'If You Want to Be Great, You Have to Work': Jason Kidd Counters His Critics

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterMarch 29, 2018

Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd reacts to a call during an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)
B/R

PHOENIX — Sixty-seven days have passed since Jason Kidd patrolled an NBA court, an excruciating exile for a guy who's spent his entire adult life dribbling, passing or coaching.

But that's not his greatest concern just now.

It's the boxes in the family room that need unpacking, and the jumbo flatscreen that needs mounting. It's all the never-worn athletic shoes in the garage, awaiting a new home (at Mrs. Kidd's insistence). The swimming pool has a leak.

Coaching is hard. Getting fired is painful. Moving sucks, no matter who you are.

"Most of the time, I have missed the move," Kidd says with an easy smile, perched on a barstool in the backyard of his newly purchased Paradise Valley home. "I get traded, I go to the team. My family has to do the move."

But not this time. Fired by the Milwaukee Bucks as head coach in late January, Kidd has nothing but free time—and no games, practices or film sessions to shield him from unpacking duties.

"So my mom is really happy that I got to enjoy and see what they had to do in the past," he says, chuckling. "I had to participate."

The Kidd family—wife Porschla, four-month-old Cooper, five-year-old Noah and eight-year-old Chance—moved in a few weeks ago. Everyone's living in the guest residence until the main house is ready. Kidd's charcoal-gray Mercedes still has a Wisconsin plate.

Power tools buzz from the far side of the yard, while Chance whacks at a golf ball on the lawn nearby. It's a typically bucolic suburban scene, right down to Dad, relaxing in khaki cargo shorts, a dark Nike T-shirt and a navy-blue Toronto Blue Jays cap.

This is the longest that Kidd, 45, has ever been cut off from the game that's defined him—discounting injury rehabilitations, which are at least done in a team's orbit. A consummate gym rat, he's determined to coach again—soon—but for now, he's treasuring the extended family time.

"It's been nice," Kidd says in his first extended interview since his Jan. 22 firing. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you it hasn't been nice. Because I can sleep, I don't have as many headaches. But it's actually been nice to wake up and not have to worry about a scheme, or if someone's going to make a shot, or rebound the ball."

But Kidd doesn't dwell on the thought for long.

"I love coaching," he says. "Coaching is fun. And it's hard."

After guiding the Nets to the playoffs in his first season as a head coach, Jason Kidd left the team suddenly in 2014 to join the Bucks.
After guiding the Nets to the playoffs in his first season as a head coach, Jason Kidd left the team suddenly in 2014 to join the Bucks.Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

The record so far suggests Kidd has a certain knack for the job, even if the details are somewhat murkier.

In four-plus seasons on the bench, starting with a rocky, one-year stint in Brooklyn, Kidd has collected 183 wins and 190 losses, with three playoff appearances.

The Nets, despite a star-laden lineup, were a disaster in Kidd's first two months (10-21) but dominant (34-17) the rest of the way, their season ending with a second-round loss to the Miami Heat.

Kidd bailed out a month later, amid reports of acrimony with the front office and accusations of a failed power play, to take the Milwaukee gig.

The precocious Bucks went 41-41 in Kidd's first season—a remarkable 26-game improvement—and crashed the playoffs as a surprise sixth seed in the East. They slipped to 33-49 the next year, and then flirted with mediocrity over the next one-and-a-half seasons, winning 42 games last year and going 23-22 this season when Milwaukee ownership pulled the plug, replacing Kidd with career assistant Joe Prunty.

The Bucks are 16-13 since the coaching change.

Around the NBA, Kidd is universally respected for his basketball intellect, though people still have questions about his tactical instincts and his interpersonal skills. He has a reputation for burning bridges, going all the way back to his playing days.

But the sun is shining brightly on this 80-degree day in the Valley, and Kidd seems unusually at ease as he reflects on his still-burgeoning coaching career. The steely demeanor that typified his press conferences has softened. He smiles frequently and laughs easily, even at his own expense. He's downright personable, in a way that he rarely shows on the podium, or in the locker room.

Maybe it's the weather, or the location, or the distance from the court, or all of the above. No line of questioning or criticism seems to faze him. He defends his record, but with hardly a hint of defensiveness.

And though he offers no regrets, Kidd acknowledges the obvious: that the learning curve has been steep, having jumped into the head coaching role just days after retiring as a player in 2013.

"When I took the job in Brooklyn, the paint was still wet—like, I just played," he says. "And I was going to learn how to coach."

Kidd surprised many in the NBA when he retired after a 19-year playing career to become the head coach of the Nets.
Kidd surprised many in the NBA when he retired after a 19-year playing career to become the head coach of the Nets.STUART RAMSON/Associated Press/Associated Press

The greatest lesson so far? "Patience," he says. "As a player, I always felt I can solve it myself. I think as a coach, there's so many pieces that you have to be patient, that they'll get it."

