Mark Jackson is, along with Jeff Van Gundy, one of ABC’s lead analysts on NBA Finals broadcasts. As a former pro point guard and head coach, Jackson presumably has extensive technical knowledge of the game, but his color commentary often fixates on vague ideas like effort, toughness, and, perhaps most often, aggression. In fact, in the four Finals games that have transpired this year, Jackson has mentioned the A-word or one of its variants 27 times. To him, it is truly a concept that can explain any and every development. Here are all 27.
• Game 1, first quarter, regarding a basket by Toronto’s Pascal Siakam. “I like that aggressiveness. You get the matchup you like, put your foot on the gas and make a play.”
• Game 1, third quarter, regarding a basket by Siakam. “I like how aggressive he was. Made the move on his terms. Did not settle and got all the way to the cup.”
• Game 1, third quarter, regarding a replay of the same Siakam basket. “Can see how aggressive Siakam has been.”
• Game 1, third quarter, regarding a 24-second violation by the Warriors. “The aggressiveness of this Toronto Raptor defense is frustrating and forcing the issue against this Warriors offense.”
• Game 1, third quarter, regarding a basket by Toronto’s Marc Gasol. “It’s important for him to be aggressive, not just tonight, but all series long, on the offensive end.”
• Game 1, third quarter, regarding a basket by Siakam. “You can just tell the confidence of Siakam. He is having his way. Aggressive with his foot on the gas pedal and making big-time offensive plays.”
• Game 1, fourth quarter, regarding a basket by Siakam. “This guy’s been spectacular. Aggressive all night long.”
• Game 1, fourth quarter, regarding an offensive foul committed by Golden State’s Klay Thompson. “It’s the [Raptor] aggressiveness frustrating the Warriors.”
• Game 2, third quarter, regarding a drive to the basket by Golden State’s Andre Iguodala. “The Warriors being aggressive on the offensive end.”
• Game 2, fourth quarter, regarding a basket by Siakam. “He’s got to be even more aggressive. That first game, he was very aggressive. Put his foot on the gas pedal all night long.”
• Game 2, fourth quarter, regarding a foul drawn by Siakam. “I like the way he was aggressive.”
• Game 2, fourth quarter, regarding Golden State’s Draymond Green and Iguodala needing to take advantage of opportunities on offense. “You have to be aggressive. They’re going to give you shots.”
• Game 3, first quarter, regarding a post move by Gasol. “I’d like to see Marc Gasol do his work a little bit earlier. Get better position before the catch and then look to be aggressive.”
• Game 3, first quarter, regarding a pass from Siakam to Gasol that led to a basket. “[As] we saw in Game 1, Siakam was aggressive offensively, Gasol was aggressive offensively.”
• Game 3, second quarter, regarding a comment Draymond Green had made about needing to guard Siakam more effectively. “I like the mindset of Siakam tonight. … Somebody says that about me, I’m going to take it personal and be more aggressive.”
• Game 3, second quarter, regarding a pass Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard made to Kyle Lowry after driving into the lane. “Kawhi Leonard being more aggressive, trying to make plays, forces the defense to collapse. Sets Kyle Lowry up with a wide open jump shot. And these are the times when Leonard looks up and sees that his team is in the bonus—he’s much more aggressive forcing the issue.”
• Game 3, second quarter, regarding a Lowry 3-pointer. “He’s been big. Struggled in Game 2, [but] he’s come out aggressive.”
• Game 3, third quarter, regarding a 3-pointer by Toronto’s Danny Green. “Danny Green stepping in rhythm, knocking down shots. We’ve seen him make big shots before. Feeling it, and he’s aggressive.”
• Game 3, fourth quarter, regarding a rebound and basket by Toronto’s Serge Ibaka. “He’s made the difference by making the much more aggressive offensively and crashing the offensive boards.”
• Game 3, fourth quarter, regarding the importance of excellent play by Toronto’s bench players going forward. “Coach, what I mean by that, you’re well aware of it, you can’t be tentative and passive one game and then all of a sudden you’re aggressive. If you’re going to win this thing, you need to be aggressive.”
• Game 4, third quarter, regarding a missed opportunity by Lowry to score against Golden State’s Kevon Looney.* “He has to look to be aggressive and take advantage of that matchup.”
• Game 4, fourth quarter, after Thompson came off a screen to receive a pass. “Klay Thompson—here’s where he gives his team life by looking to be aggressive offensively.”
• Game 4, fourth quarter, regarding a pass from Lowry to Leonard. “This is aggressive basketball, again, off of that pick and roll.”
In Jackson’s telling, if you’re playing well, you’re being aggressive. If you’re not playing well, you’re not. Take Danny Green, whose offensive role is mostly to take spot-up 3-pointers if his teammates attract defenders by driving the lane. During the Eastern Conference Finals against Milwaukee, Green suffered a shooting slump, but against the Warriors he’s had a hot streak on what have mostly been the same wide-open shots he was missing against the Bucks. Many would describe this as a reversion to Green’s (excellent) mean level of 3-point shooting accuracy, but Jackson called it Green being “aggressive.”
Many observers would also argue that it’s possible to be too aggressive in basketball—taking contested shots, throwing wild passes, etc.—but as the example above involving a Klay Thompson offensive foul shows, Jackson’s mental model seems to reject that idea. Thompson got called for pushing a Raptors defender in an effort to get open—a seeming example of excessive pro-activeness which Jackson explained, rather, as a consequence of the Raptors’ aggression, on defense. It’s a Catch-22 in which the conclusion is always that the winning team is the aggressive one.
What’s frustrating about this isn’t just that one of ESPN’s top announcers explains an intriguingly complicated game as if it’s arm wrestling but that the network has a better option available so closely at hand in Doris Burke—an analyst who is widely acclaimed within the game for her insight but is marginalized during finals games as a sideline interviewer. This year’s series looks to be on the verge of wrapping up as Toronto takes a 3–1 lead into Monday night’s Game 5, but moving forward a Burke-Jackson lineup swap might be the kind of aggressive move that really pays off.
Correction, June 10, 2019: This post originally misspelled Kevon Looney’s first name.