The Brooklyn Nets were terrible, falling painfully short of lofty preseason expectations and looking like a disjointed mess. Kidd took the lion's share of the blame for his team's poor performance. Fresh off a Hall of Fame playing career, the first-year head coach looked lost on the sidelines.
He was frequently immobile, seated in placid repose while his Nets bumbled their way to a 3-10 start. And when he wasn't sitting still, Kidd was spilling soda on purpose or berating top assistant Lawrence Frank on the practice floor.
Burying Kidd was easy in November. Everyone did it.
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.”
Ouch. Well, at least the scout didn't give Kidd a failing grade. That's a positive, right?
ESPN's David Thorpe (via Devin Kharpertian of The Brooklyn Game) rectified that in short order, though, telling TrueHoop's Henry Abbot:
He gets an F. He gets a 0. My wife could coach a team to a 29th ranking for that team. She doesn't know much about basketball. He just... his guys, I don't think they have any purpose and passion to what they're doing. I think they're discombobulated. Listen, Henry, he was an amazing player, one of my favorite of all time for a lot of different reasons, but our profession is different from his profession, and to assume that that transition is easy, it's a short bridge, is crazy.
Thorpe went on to note that Kidd wasn't a lost cause and had a chance to improve, which, at the time, was easily the biggest endorsement anyone had offered. Think about that: The only good thing anyone could say about Kidd was that it was possible for him to be slightly less terrible in the future.
There was a small sliver of hope in both of those otherwise damning reviews. Improbably, that hope came to fruition.
The Nets went 10-3 in January, a remarkable achievement given the turmoil of the early season and, more significantly, the loss of Brook Lopez in late December. Even after such a remarkable turnaround (Brooklyn finished the 2013 calendar year at just 10-21), there was an understandable hesitancy to label that stretch as more than a "pleasant surprise."
Nobody was ready to concede that Kidd had much to do with the Nets' improvements.
But then the calendar flipped again, and Brooklyn continued its upward climb. You had to look a little harder to see the Nets' most recent growth. After all, they won just three of their first five games in February.
But Brooklyn was defending better than ever. There was a cohesiveness to its scheme. Kevin Garnett was captaining the D (albeit in limited minutes) at center, something that worked pretty darn well for a number of excellent Boston Celtics defenses in the recent past.
Best of all, the effort was there. Brooklyn's roster was hustling. In those five February games, the Nets allowed 97 points per 100 possessions, the third-best mark in the NBA during that span, per NBA.com.
And on the other end, Kidd ran with small lineups. He used Paul Pierce as an undersized power forward, forcing difficult matchup choices for opponents. Even though downsizing was a key to the Nets' success, Kidd didn't rely on that strategy as a crutch.
In a move that displayed some real ingenuity, he also occasionally trotted out quirky lineups featuring huge wing combos. He'd play Shaun Livingston with Joe Johnson and Pierce, forcing teams with smaller guards to either double or suffer the consequence in the mid and low post.
Even more boldly, he used Deron Williams off the bench in spurts but would also play him alongside Livingston on occasion. It became far more difficult to game plan for what the Nets were doing on a game-to-game basis.
Smart strategic tweaks, better defensive effort and a significant leap up the standings were hard to ignore. Sure enough, the NBA took notice:
The Nets are still dealing with some expected ups and downs. Most of the key players are still learning how to play with one another, injuries have hit them hard and the overall age of the roster means many key components are prone to taking the odd game off to rest.
Kidd deserves credit for managing all those issues, too.
As quick as we all were to jump on the 40-year-old earlier this season, we should be similarly hasty in praising him now.
There's a temptation to say the players are more responsible for the Nets' current success than the coach is. But where was that personnel-centric rationale when Brooklyn was falling apart?
You can't blame Kidd for his team's failure (which we most certainly did) without crediting him with its success.
Besides, the people closest to the situation have made it abundantly clear that Kidd has had plenty to do with Brooklyn's growth.
Per Roderick Boone of Newsday, Livingston said:
Because even though we have leaders on our team, we still look at (Kidd) as the leader when it's time to get a play call or time to get a stop. What are we doing? Are we switching? What's the game plan? So he's done a great job. You've got to give him his credit.
As always, there's a counter to the argument that Kidd is now a (gasp!) good coach.
It goes like this: Maybe the turnaround in Brooklyn really has more to do with a talented roster leveling out and ultimately taking advantage of life in a weak conference. Perhaps the Nets are regressing to the mean or even succeeding in spite of Kidd rather than because of him.
That seems like an oversimplification, though; one that fits comfortably into the narrative we all agreed on earlier in the year—that Kidd was some kind of joke.
The truth is, the specific things that have changed during the course of the season—like the improved effort and lineup alterations mentioned earlier—are attributable to Kidd. We shouldn't go overboard and immediately term him some kind of genius, but we can also agree Kidd wasn't the dope many thought he was earlier in the year.
And really, is it so surprising that a guy doing a job for the first time would take a while to figure things out?
It was easy to pile on. We were all ready for Kidd to fail; the stigma of star players dabbling in coaching was great. And the alarming issues with anger and alcohol in Kidd's personal life made him an easy target.
When it looked like Kidd was failing, the punchy lines and "I told you so" sentiments poured out.
But we all forgot something important in our earlier rush to bury Kidd: Coaches, like players, can improve.
Anything can happen from here on out. Kidd could make more mistakes, and the Nets might flounder. Or, perhaps he'll continue to guide the team into better playoff position.
Nobody's saying he's an elite coach. It's far too early for that. But I think we can all agree it's time to put aside the shovels we were using to bury Kidd.
Dig this: He's pretty good at his job.
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