The education is ongoing.

Officially, the Bucks fired Kidd for the most basic reason: a win-loss record that fell short of expectations. With rising star Giannis Antetokounmpo and a solid supporting cast, the Bucks had hopes of breaking the top four in the East, of winning 50 games.

But the picture was much more complex.

Team officials cringed as Kidd repeatedly blamed the Bucks' youth for their struggles—an assertion he repeated in mid-January, just days before his dismissal.

"It was constantly, 'Hey, it was the players' fault—they're not doing this, they're not doing that, they're too young,'" a Bucks source says.

Sources both inside and outside the organization say Kidd had a tendency to fall in and out of love with players—e.g., demanding a trade for Michael Carter-Williams one day, burying him the next.

Team officials had also grown concerned that Kidd's demanding, old-school style had worn thin. Players were tuning Kidd out—or already had last season, according to one source with close ties to the team.

Kidd was "putting in massive hours," a Bucks source says, "and he expected the players" to do the same. "Jason was driving the team a bit hard. And that would have been fine if there was really good results."

Or if Kidd had learned to balance his old-school impulses with a little new-age tenderness—an occasional hug or high-five to keep spirits up amid the grind. But that wasn't his way.

As he sits back and considers this critique, it's clear Kidd has given the matter some thought. The charges aren't new. He's not entirely convinced he was wrong.

"When you are learning how to win, it's going to hurt," he says. "I told the players that. I showed them the piece of metal that's in my hip"—a replica of a piece inserted during his 2015 hip surgery. "You're going to give a piece of your body to this game if you want to be good. … The money, the fame, whatever comes with it is great. But it does hurt to win."

Kidd cites Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and the injuries and surgeries they endured to become champions.

"So, 'driving them hard?' I think, working," Kidd says. "There's nothing wrong with work. If you want to be great, you have to work. If you want to be good, you have to work. If you want to just be average, or below average, then you don't have to work."

Kidd gained a reputation for his penchant for pushing his players hard in practice, something Kidd says is often necessary to build a winner.
Kidd gained a reputation for his penchant for pushing his players hard in practice, something Kidd says is often necessary to build a winner.Gary Dineen/Getty Images

But how hard? According to one source, Kidd once held a two-hour practice after a back-to-back, violating an unwritten code. Teams almost never practice after back-to-backs.

"Well, that's not true," Kidd says flatly. "Because we never practiced after back-to-backs. No. Never. As a player, it's the golden rule: You never practice on a back-to-back."

Kidd says he did call an extra practice just before Christmas one year, briefly delaying the players' holiday, after the Bucks no-showed in a dismal loss.

"Yes, there were guys upset, because they were going to leave that night after the game, or early in the morning," he says. "But when you're trying to teach trust, respect—at the end of the day, this is a job. And so, that message was sent."

On this subject, Kidd is unrepentant.

"When people are saying that I'm old-school, it's not that I'm old-school," he says. "It's what it takes to win. And I think we've lost a little of that with the younger generation of 'everybody gets a trophy.'"

The "hard-ass" charges seem to befuddle Kidd—"Because I don't smile enough during the game? Or do I not smile enough during practice?"—and he insists, "It's just competition."

In Kidd's telling, the hard-driving approach helped build the Bucks into the force they are today.

Under his tutelage, Antetokounmpo blossomed from obscure prospect to MVP candidate. Khris Middleton, a second-round pick, developed into one of the better two-way wings in the league. And it was Kidd who declared early on—to considerable skepticism—that Antetokounmpo could be a point guard, a bet that has paid huge dividends.

That relationship was one of the stronger ones Kidd had, although sources say Antetokounmpo, too, grew weary of Kidd's relentless critiques. (Antetokounmpo was also disappointed, per sources, that Kidd revealed a private exchange between them in the wake of his firing.)

"Did I think I lost the locker room? I didn't think I did," Kidd says. "My style? My voice was only heard when it needed to be heard. I let the other coaches do as much talking as I did, because I knew as a player, if you hear one voice, you can lose the locker room."

Giannis Antetokounmpo blossomed into a star under Jason Kidd, but wasn't pleased with the way Kidd exited Milwaukee.
Giannis Antetokounmpo blossomed into a star under Jason Kidd, but wasn't pleased with the way Kidd exited Milwaukee.Stacy Revere/Getty Images

If not for injuries, perhaps the Bucks would be further along by now. Jabari Parker, the second overall pick in 2014, has undergone ACL reconstruction surgery twice. Middleton missed the first 50 games last season because of a hamstring tear and returned on the same night that Parker ruptured his ACL. Parker is still working his way back into form.

