NEW YORK – The last time Jason Kidd earned national headlines, the story came with a laugh track and a sticky towel.
The story was “Sodagate”—Kidd’s unsubtle attempt to buy a timeout by spilling a soft drink—and it cost the Brooklyn Nets’ rookie coach $50,000 (in NBA fines) and a bit of his dignity. It was late November, the Nets were reeling and Kidd was getting roasted nightly by fans and pundits.
The derision only intensified after Kidd abruptly fired his top assistant and onetime mentor, Lawrence Frank, the next week.
On Monday, Kidd was named the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month after guiding the Nets to a 10-3 record in January.
Coach of the Month is a minor and fairly flimsy honor—just ask Avery Johnson, who was fired by the Nets within weeks of winning the award last season—but this one was worth noting. If nothing else, it showed how quickly fortunes can change in a young NBA season, and that first impressions do not always hold.
The Nets, who were mocked and dismissed after losing 14 of their first 19 games, seem to have found their stride, despite losing star center Brook Lopez to season-ending foot surgery, and despite the limitations (real or perceived) of their new head coach.
For the past four weeks, the Nets have played sturdier defense, with a reconstructed lineup and a better sense of purpose. Their coach is making progress, too, finding his voice and a workable rotation after spending his early weeks searching for a coaching identity.
“I just think he has much more confidence,” said general manager Billy King, “and I think he has a better feel for managing the game as he goes along. Until you sit there, whether you’re an assistant coach or not, it’s different.”
Monday’s victory over the Philadelphia 76ers pushed the Nets to 21-25, seventh in the East, four games out of the Atlantic Division lead. They remain, incredibly, in the hunt for a top-four seed and home-court advantage to start the playoffs.
A laughingstock in November, Kidd is finding respectability in the New Year.
Nine NBA teams hired rookie coaches last summer, but Kidd was destined to be the most scrutinized. He coaches in the nation’s biggest media market. His team has the highest payroll in the league. The Nets, with a lineup packed with All-Stars, were pegged as title contenders.
The target on Kidd would be large because he never served as an assistant coach, and because he was Jason Kidd, NBA playmaking legend.
The other eight rookies have largely been free to work and learn below the radar.
Jeff Hornacek has done brilliantly in Phoenix, leading a Suns team devoid of stars into playoff contention, and putting himself in the lead for Coach of the Year. But Hornacek was certainly aided by low expectations and a roster free of egos.
Injuries have undermined Brian Shaw’s efforts in Denver (23-23). Charlotte has become a great defensive team under Steve Clifford, but the Bobcats (21-28) are still losing. The Boston Celtics (16-33) fought hard to start the season under Brad Stevens, but they are simply short on talent. The Sacramento Kings (16-32) remain a work in progress under Mike Malone.
And then there is Brett Brown, who might have taken the toughest assignment of all—coaching the 76ers.
Philadelphia traded its only All-Star, handed the offense to a rookie point guard and filled out the roster with cheap, young players. Whether you call it tanking or rebuilding, the 76ers did not assemble a lineup designed to win this season. The agenda was to lose now, earn a high draft pick and hopefully prosper later. Brown, a longtime assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, knew the Sixers’ limitations and took the job anyway.
“It’s much harder” than anticipated, Brown said bluntly. “It’s something that I didn’t judge properly. It doesn’t diminish my enthusiasm to be here; I’m thrilled to be here. I just recognize the monster that’s ahead of us.”
Brown meant the long-term monster, the difficult process of restocking the roster with high-level talent. But the more immediate monster is instability. The 76ers are actively shopping Evan Turner, their leading scorer, as well as No. 2 scorer Thaddeus Young and center Spencer Hawes. Any or all of them could be moved by the Feb. 20 trade deadline. Until then, they will hear their names almost daily on the NBA rumor wire.
“You have dynamics,” Brown said, euphemistically. “We have the youngest team in the history of the sport. … And then you have people that are thinking any minute they're going to get a phone call. And you try to combine all those elements of youth and people, what’s their future, and I just cannot believe how good the group is, going into practice and shootaround and film session. They retain their enthusiasm.”
Indeed, the Sixers are a high-energy, buoyant bunch, and they generally play hard. But they fell to 15-34 on Monday, losing for the 13th time in 16 games.
“At times,” Brown said, “our roster catches up with us.”
Kidd had the opposite problem, if you can call it that. The Nets had five All-Stars in the projected starting lineup, which required more managing than initially thought. The process was short-circuited by injuries to Lopez, Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko, all of which contributed to the Nets’ poor start.
Circumstance turned in Kidd’s favor in late December. When Lopez, the 7-foot center, went down for good, it forced the Nets to adapt. Kidd opted for a small lineup, with Kevin Garnett in the middle and Paul Pierce at power forward, making the Nets instantly more versatile and mobile on defense. Without Lopez’s 20 points of low-post scoring, the Nets were forced to spread out the scoring load, which helped get Pierce and Joe Johnson going. Kirilenko, a key defender, returned in early January, and the Nets are 11-5 since.
Along the way, Kidd has become more demonstrative, more vocal, more outwardly self-assured.
“I’m still feeling my way,” Kidd acknowledged. “It’s still early in my coaching career. But I’ve seen a lot in the first couple months.”
It’s a natural evolution for any first-time coach. Had he started his career in Charlotte or Sacramento or Salt Lake City, Kidd could have gone through the growing pains without the media glare. Even the spilled soda would have seemed less dramatic.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Kidd said. “This is a perfect situation for me.”