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Jason Kidd Proving His Place as an NBA Head Coach

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2015

Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd yells to players during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014, in Cleveland. The Bucks defeated the Cavaliers 96-80. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

It didn't take long for Jason Kidd to turn the Milwaukee Bucks into a playoff team.

After an NBA-worst 15-win season a year ago, Milwaukee ousted Larry Drew and looked to Kidd, who came over from the Brooklyn Nets without any sort of sketchy activity at all...

Buddies with the Bucks' newly minted ownership, it was supposed to be a rebuild. Kidd was supposed to be going from a team that could probably lock into a top-seven playoff spot in the weak Eastern Conference to one with youth and talent, but that figured to be at the bottom of the league.

Nope.

Right around the halfway point, the Nets, losers of seven straight, sit at 16-23. The Bucks? Now 21-19 and fifth in the East with a great chance of playing more than 82 games come mid-April.

Mr. Kidd, we tip our collective cap to you.

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Kidd's Development

Aaron Gash/Associated Press

Kidd has reformed himself from someone who had reported issues with players during his first season as a coach, becoming a leader who has done a nice job prioritizing clubhouse chemistry. Bucksketball's Jeremy Schmidt detailed such a transition:

All [Kidd has] talked about since arriving in Milwaukee has been family, trust and the value of teammates. This is the guy that supposedly couldn't keep the respect of his players in Brooklyn? That seemed curious to me. These same guys who, according to that report [from Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski], were losing respect for him a year ago are now saying things like "we shouldn't forget what he did in Brooklyn and Jersey" and "once we got going, it was great." Huh.

It even comes out in the way Kidd has handled the Larry Sanders situation. Sanders has missed games for "personal" reasons. Recently, reports have surfaced, per Gery Woelfel of Racine, Wisconsin's Journal Times (h/t ProBasketballTalk's Kurt Helin), that Sanders doesn't want to play basketball anymore. He's yet to return to the team.

And you know what? Maybe Kidd should be sending a thank-you card to Andray Blatche for giving him practice in the "out for personal reasons" area last year in Brooklyn, when the Nets sent Blatche home because he was too much of a distraction.

Kidd backs up that mentality with the way he speaks, too. It's rare that you'll see him single anyone out with the media, whether it's for a positive or negative, but that could have more to do with his dry approach to postgame conversation than anything else.

We do know, though, that he's implemented some unorthodox NBA habits into the Milwaukee locker room.

"It kind of reminds you of a backyard coach just because he will stop practice and say, 'Get on the line, let's get some lines in. Let's get some ups and downs,'" O.J. Mayo said of Kidd's coaching philosophy, via Sean Deveney of Sporting News, which includes calling for the team to run sprints after mistakes in practice. "It's a little different because the NBA is not like that, but he takes it back to how he would have liked it when he played."

Even if we can speculate about what it's like in the locker room, it's always hard to know exactly what's going on from the outside. In the end, our best bet is to judge Kidd from his X's and O's, much improved from his beginning time in Brooklyn.

A coach is able to make an immediate impact on defense more so than on offense, and so far Kidd's Bucks have been locking down scorers.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

Actually, the Bucks have become one of the best statistical defenses in the league, ranking fourth in points allowed per 100 possessions, an insurmountable leap from last season, when the Milwaukee defense ranked second-to-last in the whole league.

Comparisons from this year's D to last year's may be slightly unfair—emphasize slightly—if only because a young roster was bound to improve. But still, there's been very little turnover since Larry Drew's sole season in Milwaukee, when the Bucks lacked discipline and cohesion through and through.

Kidd has been mending the defensive talent he has, using length and athleticism to his advantage and turning the Bucks into an aggressive, passing-lane-jumping annoyance for offenses around the league, helping the team become the NBA's third-best squad at forcing turnovers.

The Bucks have one of the league's longest rosters, even without Sanders, allowing them to contest shots as well as almost any other team. But they need to get to the correct positions too. You have to credit Kidd for instilling the intuition to get to the right spots.

The way some of the young talent has improved is inspiring for the future.

Milwaukee's built a nice enough nucleus that it was surprising (both at the time and in retrospect) a team with so much young talent finished last year with the NBA's worst record.

There was ability. The problem was that no one tapped into it.

Now, it's showing.

