He had lost his cool with Kobe Bryant(notes), a replacement referee and ultimately the disdain that Stephen Jackson(notes) has for the Golden State Warriors turned onto Don Nelson. From outside the huddle over the weekend, Jackson had screamed to his coach that he never supported Jackson the way he should a star, that Nellie was obligated to take up his case with the refs.
Sources with direct knowledge of the exchange insist Jackson’s diatribe included the plea, “If you aren’t going to support me, why don’t you get me out of here?” All along, the Warriors had misjudged his capacity for captainship, something the rest of the NBA had called the moment Nellie had that “C” stitched onto Jax’s varsity jacket.
Eventually, Nelson gently touched his arm and told Jackson he needed to leave for the locker room. Jackson grew more livid, sources said, and warned Nellie that he should never do that again.
That’s all the Warriors’ front office and coaching staff needed to hear. When the Warriors suspended Jackson for two games, two league sources said, part of the reason was to make sure that Jax-Nellie didn’t turn into a Latrell Sprewell-P.J. Carlesimo sequel. This isn’t to suggest Jackson ever threatened bodily harm – there’s no evidence he did – but Warriors management didn’t dare risk the possibility, if even remote. Jax was hot and had to go.
So, Jackson returned to practice and told his bosses he no longer wants to be a captain. Warriors general manager Larry Riley has been working the phones for a trade, but there’s nothing out there. Privately, the Warriors have said they’ve just been offered “garbage” for Jackson and four years and $35 million left on his contract.
The Warriors are stuck with Jackson and his contract, and deservedly so. Behind the back of now deposed GM Chris Mullin, Golden State’s meddlesome president Robert Rowell cut a contract extension directly with Jackson. Those close to Jackson believe Rowell convinced Jackson to terminate his high-powered agent, Dan Fegan, and do a deal directly with ownership. As much as ever now, Jackson could use Fegan’s stewardship, but he’s on his own.
The Warriors had lost Baron Davis(notes) to free agency in the summer of 2008, and Mullin knew the previous spring’s historic playoff run was a vapor, that the franchise would be wise to move Jax with his value peaked. Mullin had a trade in the works to an Eastern Conference team, but was told to forget it. Rowell told the GM that Jackson was untouchable, and then rewarded Jackson with a cap-crippling $28 million extension to make him the face of the franchise.
Now, Jackson is 31 years old and largely untradeable. Two years later, the Warriors are back to an impasse with a franchise player. When Golden State ended up in circumstances where they had to move stars Chris Webber(notes) and Sprewell, the team’s two best players fetched the modest returns of Tom Gugliotta and John Starks, respectively. The market for Jackson is marginal. So far, sources say Golden State hasn’t received one offer worth serious consideration.
Yes, the Warriors are stuck with a problem of their own creation. This is what happens when ownership overrides a GM and creates an organizational structure where a coach and a player can bypass the chain of command and get contract demands met. In so many ways, Jackson and Nelson have manipulated that dynamic that led to so much dysfunction in Golden State.
Back in the fall of ’07, these two were a most improbable partnership. After beating the top-seeded Mavericks in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, coach and star returned with a mandate to do something that neither man’s DNA wired him to do.
Yes, they tried. Jackson says now he never cared about the title of captain, but that isn’t true. He loved the legitimacy that it lent to a wayward career. Back then, Jax and I were sitting in a New York City gymnasium where he talked about the moment that Nelson had called him with word of his promotion. “Coach, you’re going to make me cry,” Jackson told him.
Mostly, Jackson remembered that on the afternoon of Nellie’s phone call, “My whole day stopped. It was like I just won a championship.”
Jackson popped champagne with some friends and celebrated the honor with style. Jackson would tell me that day, “It’s amazing that an older white guy understands me more than anybody I've been around in my whole life. He sees through all the tattoos and all the stuff people say about me. He knows how I love the game.”
Jackson was serious about the task. He was determined to grow into it. He told me about a book that Baron Davis had given him to read. John Maxwell’s “The Difference Maker: Making Your Attitude Your Greatest Asset.” Sure, it sounds perfectly absurd now, but Jackson was never, ever the right player to commission as the elder statesman for a team soon to be turned over to late teenagers and twentysomethings.
“I don’t want to be a role model,” Jackson said this week.
In a lot of ways, Nelson set him up to fail. This way, it would be easy for Nelson to shirk his own responsibilities of lording over this young team. From Brandan Wright(notes) to Marco Belinelli(notes), it’s fair to wonder: Where’s the player development come under Nellie? What young guys are getting better? Anthony Morrow(notes) was a terrific undrafted find out of Georgia Tech, but let’s face it: Mullin invited Morrow to summer league, and he was a good player upon arrival.
As Nelson pushed more and more responsibility onto his assistant coaches, it was clear he had lost spirit in coaching these young Warriors. So many NBA executives believe he’s merely hanging around to catch Lenny Wilkens’ record for career victories, and maybe most of all, cash his checks.
For now, the Warriors are stuck with Stephen Jackson and it could be sometime until that changes. They gave him a contract that paralyzes the team and a captainship that paralyzed the player. They’ll say Jax isn’t heeding his coach, but they’ll be wrong. He watched closely and learned well the lessons of life with the Golden State Warriors. There’s no staying power here, and rest assured that didn’t start with Captain Jack turning in his badge.