Especially Jackson, who is already on the hot seat. The effect is paradoxical, distorting a roster's talent by rewarding lesser players with minutes over more effective ones. The same ethos lay behind the Warriors' continual attempts at making former lottery pick Harrison Barnes happen, despite his sub-40-percent shooting, ball-stopping post-up style and little indication that he's ready to blossom.
When the Warriors traded for Steve Blake during the All-Star break, their bench was openly losing them games -- a tough task in such limited minutes. Since Blake's arrival, their most-used bench lineup gives up just 92.6 points per 100 possessions with a 4.2 net rating. Blake didn't only stabilize the Warriors' woeful bench, he also mended their last glaring weakness; something like the straw that flung the camel into contention.
By increasing the Warriors' playoff stakes, Blake's effect elevates the risk of trotting out a market inefficiency for a starting lineup. With Andre Iguodala sidelined, there was more than enough room for Barnes, Green and Lee to get adequate floor time on Friday. But as tendons mend, playoffs approach and rotations tighten, Jackson is going to be faced with a tough decision.
Yet for a man facing scrutiny from all angles, he has hedged his bets well.
In an analytically inclined world, coaches act as a catch-all for the things we can't explain or didn't predict. Without any notable assistants to garner credit and despite the happy accident tenor for the Warriors' improvement, the fruits of their playoff success fall on Jackson's shoulders. Every time he waxes culture and togetherness, it's a reminder to everyone -- fans, management, the media -- that the Warriors' chemistry lives and dies with Jackson's presence.
The Warriors' locker room unity undoubtedly feels self-engineered, but it exists in a tangible form. Jackson is the quintessential player's coach, infusing confidence in his troops, defending them profusely and letting them work through mistakes. In regards to a statement he made that Andrew Bogut might have injured his shoulder while asleep, followed by a communication gaffe, Jackson told reporters, "I didn't throw anybody under the bus. And you can wait and wait and wait, and it won't happen here until somebody else is sitting here."
As ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss put it, "in uncertain, unstable countries, you want to get the military on your side; if you're staging a coup, if you're trying to maintain power." In Curry and the rest of the locker room, Jackson has a valuable ally.
The Warriors' off-court theatrics belie a dangerous on-court attack. The most dangerous team outside the West's top four, they're poised to face the Clippers in Round 1, who've had some trouble fending off Golden State in the regular season.
An improving roster with a young, adorable superstar at its core, the Warriors would make a formidable media darling if not for the interior drama. In fact, they have already concocted some media-generated monikers for fans to hitch their wagon to come May: The Splash Brothers, #FullSquad, "killer lineup."
It's not hard to envision a simple flick of the wrist -- perhaps of the Curry game-winner variety -- setting the Warriors on a better road: A Western Conference finals berth; Curry's jersey sales skyrocketing to LeBron levels; a Mark Jackson extension, rendering this season's instability and mystery a footnote.
The question on the table becomes this: Will Jackson opt to stick with the status quo or risk his livelihood further with a rotation that does this roster justice? Under even more pressure, will he fold or flourish, knowing well that the Warriors might not deliver on his gamble?
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Seerat Sohi is an NBA writer for the ESPN True Hoop Network, living in Edmonton, Alberta. You can find her work at Hardwood Paroxysm and Clipperblog or by following her on Twitter at @DamianTrillard.