For any rookie in any profession, there are learning curves and growing pains to overcome on the journey from basic competency to excellence. Patience and persistence, from both the novice in question and those around him/her, are paramount to any effort to push through adversity and find success on the other side.
Jason Kidd's case is no different.
After slumping to an embarrassing 10-21 start, with 12 of those losses by double digits, Kidd's Brooklyn Nets have bounced back to win 10 of their 12 games since the calendar turned to 2014.
(And Kidd did away with wearing neckties.)
It's not as though they've been beating up on the Little Sisters of the Poor, either. That span has seen Brooklyn bank impressive victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Golden State Warriors, the Miami Heat, the Dallas Mavericks and the Atlanta Hawks (twice). If not for a pair of losses to the Atlantic Division-leading Toronto Raptors—one close and one not-so close—the Nets would be undefeated in the new year.
As a result, no longer is it so easy for pundits to proclaim Kidd to be "the worst coach in the NBA," as David Thorpe of ESPN said back in November. Kidd still has a long way to go before he can live up to any lofty comparisons from his players (per Nets Daily) to the likes of Gregg Popovich, though the first-year head coach is starting to show the sort of promise and perspicacity that led Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov and general manager Billy King to cast their lot with him this past summer.
The Tactician Within
Brooklyn's recent success has highlighted Kidd's inherent ingenuity.
"He’s one of the unique guys in the history of the game," Rick Carlisle, who coached Kidd with the Dallas Mavericks, recently told Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News. "If you try to come up with names of guys that would find the most resourceful ways to help win, you’re not going to find anybody who was more creative than him and who had the fire burning the way Jason Kidd did.”
Those qualities have shone through in the way Kidd has handled his roster in the wake of season-ending and nagging injuries to Brook Lopez and Deron Williams, respectively. While those two were sidelined, Kidd stumbled upon a starting five of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Shaun Livingston and Alan Anderson that, as noted by Bleacher Report's Jared Dubin, has ranked among the NBA's most effective units since its inception.
This group has been lauded for what some have labeled "small ball," with Garnett sliding up to center in Lopez's place and Pierce taking over at power forward. But to call this lineup "small" is to overlook what makes it so effective.
"We don't look at it as a small lineup," Kidd commented after the Nets' 101-90 win over the Orlando Magic earlier this month (via The Brooklyn Game's Devin Kharpertian). "You have a 6'7" point guard. Our two-guard (6'8" Joe Johnson) is pretty tall. So we look at it the opposite way. Paul and Shaun have that ability to switch, and everyone's helping one another."
The switching has been key to the Nets' success. Every member of that five-man lineup is long, tall and agile enough to swap onto another teammate's assignment as needed. Pierce may not be quick enough to handle smaller guards, but the guy is plenty strong to deter them when necessary. Livingston's length allows him to pester post players, as he does here against the Golden State Warriors' David Lee, when his slight frame can't do the job for long.
Such switching allows the Nets to not only stay with the opposition, but to do so without expending precious energy dealing with picks. "It doesn't take as much energy as fighting over screens," Livingston said, per The Brooklyn Game. "I think that really helps us."
As well it should. Livingston is the only member of Brooklyn's starting five who's yet to hit 30. As for the other four, Anderson is 31, Johnson is 32, and Garnett and Pierce are two of the oldest and most worn-down players in the NBA today.
Not to mention the bench, which, at the moment, features a 29-year-old D-Will with bad ankles, the soon-to-be-33 Andrei Kirilenko, the currently 33 Reggie Evans and a 36-year-old Jason Terry. Those players, along with Mirza Teletovic and Andray Blatche, also bring to the table measures of height and length for their respective positions that allow them to switch seamlessly from action to action on defense.
But the key to it all on that end of the floor is KG. No longer need he spend his waning days chasing smaller, stretchier power forwards around the floor. Instead, Garnett, with Lopez out, has been able to save his energy while focusing on what he does best: protecting the paint and directing his teammates from the back line.
A Victim (and Benefactor) of Circumstance
Clearly, the lion's share of the credit for Brooklyn's turnaround belongs to the players. They're the ones who have taken care of business on the court to put Brooklyn within two-and-a-half games of a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.
