BROOKLYN — In an audacious offseason of binge-spending and headline-grabbing, the boldest, riskiest move the Brooklyn Nets made was the one that started it all.
On June 12, the Nets hired Jason Kidd—just days removed from his retirement as a point guard—as their head coach, in the belief that his Hall of Fame basketball mind would be just as effective on the bench as it was on the court.
The trade that would bring Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, boosting the Nets’ profile and luxury-tax bill, would not be hatched for another two weeks. Kidd would play a key role, helping convince his two former peers to accept the trade. The sales job was rather straightforward: Come lead us to a championship.
The deal turned the Nets into contenders and placed Kidd in a precarious position: as a rookie head coach charged with fusing five All-Stars, two of them in their late 30s, into a cohesive, title-contending team.
The extent of that challenge, and the strain, was clear late Monday night at Barclays Center, as Kidd tried to account for a 108-98 thumping by the Portland Trail Blazers, the Nets’ seventh loss in 10 games.
“Just bad coaching,” Kidd said, his paisley tie hanging loose, his face unshaven and his eyes reddish. “I take the blame for this.”
Kidd did not elaborate, other than to say his team was not properly prepared for the second half, in which the Nets were outscored 52-35.
It is surely too soon to judge Kidd’s coaching acumen, but it is fair to wonder whether he was ready for this job, on this stage, with these weighty expectations.
A veteran scout, interviewed earlier in the day and speaking on the condition of anonymity, called Kidd’s bench comportment “terrible,” observing that the play-calling has fallen mostly to his top assistants, Lawrence Frank and John Welch.
“He doesn’t do anything,” said the scout, who has watched the Nets several times. “He doesn’t make calls. John Welch does all the offense. Lawrence does all the defense. … I don’t know what Kidd does. I don’t think you can grade him and say he’s bad. You can give him an incomplete.”
The same scout said he had counted only 15 plays run by the Nets in the games he has watched. Multiple observers have noted that the Nets offense lacks any discernible flow, as if the stars are all simply taking turns with the ball.
“He has a long way to go to figure this out,” Thorpe said.
The Nets might not have time to wait. Garnett is 37 and is looking like it. Pierce is 36. The roster will cost nearly $190 million in salary and luxury-tax penalties, a massive sum even for Mikhail Prokhorov, the Nets’ free-spending billionaire owner.
The mounting losses and the immense expectations are taking their toll. After Monday’s loss, the Nets kept their locker room closed for 30 minutes, in violation of NBA rules. When it did open, only three players stayed to address reporters: Jason Terry, Shaun Livingston and rookie Mason Plumlee.
Pierce and Garnett, the Nets’ venerated leaders, quietly slipped away after the locker room had emptied, after a team spokesman said they would not be speaking.
“It’s early,” insisted Terry, who also implored, “It’s not the end of the world,” phrases that sound reasonable in mid-November but will ring hollow in December if the struggles continue.
“When they put this thing together, they didn’t say it was going to happen right away,” Terry said.
The Nets have just one win in their last six games—an overtime victory in Phoenix last Friday—and it took Joe Johnson’s buzzer-beater to get it.
It is easy enough to dismiss the early struggles as a product of injuries and of a scarcity of practice time with an overhauled roster. Deron Williams, the star point guard, and Andrei Kirilenko, the do-everything sixth man, missed most of training camp. Kirilenko has played in just four games. Williams and center Brook Lopez, whose low-post scoring is critical, have missed the last two games. Pierce and Garnett also sat out Saturday night’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Team officials will continue to preach patience, albeit through gritted teeth.
“I mean, there’s concern,” general manager Billy King said before Monday night’s loss. “But it’s not overly concerned.”
King remained fervent in his support of Kidd, saying, “I knew it was going to take time. But his instincts will take over.”
The Nets can take some solace in the general disarray of the Eastern Conference, where only four teams have winning records. Even at 3-7, the Nets are just one game out of first place in the Atlantic Division. They have 72 games to find their way.
They are fortunate to be playing in the shadow of the Knicks (3-6) who, with their unique blend of dysfunction and drama, continue to dominate the back pages of the tabloids.
(Indeed, the Nets should also be grateful to be working for the genial, easygoing Prokhorov, rather than the impulsive and ham-handed James L. Dolan, who treats general managers and coaches like disposable accessories.)
If Kidd were a lesser name, or a veteran in the final year of his contract, he might be in serious jeopardy. But team officials are so strong in their belief, and so invested in the fairy-tale vision of Kidd carrying the Nets back to the finals, as he did a decade ago, that there is no choice but to keep supporting him.
Few doubt the Nets have the talent and depth to contend. They will eventually, presumably, regain their good health. Garnett, who is shooting just 32.6 percent, may regain his bounce. But their fate may still rest with the legend on the bench, the one with the tight-fitting suits and the hundred-mile stare.
Kidd is blaming himself. The Nets can only hope he’s wrong.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.