Mark Jackson: Most Underappreciated Man in Sports? A Career Retrospective

Mark Jackson has had an incredible three-stage basketball career.  He was the definitive point guard as a player, near the top of the all-assists list and with a rule named after him.  He built and developed a team that would become a dynasty during his brief coaching career.  He is now one of the more well spoken and cerebral basketball commentators in the game.

However, he has no rings, made just one all star game, and was dismissed as head coach of the warriors just before they exploded onto the scene and won three titles.  He is not in the Hall of Fame and is still unemployed as an NBA coach despite having a solid 58% winning percentage and having played a huge role in developing some of the greatest players in the game today.

Let’s dig a little deeper into each stage of the man’s career and take a look at why he doesn’t get the credit and love that he deserves.

The Player, will he make the Hall?

Jackson was underrated from the moment he entered the league.  After an impressive college career at St. John’s university, in which he led the nation in assists in 1986, was named First-team All-Big East twice, was Big East Defensive Player of the Year in 1987, and Consesus Second-team All-American that year as well, he fell to a middling pick at number 18 for the New York Knicks in 1988. 

He turned that late draft position into an outstanding rookie season.  Starting 80 games, he put up 13.6 points, an outstanding 10.6 assists, 2.5 steals (he would remain a crafty, effective defender for the rest of his career), and even a solid 4.8 boards for an undersized, relatively unathletic player.  He had an immediate impact on the team, helping them quickly improve their win/loss record from just 24 the year prior to 38 in his rookie season.  These accomplishments led to his selection as NBA Rookie of the Year for the 1987/88 season.  This was a record, as he was the lowest draft pick to ever be selected for this honor at that time.

He took another jump in his second season, upping his scoring average to 16.9 points while dishing 8.6 assists, grabbing 4.7 boards, and 1.9 steals per game, while averaging 1.1 made three pointers per game in an era where guys just weren’t putting up threes with regularity.  Jackson helped the Knicks take a huge leap in this season, winning 52 games (good for second in the East) and an appearance in the Eastern Conference semifinals, a 4 to 2 loss to a young Jordan Bulls squad.  This performance earned him his lone All-Star appearance of his career.

That second season would mark the peak of his Knicks career, and after a few seasons fighting off Rod Strickland and Maurice Cheeks for minutes, Jackson was traded to the LA Clippers.  Jackson helped the lowly Clippers reach their second straight playoff appearance in 1992-93 with a 41 and 41 record, the best season they would for the next 13 years.  The Clippers would not reach the playoffs for consecutive seasons for another two decades.  Jackson was a steady starting point guard for the Clippers for two seasons, averaging 12.2 points and 8.6 assists over that span.  They took a step back in his second season, and Jackson was traded to Indiana for the 1994-95 season.

With Indiana, Mark Jackson teamed with Reggie Miller, Rik Smits and company to make the Pacers contenders in the Eastern Conference for the rest of the decade.  In his first season with the Pacers, they finished with 52 wins, good for second in the East, and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals where they fell to the Orlando Magic in a hard fought seven game series. 

Jackson’s time with the Pacers showed just how underrated a player that he was.  With a high-flying, sharp shooting backcourt mate like Reggie Miller, Jackson’s scoring stats took a step back, averaging just 7.6 points in his first year in Indiana (while dishing out a solid 7.5 assists per game).  In his second season, he upped his scoring to 10.0 points per game, while maintaining nearly eight assists per game and more than a steal.

To truly show his impact on this squad, the Pacers made the mistake of trading Jackson to Denver after his second season with the team for an up and coming Jalen Rose.  The Pacers fell off the map without Jackson, missing the playoffs in the 1995-96 season without him.  They promptly brought Jackson back during the following season, and jumped right back into contention during his next full season with the squad, with the Pacers returning to the Eastern Conference Finals the next three consecutive seasons, including one conference finals victory over the Knicks in 1999-00, where they lost the NBA Finals in 6 games to Shaq, Kobe and the Lakers.  Jackson maintained his role as distributor during this great playoff run, with 8.1 points and 7.7 assists per game in the post season.

Jackson would leave the Pacers the following season, spending the majority of the season with the Raptors before being traded to the Knicks, where he helped lead the Knicks to a playoff appearance.  The Knicks would struggle the following season, and Jackson would leave to spend time with Utah and Houston (where he reached #2 all time in assists behind John Stockton at the time) before retiring in 2004.

Mark Jackson would end his career with the #2 all time spot on the assists list with 10,334 (though Jason Kidd and Steve Nash would eventually bump him to #4).  He became a ROTY and All Star in New York and helped turn the Knicks into a perennial playoff squad in his first stop.  He helped the lowly Clippers have a brief window of hope at his second stop.  He played the perfect floor general and sidekick to Reggie Miller at his next, most successful stop in Indiana, where they came within two games and a Shaq of championship success.  Nearly every stop he made, Jackson instantly became a leader and a had a major impact. 