It helps, too, that those players are mostly battle-tested veterans. Having champions like Garnett and Pierce leading the charge can make all the difference, particularly when the team-building process is as choppy as it's been at times in Brooklyn.
"The biggest thing about this turnaround is we never got down on one another," Pierce recently told Tim Bontemps of the New York Post. “We’ve never had the finger pointing, we’ve never put the blame on anybody but ourselves. We kept coming to work, kept staying professional because we still believed we’d turn this thing around.
"The thing is: When you believe and you continue to get through the tough patches, it shows how things can kind of turnaround, and that’s what you see right now.”
And, as it happens, the dark cloud of injury that's hovered over the Barclays Center all season has yielded the rather serendipitous silver lining of the rotation into which the Nets have since stumbled. The absences of Lopez and Williams have allowed Pierce and Garnett to step into more familiar roles as fulcrums on both ends of the floor.
“The difference in the way we’re playing is we were thinking secondary as we come in,” Garnett relayed to The Post. “Then Brook [gets hurt], Deron’s been beat up, and we’ve had to be primaries now. When you’re secondary, which [we were for] the first time in our careers, you take a step back. You’re not as forceful … you don’t want to step on everybody’s toes.
“When you’re a primary, plays are being called for you … not only that but you’re touching the ball, you’re in a rhythm."
A rhythm that, in many ways, still requires no worse than a decent coach to create.
It's all well and good that some strange twists of fortune have allowed the Nets' tremendous talent to excel of late, but capitalizing on happenstance of that nature requires leadership and vision from the bench.
Shaking It Up
To that end, Kidd seems to have found a comfortable rhythm of his own.
His dismissal of assistant coach Lawrence Frank has certainly helped. Kidd demoted Frank, for whom he once played with the New Jersey Nets, in early December, several weeks after a staff meeting that, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, featured the pupil berating his former teacher.
Kidd had originally hired Frank to serve as his chief support through what he likely expected to be a rocky transition. Kidd lobbied for the job in Brooklyn almost immediately after retiring as a player from the New York Knicks. The future Hall of Famer had never coached a game at any level, and he included the retention of an experienced coach like Frank as part of his pitch to the Nets brass.
To hear the players tell it, Kidd wound up using Frank not as a guide, but as a crutch.
"I think since Lawrence as left... he was leaning on (Frank) a lot," Williams told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. "So now I think he's coaching the way he wants to and doing things the way he wants to so that's what you're seeing.
"I think you see him putting his footprint on the game a little bit more, especially lately. He's done a great job. He's learning on the job, and we knew that coming in. But he's doing a great job, especially now."
That's a far cry from where Kidd was in mid-November, when an anonymous scout told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck:
He doesn’t do anything. 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.
Kidd isn't acing his assignment just yet, though at least he's doing enough to earn a grade of some sort. Without Frank, Kidd has had to face the fire of coaching in the NBA on his own. So far, he's responded well, directing his players and commanding their respect as many anticipated he would.
“I knew it was going to take time," Billy King told the media (via Beck) back in November. "But his instincts will take over.”
The Road Ahead
If there's any lesson to be learned from Kidd's experience as a head coach thus far, it's that even those who appear to be perfect fits for their respective professions need time to get the hang of things. Kidd's reputation as a consummate "coach on the floor" and his favored status among his peers portended proficiency as a coach, albeit not without first nailing down the fundamentals needed to succeed in his new career.
The only way for Kidd to become "the man" on the sidelines in Brooklyn was not by proxy, with Lawrence Frank doing the heavy lifting, but rather by enduring firsthand the trials and tribulations of a high-profile job, steering the most expensive payroll in the league.
"He's had to go through some early adversity, which has made him grow," Jason Terry, Kidd's teammate-turned-player, told The Daily News.
Kidd's already grown tremendously as a coach since his earliest days, when mid-game phone calls, expensive spills and his team's disjointed struggles made him easy fodder for derision in the New York sports media machine.
It'll probably be years before Kidd can so much as aspire to the heights of the coaching ranks to which Mirza Teletovic ascribed him during an interview with a Bosnian newspaper. But Teletovic's more moderate praise of the coach who's (finally) unleashed his talents on the NBA rings true.
"He’s beginning to be a really, really good coach," Teletovic told Stefan Bondy. "I can really feel it.”
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