And, to Kidd's point: The Bucks' core players are indeed young. Antetokounmpo and Parker are 23, and Thon Maker—still a project in Year 2—is 21. Malcolm Brogdon, the surprise Rookie of the Year last season, is 25.

Youth generally struggles in the NBA. As impolitic as it might have been to say so, Kidd's assessment was broadly accurate. The November acquisition of Eric Bledsoe, 28, provided a veteran presence, but there's no shortcut to developing young talent.

The truth is, the 26-game improvement in Kidd's first season set a high bar, one he believes fueled unreasonable expectations. When Kidd calls the Bucks "young," he says he means from top to bottom, and both literally and figuratively—from the owners who just bought the franchise in 2014, to a front office that's now headed by a 34-year-old general manager, Jon Horst.

"Maybe I didn't explain it fully—young is for everyone," he says. "The owners are young. And they're going to make mistakes. … So they win 41, as a new owner, what happens?"

(Answer: They expect a steady, continued rise.)

"Doesn't work that way," Kidd says. "The master plan got erased once we won 41 games. Because the expectations were, 'This is what we can do every year.' But no one's ever been in this situation but one person, and that's the head coach. And the head coach is saying, 'We still have a ways to go.' But no one is listening."

In a strange way, Kidd's own early success became a curse.

With all of that off his chest, Kidd sits back and allows that, yes, he might need to recalibrate his approach in his next job.

"Maybe I did lose the locker room," he finally says. "Maybe they lost trust in what I was trying to do, player-wise, or as owners, or as management. But that was never communicated to me."

Bucks officials say they saw Kidd evolve as a coach in his three-plus seasons. Some believe he'd be better suited to a veteran roster, one that required less teaching and instruction. Kidd doesn't entirely disagree, acknowledging that it's easier to coach seasoned players who already "speak the language."

"When I went to Milwaukee, you can speak the language, but then you had to also show them," he says. "And that's fine. And I felt like I can do both.

After a falling-out between Kidd and Lawrence Frank, the Nets were said to have split into two factions while both coaches were with the team.
After a falling-out between Kidd and Lawrence Frank, the Nets were said to have split into two factions while both coaches were with the team.Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

"But the thrill, the excitement of a young team, speaking the language, and then showing them, and then having them have the opportunity to [do it] … you can see the smile that they have when they do it. Like, 'How'd you know? How'd you know that was going to take place?' And you go, 'It's cool. It's all right. I knew, because I just played.' And the trust factor, the bond that you can create from that, becomes important."

In Brooklyn, Kidd had a veteran-laden roster—Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez—but the troubles started on the bench, and a falling-out with lead assistant Lawrence Frank.

Within weeks, sources say, the staff had divided into two factions: one loyal to Kidd, and one to Frank, who was Kidd's former head coach in New Jersey.

"He was not prepared for putting a staff together," one Nets source says. "He didn't understand the roles and responsibilities that go into that."

That failure to define roles led to Frank assuming more control, "because [Kidd] was very uncertain of how to be a coach, period," the same person says. "Lawrence tried to do the job of head coach, instead of saying, 'Jason, now you do this.'"

The two clashed over basic fundamentals, including what offense to run. With Kidd lacking the skills to install his system, the Nets defaulted to Frank's preferences.

The rift came to a head one day in practice, with Kidd refusing to take the court until Frank left, the source says. That's when the front office reassigned Frank to an obscure off-court role.

Kidd cites another key moment in the saga: the fiery Garnett barging into a coaches' meeting and proclaiming, on behalf of the locker room, that the players "needed to hear from the head coach."

"So I got the message, and we went from there," Kidd says. "I'm not here to bash Lawrence. We learned from it. I learned from it.

"You have to have good people around you," Kidd says. "It's not a one-man show."

Kidd insists the players—his peer group up until his appointment as coach—always believed in him, even if others in the organization doubted his abilities and undercut his authority.

Expected to be inducted into the Hall of Fame this year, Kidd has been hard on players who played his position as a coach.
Expected to be inducted into the Hall of Fame this year, Kidd has been hard on players who played his position as a coach.Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

"We were all trying to go the same direction," he says, "but I think there were people questioning, 'Is this the right person for the job?'"

Kidd is proud of the way the Nets rallied after Jan. 1, with Garnett moving to center for Lopez and Pierce becoming the small-ball power forward. That tactical change was made possible by Lopez's foot injury, though it was a move that Kidd wanted to make earlier, per multiple sources. But Garnett and Pierce had expressed reluctance, and Kidd was hesitant to demote Lopez, given his long standing with the franchise.

Once Kidd assumed full control, things settled down, and his basketball acumen—the same intellect that made him one of the greatest point guards ever—took over, Nets sources say.

"He had an idea of how he wanted to run an offense," one team official says. "It just took him learning how to put it in and teach the players the offense. Once he got that, he was fine. He's got an amazing mind for the game. It's a natural thing for him."