Player Improvement

Aaron Gash/Associated Press

Giannis Antetokounmpo, who wasn't much more than a a baby-faced kid whose athleticism and body gave the world hope, has improved his decision-making tenfold. The hesitance he had in his game as a rookie is gone, and Kidd is going out of his way to turn him into a facilitator, a 6'11" creator whose arms seem to extend the court's full 94 feet. Now, the Greek Freak can take guys his size off the dribble and shoot over much smaller ones.

Actually, he can still drive by the smaller guys, too, as he reaches for a layup outrageous distances from the basket, almost as if he's trying to impersonate the last basketball scene of Space Jam during an actual NBA game.

Kidd is helping guys get to that point, embedding a confidence inside his players in ways coaches don't always try.

In some ways, Kidd's best traits as a coach shine through in the way he's handled Khris Middleton.

When Middleton started out this season on a slow note, Kidd didn't turn away from the former second-round pick, which would've been easy with the number of wings and bigs on the bench (even if Middleton did rack up a couple of DNPs). No, Kidd stuck with him, and as a result, the Texas A&M product has made 46 percent of his threes over the past 24 games.

"For Khris, maybe he wasn't making shots early on but there's a lot of season left to be played," Kidd said in November after one of those games when Middleton didn't actually get in, via Todd Rosiak of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It is just a matter of time before he starts making shots."

Morry Gash/Associated Press

Lots of coaches move away from young players when they struggle, especially when there is more youth behind him. Instead, Kidd mended Middleton, using him differently than he'd ever been deployed in the NBA before.

Coming into the year, Middleton was a small forward or shooting guard. But that's not so anymore, though he does still bounce around the wing.

Kidd has worked Middleton into the Bucks' lineups as a small-ball 4, spreading the floor for guys like Antetokounmpo to work. His offense may not be reaping the benefits yet (Milwaukee ranks just 21st in points per 100 possessions), but it's those small but inventive moves that show why Kidd gives his team an advantage on most nights.

He has an understanding for floor spacing and how to use his allotted personnel to acquire it. His defense, meanwhile, stays home and helps from off the ball quite well.

What do these traits have in common? They both involve putting players in the best position to succeed, and ultimately, that's all a coach can do, right?

The Golden Age

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

The way we judge coaches is funny. In most facets, it's nonsensical, the exact opposite of how we evaluate players.

If a rookie player comes into town and struggles at first, we'll all give an excuse: He's a rookie. He's learning. If he has talent, he can work it out. He's still so young.

With coaches, we don't do that. If someone is no good through 15 or 30 or 82 games, he stands no chance.

So, Kidd was immediately branded as a terrible coach, because of those early-season Nets struggles a season ago that led to Brooklyn's 10-21 start.

And you know what? He wasn't a quality coach at the time. His substitution rotations were stuffy, his defenses were sloppier than his drink-holding ability and he was still learning how to scheme. But that's the key word: learning.

By the end of the year, Kidd was a legitimate NBA coach. He wasn't a pledge anymore, just part of the fraternity, culminating in a wonderfully schemed and scouted first-round series against the Toronto Raptors last spring, which bodes particularly well for the Bucks' potential first-round playoff series, whomever that may be against (possibly Toronto). 

For some reason, we don't account for coaches actually getting smarter and developing in their own right. Kidd did that last year. End-of-the-year Kidd was a completely different coach than beginning-of-the-year Kidd, part of the reason for the team's turnaround in its final 51 games.

He's taken another step in Milwaukee, and there's no reason to think he can't continue to learn on the job.

This is a golden age for NBA coaches, with so many bench leaders any reasonable person could argue are competent minds to run a team.

You can start at the top with Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, Erik Spoelstra, Doc Rivers, Mike Budenholzer, Tom Thibodeau, Stan Van Gundy or Frank Vogel. But there are so many more after those.

Steve Clifford, Dwane Casey, Brad Stevens, Brett Brown, Steve Kerr, Terry Stotts, Dave Joerger and probably a few more have all done admirable jobs this year.

As the game has developed statistically and analytically, coaches have progressed with it, pushing the NBA into an era of competence on the bench after years of coach complaining.

It didn't take too long, but now Jason Kidd is part of the group.

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade but maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of Jan. 15 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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