Jason Kidd's coaching tenure has been a roller coaster, and not in a good way.
From his halcyon days as an All-Star staple to a sidekick twilight draped in wins and banners, Kidd exuded a singular combination of graceful guts and cerebral brawn—basketball’s Platonic ideal of what a point guard should be.
Oh, what a difference a clipboard makes.
Since taking over as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets last June, Kidd’s tenure has been marked by equal parts hope and horror, as the league’s most lavishly adorned team has struggled for a coherent identity in the midst of medical setbacks and ceaseless palace intrigue.
The good news is that, after an apocalyptic 5-14 start, the Nets appear to have struck a cord of stability—at least on the court.
Bolstered by the return of Deron Williams—who’d missed 11 of the team’s previous 12 games with an ankle injury—the Nets were recently able to rattle off a small string of wins, helping them stay apace in the disastrous Atlantic Division while buying the besieged Kidd some much-needed leeway.
Still, the team’s issues remain as stark as they are surprising.
Following a season in which they finished in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (9th and 18th in the NBA, respectively), the Nets have yet to scale that threshold in either category so far this year (they’re currently 20th and 29th, per NBA.com).
Such drop-offs seem even more shocking when you look at whom the Nets managed to bring on during the offseason. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko and Alan Anderson: battle-tested names for a team built to win now.
Problem is, those very veteran upgrades might be part of the problem—and not necessarily in any traditional basketball sense.
Eight months ago, Jason Kidd was suiting up against some of the same guys he’s now being tasked with teaching. The concern isn’t over whether the players harbor some deep-seated animosity; rather, being at or near the same age as many of your charges risks a comfort level that could easily backfire.
Throughout his 18-year NBA career, Kidd was never much for putting emotions to sleeve. Place that same player in charge of 15 guys—guys who were peers less than a year ago—and the possibility exists for camaraderie to trump authority.
The logic can easily be flipped: If you were Jason Kidd, how quick would you be to get in Kevin Garnett’s face after a bad shot or blown rotation?
Chalk up Brooklyn’s struggles to what you will: new faces, early-season struggles, authoritative vagueness, a tougher-than-average slate. Fact is that, for all of Mikhail Prokhorov’s summer bluster and bombast, the Nets have had little to show for it.
Faced with fast-mounting losses and an exacting owner known for vise-tight leashes, Kidd resorted to a tactic that even the Russian-born Prokhorov could appreciate: eliminating his closest threat.
Keeping your enemies closer
Earlier this month, it was leaked that Kidd had officially dismissed assistant coach Lawrence Frank, whom the Nets had brought aboard for the express purpose of lending the former a seasoned head coaching perspective.
In a move that sounded like something out of a bad mobster flick, Frank was "reassigned" to the cryptic-sounding task of “filing daily reports.”
It didn't take a professor of political science to see the coup for exactly what it was: a transparent power play meant to both calcify Kidd’s authority and shift the focus from the team’s real issues.
Kidd’s foibles haven’t been limited to human resource hack jobs, either. During a recent 99-94 home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Nets’ coach—out of timeouts and desperate for a chance to draw up a play—instructed backup point guard Tyshawn Taylor to run straight into him while he just so happened to be holding a cup of ice-logged soda.
The tactic worked…for a minute. Two days later, Kidd was fined $50,000 by the NBA.
That right there's one expensive five-point loss.
All joking aside, the incident suggested something very particular about Kidd’s managerial mindset: that no matter how badly he botches the Xs and Os, the canny trickery that separated him from his playing-days peers will forever remain a crutch.
That might’ve made the nut 40 years ago, when the player-coach was a common phenomenon, the statistics and the strategies simpler.
Not in 2013.
At the same time, few in modern NBA history have made the player-to-coach transition—without so much as a single TV layover in between—as abruptly as Jason Kidd.
Indeed, if the Doug Collinses, Mark Jacksons and Doc Riverses of the world prove anything, it’s that taking a break from the game—be it on living room couch or studio stool—can yield the kind of 30,000-foot perspective that’s hard to garner when you’re just diving from one battlefield trench to the next.
For good or ill, Kidd didn’t choose that route, and it’s showed.
It’s one thing to take a directive, be it a particular play or general strategy, and approach it with a jazz artist’s sense of improvisation. For the better part of two decades, that brand of basketball wizardry was Kidd’s and Kidd’s alone.
But formulating those directives—to stick with them or abandon them or change them on the fly—is an entirely different ballgame.
Kidd is still very much learning the difference between the two. Luckily for him, the Nets have more than enough bare-bones talent to remain relevant in what is by all accounts the weakest Eastern Conference in recent memory.
Can that strategy be enough to endear him sufficiently to Prokhorov, who just entrusted Kidd with the reins of a team slated to incur the highest luxury tax in league history? It's tough to say. Assuming as much, however, would doubtless be Kidd’s gravest gaff—and almost certainly his last.
Time will tell if Kidd’s NBA path from frying pan to fire was one worth following.
Whether the answer takes weeks or years to reveal itself depends on how quickly Kidd—who mastered more learning curves as a player than could ever be counted—handles the most challenging one of them all.