Being an NBA head coach is one of the sport’s most difficult and thankless jobs. Each season, 30 people overwork themselves into dust, and only one enters the summer with a smile.
The Brooklyn Nets welcomed Jason Kidd into this fragile fraternity, then dropped an anvil of pressure on his head. Some of it was due to him being Jason Kidd, but an exorbitant luxury tax and a “you better win now” mandate didn’t help. His first season isn’t even through, but already Kidd’s dealt with unexpected and dramatic change.
The Nets were 9-17 when franchise pillar Brook Lopez, perhaps the most unstoppable scoring center in basketball, broke his foot. Kidd adjusted accordingly, shuffling in smaller lineups, throwing rookie center Mason Plumlee into a fire he was ready to thrive in and turning the team's pick-and-roll defense into a constant switch-o-rama.
But after a rough Game 1 blowout and a closer-but-still-devastating Game 2 loss in their second-round showdown against the two-time defending champion Miami Heat, Kidd is in trouble once again.
Speaking to The New York Times reporter Harvey Araton, here’s team general manager Billy King discussing how much Kidd and the Nets miss their seven-foot star, which sort of speaks to how well-coached they’ve been since he went down:
It’s funny: When Chicago was making that great run, everybody was saying, ‘Oh, man, wait until they get Derrick Rose back.’ The thing that Brook gives is that guy who can score, who demands double teams. He gives us a post presence, and he can play the elbow, do a lot of things, so I think he would really help us in a series like this, or even in the Toronto series.
But nobody seems to talk about how we’re missing Brook. In this case, it’s almost like they’re very dismissive of an All-Star, our leading scorer.
Kidd’s response to the disaster was brilliant, mixing lineups and carving out a small-ball identity that opponents had no answer for. He experimented with 24 different starting lineups this season—including a few late in the year when rest was deemed a priority over winning—and the ones with Paul Pierce at power forward were most successful.
But is there anything else for him to do, in this series and beyond, to elevate Brooklyn’s respected but wrinkle-skinned roster to a higher level of competition?
After Game 1 against Miami, here’s what Deron Williams had to say about his team’s strategy; he has a solid point, per Araton: "We can’t sit around and shoot all jump shots against this team. We’ve got to get into the paint. We’ve got to get to the free-throw line. We have to be more aggressive by getting into our offense faster, and I think a lot of that starts with me."
Brooklyn’s roster is equipped to go small and big (despite Lopez’s injury), and it’d be a good idea for Kidd to experiment with both extremes as soon as he can.
With a large lineup, the Nets can deploy Kevin Garnett and Mason Plumlee at the same time, then throw Paul Pierce back at small forward, Joe Johnson at shooting guard and slot Shaun Livingston at the point.
Plumlee is Garnett’s backup, and the pair shared the floor exactly zero minutes heading into last night’s Game 2. They played 77 minutes together during the regular season, and Brooklyn’s offense averaged an empty 80.5 points per 100 possessions. They were also worse than Brooklyn’s average on the glass.
But desperate times call for desperate measures, and throwing two long bodies at Miami’s thin frontline should be a strategy worth exploring.
Here’s a shot chart from Game 1, where the Heat murdered the Nets inside:
On the other side of the spectrum, Kidd has a roster versatile enough to go super small, and this may be the smarter idea. Putting Williams and Marcus Thornton in the backcourt, then throwing Mirza Teletovic, Pierce and Johnson in the blender to create a sweet three-point shooting smoothie.
Striking a delicate balance between these two strategies is hard in general, but especially so against Miami, a heavy favorite that's more experienced playing with small lineups. The answer could be as simple as giving some bench player more court time. Andrei Kirilenko and Teletovic are two examples.
Kirilenko only played 13 minutes in Game 1 and led Brooklyn with a plus-9.3 net rating, the only Net to be above 0.0. He brings defensive versatility to the table, something Andray Blatche sorely lacks. In Game 2, Teletovic played the 5 in several uber-small lineups, and the result was a team-high 20 points.
Throwing these two on the floor at the same time, with the likes of Livingston, Johnson and Pierce would be highly unconventional. But again, that may be what Kidd needs to do in order to uproot a team nobody expects to lose. Expect Kidd to go small before he goes big.
Beyond this series and this season, Kidd’s role could either get much harder, or it could change completely. Brooklyn’s current roster will likely be a year older next season, and they’re bare of any future assets to assist in an immediate upgrade.
But what if Garnett retires and Pierce signs elsewhere (don’t sleep on the Houston Rockets)? What if Lopez and/or Deron Williams are traded for the exact pile of draft picks and young talent this team needs to start over?
The money needed to contend will always be there, but Kidd will have different responsibilities if Brooklyn heads in another direction. No matter what the roster looks like, more adjustments will need to be made. So goes the circle of an NBA coach's life.