For coaches in the NBA, these are the days that try even the best of minds.
The last two weeks before the All Star Break are the most difficult to navigate for a coaching staff in the Association. Stars are thinking about the parties they intend to attend during All Star Weekend, good teams are looking forward to the second half, bad teams are counting the days to summer vacation.
For Mark Jackson and the Golden State Warriors, they squarely find themselves in the second category, sitting in sixth place, hoping to move up in the Western Conference ranking, believing that this season could be a special one.
For many Bay Area basketball fans, the idea of a team with only two playoff appearances in twenty years positioning for the playoffs is almost mind-boggling. But if were you ask Coach Jackson, the idea of the Warriors making the playoffs is just business as usual. Since taking over as head coach a year ago, Jackson has stressed the necessity to raise expectations for a franchise seemingly stuck in neutral.
But has Jackson raised the bar too much, too quickly?
Certainly Warriors fans, long suffering and loyal, want to hear that their squad is not only good enough to make the playoffs, but good enough to make some noise. The seasons that starters Stephen Curry, David Lee, Klay Thompson, rookie Harrison Barnes and reserves Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry are having has been superlative. And Jackson’s consistent emphasis on defense and toughness has left an impression on a traditionally soft Golden State team.
But as the second half approaches, the teams inherent deficiencies are rearing up. This is still not a team blessed with much height or interior toughness. Lee, while a double-double machine in the first half, has never been known as a strong post defender and Barnes looks to be more a scorer than a banger along side of him.
The key to the Warriors’ second half seems to be the biggest mystery of the first: Andrew Bogut. Bogut, the prize acquisition of the big mid-season trade last season, has tantalized the Oracle faithful with his cameo appearances this season, giving them flashes of what this team could be with him. But flashes may be all he can give this season. Which might not be enough for a playoff hungry public.
Granted, his attempts to play in the season’s first weeks after having off-season micro-fracture surgery now seem overly noble. Bogut’s has proven he wants to be out there helping his team. Without him, the interior defense of the Warriors is inconsistent at best, flammable at worst. Bogut brings a physical, skilled presence to bear in conference loaded with good big men.
The problem for the Warriors is, they might benefit more in the long run by not letting Bogut inject himself back into the lineup in the first half. Some figures around the league think he might be better served to sit out the year to fully recover. Others (maybe even Bogut himself) think him returning to lead a youthful team on a playoff push might validate an up-and-down career for the former#1 overall pick.
To Jackson’s credit, he’s working Bogut back into the lineup in increments, giving him a start every other game, limiting his minutes, monitoring him closely. But a part time Bogut may not be enough to keep a playoff spot above the eighth spot, which would mean an almost sure first-round exit against either OKC or the San Antonio Spurs.
Maybe early February is too soon to worry about playoff match up. Given their history since 1975, the Warriors should count themselves fortunate to be in the playoff discussion. But for better or worse, Jackson and the 2012-2013 Warriors have raised the bar of expectations. The second half will let NBA fans know if the can make the grade.