The line between "scapegoat" and "savior" can be and often is perilously thin in the NBA. One day, you're the reason the sky is falling. The next, you're Atlas, keeping the celestial sphere intact all by your lonesome.
Neither one is ever entirely true, even in basketball, where one person can make a bigger difference than he/she could in any other sport.
Just don't tell that to the pressure-cooker club that is the New York sports media mob. Otherwise, the story of Jason Kidd's roller-coaster ride of a season with the Brooklyn Nets might not be quite as captivating.
As if it needs any help with narration.
The first two months alone of Kidd's tenure featured a two-game, DWI-related suspension, a drink-spilling gambit that cost him $50,000, constant clashes with Lawrence Frank leading to the assistant's demotion to "writing daily reports," and questions about Kidd's coaching competency while Brooklyn stumbled out to an embarrassing 10-21 start amid a devastating rash of injuries.
Not an ideal situation for a squad that's bound to break league records for salary- and luxury-tax payouts, to say the least.
That is, until the script flipped, Freaky Friday-style, once the calendar turned to 2014. Since New Year's Day, the Nets have posted a record of 33-15—the second best in the East, behind only the surging Chicago Bulls.
In that time, Brooklyn has performed at or near a top-10 pace on both ends of the floor, despite losing Brook Lopez to a season-ending foot injury and watching Kevin Garnett, Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko, among others, shuffle into and out of street clothes like denizens of the changing room at your local Macy's.
The Nets' redemption story practically writes itself and could feature another juicy chapter or two in the coming weeks, depending on how the team's postseason push plays out. Kidd, though, has had a heavy hand as an author of the turnaround, even if he's reluctant to play up his own role therein.
"It's all about the guys in the locker room," he told Newsday's Barbara Barker in early April, after claiming his second consecutive Eastern Conference Coach of the Month honors. "Those guys are playing at a high level."
High enough for the Nets to have entrenched themselves as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. At present, they'd be bound for another first-round slugfest with the Bulls, who ousted Brooklyn in seven games last year, despite the absence of Derrick Rose.
Chicago's MVP would once again be forced to watch from afar on account of a knee injury. As for the Nets, they'd be far better equipped to handle that matchup this time around, and not just because of the summer spending spree that brought in a heaping helping of veteran talent to Barclays Center.
“It’s easy to criticize you when you have a new team and trying to put it together, and now nobody’s saying how great a job he’s done,” Nets general manager Billy King said in praise of Kidd to the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy. “It’s easy to attack people negatively, but when they have success, you should give them the credit. I think a lot of our success, it’s directly related to him.”
Part of that success stems from Kidd's decision to dismiss Frank from his staff back in December.
"I think since Lawrence as left...he was leaning on (Frank) a lot," Deron Williams told Bondy back in January. "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," Williams added. "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."
The most important print left by Kidd's proverbial foot? Not the switch to a more casual, tie-free look, but rather the style of play with which his Nets have thrived of late. As Grantland's Brett Koremenos explained, the Nets have transformed into a floor-spreading, screen-switching machine since Kidd moved Paul Pierce up to the 4 and Shaun Livingston into the starting lineup on Jan. 2.
Pierce's perimeter shooting and all-around scoring prowess has made it perilous for opposing power forwards to patrol the paint on defense, thereby opening up the middle of the floor for Brooklyn's myriad post-ups and isolations.
Livingston, a big point guard, has afforded Williams the opportunity to play off the ball as a scorer more often while relieving the All-Star and his troublesome ankles of some of the ball-handling and creative duties.
On the other end, having Pierce, Livingston and Joe Johnson—each of whom checks in between 6'6" and 6'8", with plenty of length to boot—share the floor alongside the 6'3" Williams and a rim-protector, be it Garnett or high-flying rookie Mason Plumlee, has allowed Kidd's Nets to unlock a style of defense that makes switching screens not only easy, but ideal.
"It doesn't take as much energy as fighting over screens," Livingston told The Brooklyn Game's Devin Kharpertian in January. "I think that really helps us."
Just don't mistake what the Nets do as "small ball." Pierce is the only one of the bunch who's typically undersized for his position, and even that situation can be remedied when Kirilenko is fit to play.
"We don't look at it as a small lineup," Kidd explained. "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."
To be sure, Brooklyn's innovative tactics weren't solely the stroke of Kidd's genius. Nor can they be credited completely to the on-court execution of the players therein.
In truth, some of the Nets' success has been and is the product of circumstance.
Once Lopez was lost, Kidd and co. had little choice but to adjust to the loss of their All-Star center on the fly. Garnett could compensate for Lopez's absence in the paint (so long as the Big Ticket was healthy enough to play), but none of the Nets' other bigs were ready to serve as reliable starters.
Reggie Evans, beast on the boards though he may be, was limited offensively and too slow afoot to keep up with most forwards. Mirza Teletovic was a liability on defense as well, and his free-shooting ways were better suited to a role off the bench anyway. Plumlee was still adjusting to the NBA game, and Kirilenko had yet to outrun the injury bug.
That left Kidd with little choice but to experiment with the players he had on hand. Luckily for the Nets, it didn't take long for that necessary tinkering to birth the invention of Brooklyn's signature brand of "long ball."
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None of this should diminish Kidd's role in the Nets' renaissance. He was the one who ultimately made the call to turn his team's lineup experiments into the foundation of a full-blown identity, just as he was the one who pulled the trigger on Frank's de facto firing.
And while Kidd has certainly benefited from having so many sage voices in his locker room to provide support and leadership, through good times and bad, it's the coach who set the tone that the players followed.
"It’s good when your coach is even-keeled—there’s no highs, there’s no lows,” Williams told Bondy in mid-March. "It makes you at ease. He doesn’t get mad at anybody for shots really. He doesn’t say, 'Don’t shoot, don’t do this, don’t do that.' I feel like he lets most people play through their mistakes, which is good. It gives us confidence."
Kidd isn't afraid to let his players know when they've screwed up, either. "Like I told them from Day 1, I’m going to be honest with them—good or bad...I try to stay as level as possible with no yelling or screaming."
Perhaps that steady demeanor had something to do with the criticism Kidd once received for being a "do nothing" coach. Just because he wasn't stamping his feet, berating referees and furiously drawing up plays during every break in the action doesn't mean he wasn't coaching.
Of course, the Nets' on-court success has had plenty to do with the shift in the public perception of Kidd's coaching prowess. Anyone in Kidd's position is judged first and foremost on wins and losses, not on clever strategies or inspirational speeches.
As general manager Billy King proclaimed:
The biggest thing (to the turnaround) I think is with Jason. Now we have a system of how we’re going to play, an identity...So now, in putting a team together, I know which players to add to it. That’s something we’ve been searching for a while, is getting an identity. So now, going into the offseason, Jason and I are already talking about the type of players he wants and I have a good feel for it. But that’s the key. We have a system, and I think a lot of the credit is players playing well, but Jason has been amazing.
The unique foundation that Kidd fashioned for the team out of happenstance this season has had everything to do with Brooklyn's rise to "expensive dark horse" status in the Eastern Conference.
It may well prime the Nets for long-term success—even with a cap sheet that's clogged until 2016 and without much in the way of fungible draft assets.