Throughout his peak, I would argue that Mark Jackson was a top-5 point guard, the only challenge to this argument is that Jackson was one of the last of a dying breed of purely facilitating point guards, so his stats (outside of his assists) don’t jump off the page and weren’t enough to make him a regular All Star.

Jackson even unofficially has an NBA rule named after him, the “Mark Jackson rule,” designed to limit how long a player can back down a defender in his post.  Jackson was known for using his strength and sturdy frame to back down opposing point guards for up to 15 seconds.  This new rule, officially put in place in 1999, would limit players to 5 seconds with their back to the basket.  Jackson and Charles Barkley are the two players primarily credited (or blamed) for this rule coming into existence.

So, in conclusion, based on his overall playing career, his longevity (13th all-time in games played), and amazing passing and assists totals, I would make the argument that Mark Jackson deserves a place in the NBA Hall of Fame.

The Coach, Will He Get Another Shot?

The Warriors had only had three winning seasons in the previous two decades when Mark Jackson took over as head coach in 2011, his first job in any coaching capacity.  It was more of the same in his first season running the team, as the Warriors won just 23 games in his first season, in which third year point guard Steph Curry played in just 26 games. 

However, in his second season with the team, they took a gigantic step forward and Jackson showed his outstanding skill as a head coach.  The Warriors earned a playoff berth after winning 47 games, and Steph Curry saw his individual performance skyrocket to 22.9 points, nearly seven assists, and 3.5 made three pointers per game.  The Warriors would even get a taste of playoff success that season, with a first-round victory over the Denver Nuggets, before falling to the eventual Western Conference Champion San Antonio Spurs 4-2 in the second round.  This was the launching point of what would become the Warriors dynasty.

The young Warriors squad took yet another step forward in the regular season of 2013-14 under Mark Jackson.  They would go on to win 51 games on the season, and yet another playoff berth.  Steph Curry became an All Star, averaging 24.0 points and 8.5 assists per game, with 3.3 made three pointers per season.  Third year guard, who had spent his entire career under Mark Jackson, took a step forward as well with 18.4 points and nearly three made three pointers per game.  The Warriors were clearly ascending, but unfortunately faced playoff disappointment with a first-round loss to the Lob City Clippers in seven games.

After heading the two most successful seasons in decades for the Golden Warriors, Jackson was shockingly fired after the 2013-14 season and replaced by Steve Kerr.  Jackson had built strong relationships with his players and had clearly set the stage for this team to be contenders, and for his young players to become superstars.  It would later come out from Warrior’s owner Joe Lacob that Jackson was dismissed due to his poor management of a sub-par squad of assistant coaches, and his poor relationship with upper management and ownership of the franchise. 

Very fortunate for Lacob and the Warrior’s ownership, Kerr was in fact able to take the Warrior’s squad to the next level, and three titles later, they had become a dynasty and Jackson’s role in building the squad has essentially been forgotten.

Jackson’s perceived stubbornness and lack of ability to get along with management and assistants seems to have continued to hold him back, and despite his outstanding results as a rookie coach, he has remained unemployed as a coach.  I honestly believe that, if he finds the right place and is given full control, he will be a successful coach again in the future.

In Conclusion

Jackson seems to have three things that keep him from receiving the recognition that he deserves.

First, the stats.  Mark Jackson was a pure point guard and floor general.  As such, his stats do not jump off the page.  He averaged just 9.6 points per game throughout his career.  His assists totals are amazing, and his steal totals are solid on the defensive side (23rd all time) but he has now been bumped down the record list.  There are not a lot of Hall of Famers who averaged single-digits for points.

Second, no rings.  As a player, he came very, very close with the Pacers.  Indiana was just a Michael Jordan away from winning for several seasons, and by the time Jordan was out of the picture, the Shaq and Kobe dynasty in LA shut down their last crack at a ring.  Without a ring, few will remember the impact he had on multiple teams during his playing career.

Third, his reputation.  As a player and coach, he has built a reputation that he does not play well with others.  As a player there were rumors that he tried to lead a coup in Utah to take John Stockton’s starting job.  As a coach, his inability to work with upper management (or his own assistants) is the sole reason he lost his job at Golden State despite having a successful two-year run and doing an outstanding job developing the young players on the squad.  This is also likely the reason owners and General Managers have been hesitant to give him another shot as a head coach up to this point.

However, taking in the big picture of his career and accomplishments, my hope for Mark Jackson is that he is a Hall of Fame player and an employed head coach in the league within the next five years.  He has earned both of those rights over the past 30 years in the league.

Agree?  Disagree?  Couldn’t care less?  Let me know!  And as always, thanks for the read!

Published by Pete of the North

Avid sports fan and obsessed statistician. Binge drinker turned writer. Toronto Raptors fan since the O.G. Zan Tabak. Based out of Albany, NY. Cheers!

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