The downside of that gift? Kidd has little patience for players, and especially point guards, who fail to meet his standards or see the game as he did—which is nearly all of them.

In Brooklyn, Kidd wanted to bench Williams, a former All-Star, in favor of journeyman point guard Shaun Livingston, per multiple sources (a fact Kidd confirms, saying, "Shaun probably deserved to start"). When players saw that Kidd had lost faith in Williams, they gave up on him, too, sources say.

In Milwaukee, Kidd had point guard Brandon Knight traded in favor of Michael Carter-Williams, whom he quickly soured on.

"People perceive that I'm going to help the point guard position, or I'm too hard on the point guard," Kidd says. "But I think I always go in and I try to take your strength and I try to make it even better. And the point guards that I've had, sometimes they didn't understand who they were yet."

For all that has unfolded so far in Kidd's brief coaching career—the good, the bad and the comical (remember the spilled soda timeout?)—officials with both franchises say he's shown promise and growth. Even critics in both organizations express admiration for his basketball insights and his commitment to the job.

"A relentless worker," says former Bucks general manager John Hammond, who left Milwaukee last summer to take the same position in Orlando. "If you ask me, would I work with him again? My answer would be yes. Because I want to win."

Though he is enjoying the relaxation that life away from the NBA has afforded him, Kidd is interested in returning to someone's bench soon.
Though he is enjoying the relaxation that life away from the NBA has afforded him, Kidd is interested in returning to someone's bench soon.Cameron Browne/Getty Images

The Kidd residence is a virtual tribute to winning.

The garage walls are decorated with framed jerseys spanning Kidd's career, from St. Joseph Notre Dame High in Alameda, California, to Dallas to Phoenix to New Jersey and back to Dallas, where he helped the Mavericks win the championship in 2011. There are two signed Bill Russell jerseys in the back left corner, next to a signed Willie Mays.

An alcove in the house is filled with commemorative basketballs marking career milestones—one for Rookie of the Year in 1995, one for his 100th career triple-double, one for his 10,000th assist and one for his 10,000th point, which Kidd finds sort of amusing ("Yeah, didn't score a lot of points"), and one for each of his 10 All-Star appearances.

There are 60 basketballs in all, to go with the 33 jerseys in the garage. Kidd owns many more of each and says he'd happily display them all, "but I got vetoed," he says, chuckling. The rest are in storage somewhere.

Anyway, the Kidds might want to save room for the next memento, the next milestone, the next jersey. Industry sources believe at least six to eight teams—and perhaps as many as 10—will be hiring new head coaches this offseason, and Kidd will surely be in the mix.

He seems be part of a dying breed—the former player-turned-coach. Just nine of the league's 30 head coaches had significant NBA careers. Of that group, only Kidd ever made an All-NBA team—perhaps underscoring the concern that elite players do not always make for great coaches, because they're easily frustrated by their players' inability to do what they did.

With few exceptions, Kidd has improved every team he's joined. He made the New Jersey Nets an instant contender in 2001. He helped drive the Mavericks to their first title a decade later. He was the unifying force (and on-court coach) when the Knicks won 54 games in 2012-13—their only 50-win season of the new millennium.

The Nets' best season in Brooklyn came on Kidd's watch. The Bucks were effectively irrelevant before he arrived. Yes, the details are more complex and messy, but the results are consistently positive.

As much as he's enjoyed the downtime—taking his kids to school, attending Chance's hockey and baseball practices—Kidd is itching to return to the sideline, to teach, to coax, and hopefully to win a little more. He's eager to continue his evolution, understanding he'll make more mistakes along the way.

"You always can handle it better after the fact," he says. "But when you're in it, you're trying to find a way to win. That's the bottom line. You want to win, and you want to get your players better, on and off the floor. That's what I've been doing here for the last two months is just thinking about that and spending a lot of time with my family."

In a matter of days, Kidd expects to be announced as an inductee for the 2018 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class. He's already thinking about potential presenters (hint: they're all point guards).

Back in the yard, Chance is having trouble with a remote-controlled drone—which he wants to fly over the neighbor's house, to Kidd's chagrin—and asks Dad for help. Kidd fumbles with the controls for a moment, but the thing doesn't budge. At least the neighbors are safe.

As he walks his guest out, Kidd considers the path ahead and the many mistakes on the road behind him. He seems comfortable with all of it, understanding that his coaching journey won't be any different than his playing career, a series of fits and starts, moments of brilliance and elation interspersed with missteps and despair. It's just a process.

"Not a perfect player, not a perfect coach," he says. "All a work in progress. That's the truth of it. As much as we want to be perfect, or we see ourselves perfect, there's a lot of work to be done."

               

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and BR Mag. He also hosts the Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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