After a practice at the Team USA training camp in Las Vegas before the 2008 Olympics, Jason Kidd sat in the first row of the bleachers and talked about Chris Paul and Deron Williams, who were sitting on the opposite side of the court.
At age 35, Kidd knew he would get limited playing time in the Olympics because of Paul (23 at the time) and Williams (24), who were extraordinarily talented although each still had much to learn.
Kidd played the part of the mentor and did it well. He would make suggestions without preaching, encouraging Paul and Williams to expand their games.
“I usually don’t say much unless they ask,” Kidd said. “But I have told both of them that it would be good to concentrate more on rebounding, and I also have tried to get them to make longer downcourt passes. If you see the whole court, you can sometimes really advance the ball fast by throwing the longer pass.”
That was Kidd as a player – always seeing the whole court, always looking ahead, always advancing the basketball. Little did we know that a mere nine days after retiring, Kidd would advance his career in a way that perhaps only he could imagine.
Kidd campaigned for and secured not only his first NBA coaching job, but also his first coaching job of any kind when he was hired by the Brooklyn Nets. He was unemployed only a little more than 200 hours, for those of you who are counting. It was by far the most impressive fast break of his career.
Although most of the publicity has been about Kidd returning the Nets, where he demonstrated his Hall of Fame greatness by getting perennial sad-sack New Jersey to two NBA Finals, there is a large dose of irony in his first job being with a team with excellent players and championship potential.
The last non-interim Nets head coach was Avery Johnson, who was fired during the season and replaced temporarily by P.J. Carlesimo. Johnson distinguished himself in 2008 by privately telling a number of people, “Jason Kidd is finished.” When the Mavericks acquired Kidd from the Nets in February 2008 for Devin Harris and two No. 1 picks (other players were involved but they were primarily throw-ins), Johnson was all for the trade.
But after Kidd arrived, Johnson discovered something very troubling – the Mavericks were a much better team with Kidd dictating the pace, the plays and the entire offense than they were running Johnson’s system. And for Johnson, who despite being an ex-player turned out to be a rigid head coach, the system was supreme.
Johnson quickly developed a disdain for Kidd and not only had him slow down the offense, but also look to the sidelines after almost every exchange of possessions to see what play Johnson called. When asked later if during his 29 games under Johnson, he had looked to the sidelines for a play call more than the rest of his career combined, Kidd said: “That’s fair.”
There was also a humorous story related by a friend of Kidd’s after that season. During his career, Kidd had been accused of being a “coach killer,” a label he found irritating. When Johnson was fired by the Mavericks, Kidd told a friend during the summer: “They can’t blame that one on me. When I got there, the players all thought he was crazy. And he was.”
Johnson’s inability to change – and the fact that he had worn the players out with his harangues – led to his firing in Dallas after the 2007-08 season. And as it turned out, he was slightly off in his assessment of Kidd, who played five more years and was a key player in the Mavericks’ 2011 championship. Dirk Nowitzki is, no doubt, the franchise but as Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said after the Mavericks defeated LeBron and the Heat, “Jason’s Kidd’s DNA is all over this thing.”
So Kidd’s surprising hiring as head coach six months after Johnson was fired is bursting with irony, although you have to figure Avery probably does not appreciate it that much.
In one respect, Kidd’s coaching career will start off just like Johnson’s – with an excellent team. Don Nelson handed Johnson a team that won 58, 60 and 67 games in Johnson’s first two-plus seasons as head coach.
Kidd takes over a Brooklyn team that features Williams, his Olympic teammate, a 17-point career scorer in Joe Johnson, a true center in Brook Lopez (who averaged 19 points and 7 rebounds last season) and, of course, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce — not to mention Andrei Kirilenko as Sixth Man.
The two veteran Celtics were acquired in a trade and while they are 37 and 35, respectively, they understand how to fit into a team, how to win a championship, how to motivate, and if necessary, they still have the ability to carry a team for short stretches.
With such an accomplished group, it becomes even more surprising that Kidd managed to talk his way into his first job. You have to figure that when a coach like George Karl, whose 1,131 victories are the sixth most in NBA history, is available, it might be a good idea to hire him.
But Kidd has always seen the whole court, adjusted on the fly, and created something when it seemed nothing was available. Unlike Johnson, Kidd doesn’t thing he’s the smartest guy in the room, and his hiring of Lawrence Frank, who was once his coach with the Nets, to be his veteran assistant was a crafty move.
During his 19 NBA years, Kidd made remarkable plays, always seeing something no one else could see, making passes no one else would attempt and making shots that a career 40 percent shooter had no right to make.
Now he has a job that no one expected him to get. And while he was a great player, there is nothing to suggest that those skills will translate to him being a good bench coach or motivator of players.
As Avery Johnson can tell you, however, it is a mistake to dismiss Jason Kidd too early.
His history suggests that he is very likely to do a better job than we think he will.
CHECK OUT JAN HUBBARD’S ARCHIVE FROM SHERIDAN HOOPS.COM. TERRIFIC STUFF ON THE NBA, PAST AND PRESENT.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.