Five burning questions and answers about the immediate future of the Golden State Warriors in the wake of their Game 7 loss to the Clippers in Los Angeles:
1. How is Joe Lacob, Golden State's famously demanding owner, likely to grade this season?
The Warriors can undeniably make the case that this was a season of progress.
They won 51 games for the first time since Chris Webber was a rookie. They recorded the franchise's first back-to-back playoff berths since the early 1990s. And they took the Clippers, with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin fortified by a better-than-ever DeAndre Jordan, to the absolute limit without defensive anchor Andrew Bogut.
It's Mark Jackson himself -- with so many in coaching circles convinced that he needed to at least reach the second round again to make it as difficult as possible for the Warriors not to bring him back -- who has been saying since he got to the Bay Area that the Warriors are a "no excuse" team.
That's one of Jackson's go-to coaching mantras. So disappointment with a Round 1 exit is an unavoidable issue for the embattled coach, despite the fact that the excuses sit well below the rim if Golden State wants to grab them.
2. So what happens here? Will Jackson be back next season?
The momentum is mounting against it.
It's a truly bizarre situation, given the deep-rooted support Jackson continues to get from his players, most notably Steph Curry. After weeks of publicly backing him, Curry said it with even more force after the Warriors' elimination Saturday night, telling the world that he wants "Coach Jackson to be that guy leading us" next season.
Comparisons have been drawn between Jackson and Lionel Hollins, who was let go in Memphis after last season's trip to the conference finals largely because the Grizzlies' new owners wanted to work with a more collaborative coach. Hollins, though, was by no means revered by his players in the same manner as Jackson. Grizzlies players didn't speak for Hollins like they did for Jackson.
Yet the whispers persist, and grow louder by the day, that Lacob prefers a new (and possibly more experienced) voice in charge, someone who meshes better with the front office personality-wise. NBA coaching sources insist that this strays far beyond mere fallout from the respective flare-ups that led to the departures of assistant coaches Brian Scalabrine and Darren Erman. The gulf between management and coach, by all accounts, is wide.
My personal position on the matter hasn't changed since we addressed it in this cyberspace in early April. If you're going to dismiss a coach who gets the sort of buy-in that Jackson gets from his guys, you better be sure you're upgrading. Because the level of buy-in Jackson has within the Dubs' locker room is by no means the NBA norm.
It seems, though, that even the occupants of that locker room know what's coming.
"You get the feel that, no matter what happens, our coach won't be our coach next year," Jermaine O'Neal told USA Today's Sam Amick after the Warriors' Game 6 win over the Clippers. "You just get that feel."
3. What exactly are the alternatives Golden State is considering?
To give Jackson any hope of avoiding a repeat of what Curry describes as a "circus" filled with "distractions" that were "unlike anything I've seen," Golden State would surely have to extend Jackson beyond next season as opposed to merely letting him stay for the final season of his contract.
Which is really tough to envision after the tension of the past few months.
Two coaching names known to interest Golden State greatly, sources say, are Steve Kerr and Stan Van Gundy. I find it equally tough to picture Kerr turning Phil Jackson down now, as far as Kerr's dalliance with the Knicks has gone, so look for the Warriors to explore the SVG option hard if (when?) Jackson's reign is brought to an end.
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News reported recently that the Warriors would likewise court Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg if (when?) they have an opening. In either case, chances are some determined lobbying would have to be done, since Hoiberg has made no secret of his intent to stay with the Cyclones, while Van Gundy would have to be pulled away from the satisfying combination of broadcasting work and focusing on family life.
4. What are the on-court priorities for the Dubs once they work past all the coaching staff?
The center position, for starters. The health of their centers, specifically.
Bogut missed the whole first round after his unfortunate rib injury. Festus Ezeli missed his entire second season in the NBA because of knee issues. And O'Neal, having given Golden State more than it could have ever expected from the 17-year vet, is 35 and fond of saying that Jackson's presence on the bench would factor hugely into his willingness to play on.
The Warriors realistically needed to see more of that threesome on the floor to cope with the Clippers' large and athletic front line. More athleticism behind the productive David Lee is another wish-list item, because the Warriors had issues with lively frontcourts all season.
It's a safe bet that the Warriors will be asking themselves if Steve Blake is a suitable backup to Curry, or if he was merely an in-season solution to fill a glaring hole. Lee's detractors, meanwhile, will continue to wonder aloud whether Curry would benefit more playing alongside a 4-man with 3-point range.
One of the Dubs' rarely told secrets is that they aren't truly teeming with outside shooting beyond Curry and Klay Thompson, so another shooter off the bench -- or a shooter who can handle the ball in the dream scenario -- would be welcomed.
The good news? Golden State has assets to make trades. The Warriors are also cautiously optimistic they'll be to spend their full mid-level exception this summer and still manage to stay under next season's tax line. So there should be an upgrade or two for Jackson.
Or his replacement.
5. Has Draymond Green surpassed Harrison Barnes in terms of stature within the franchise?
It's a debate, at the very least, that would last a few rounds.
Green looks more and more like one of the steals of his draft class. On the evidence of the series just witnessed, Golden State found a reliable playoff contributor, and thus a legit gem, with 2012's No. 35 overall pick.
Barnes, meanwhile, didn't develop this season as the Warriors hoped. Was the chaos on Golden State's bench among the factors responsible? Or is it mostly on Barnes? (Don't forget he went seventh overall in the same draft as Green.)
What really can't be argued is the notion that the Warriors have to be wary of the age curve. The youth and delicious potential of Thompson and especially Curry can't mask the fact that the defensive cornerstones -- Bogut and Andre Iguodala -- don't have a forever window to win.