Culture of Hoops

Jason Kidd has a vision you should never doubt

Jason Kidd spends his life viewing possibilities and picking the most pragmatic path forward: on the basketball floor he’s always picked the path towards immortality while his personal life spiraled out of control, or behind the scenes accusations were brought to light – throughout his career, Kidd’s decision process always successfully ends with the future Hall of Famer better off today than yesterday.

His coaching career is destined to mirror his playing career, maybe not because his results will be excellent, but job security in an irrational coaching market could be more coveted than results.

Consider Mark Jackson – the Golden State Warriors entertained with the Splash Brothers, but lost to a superior Los Angeles Clippers team, earning Jackson his sacking. Point out if you will Jackson’s penchant for office squabbling yet no discussion of his performance should omit the positive results Golden State achieved during his tenure.

Consider also Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher – both debutant head coaches. Both men signed “too good to pass up” job offers while lacking significant coaching experience. If this sounds familiar, it’s the Kidd formula. Those deals dwarfed Kidd’s deal with the Brooklyn Nets, and a matter of professional pride ensued. Kidd is a first ballot Hall of Famer, possibly one of the best point guards ever, but Derek Fisher is a better coach? Pure speculation points to Kidd’s ego being unable to countenance a lesser player commanding a better deal in the same market; especially with that player (Fisher) having no relationship to the organization, except Phil Jackson, while Kidd is the player that launched the then New Jersey Nets from punchline to powerhouse. Fisher is many things, but he is not someone that has ever changed the trajectory of a franchise the way Kidd did with the Nets. One could even argue that Kidd’s years in New Jersey paved the way for the Nets to move to Brooklyn.

The Kerr and Fisher deals must have rankled Kidd; the next step would be to amass more power – or have an exit strategy.

No Sleep ‘til Brooklyn

The Nets and Kidd always appeared to be a great match. Kidd is respected by the team’s veterans and is an organizational legend. The backing of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov meant the Nets would be somewhat impervious to the financial restrictions that plague other teams – namely the Nets could load their roster with incredibly talented players, pay them market value and ignore the profligate spending deterrents such as the repeater tax. No other coach would have the yearly assurance of competitiveness the way Kidd possessed with the Nets. Prokhorov’s win-now mandate assured Kidd the Nets would not toil in mediocrity or endure a time-consuming rebuild.

When Kidd signed on to lead the Nets the move was lauded by the NBA commentariat and Kidd was in the ideal position to grow on the job and guide a winner. There is no other NBA coach that had this sort of safety net. Fisher and Kerr are expected to contend or build, but will lack either the resources or the patience the Nets seemingly provided Kidd.

Yet Kidd’s ambition was his greatest asset as a player, and to expect that ambition to discontinue as a coach is foolish. Kidd’s playing career is pocked with incidents of him conspiring to undermine coaches and general managers in order to win big. That Kidd believed he could do Nets general manager Billy King’s job better is probably the least surprising aspect of Brooklyn’s drama. The aftermath of the Nets season and prospects for the Nets future are not promising. The team is old, the contracts are immovable, and relief through the draft is not coming (Danny Ainge, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce took care of that). The onus on keeping the Nets plausibly competitive falls to King.

King’s time with the Philadelphia 76ers is notable because of Allen Iverson. Those Sixers teams were scrappy, but unable to play with the skill a player of Iverson’s caliber needed in order to win. Short of an inspiring NBA Finals run in 2001. The famous “We’re talkin’ about practice” era saw the dismissal of Larry Brown, notable trades to acquire an aging Dikembe Mutombo, a similarly over the hill Chris Webber, getting next to nothing for Allen Iverson in the Nuggets trade, a coaching revolving door, and famous rebuffs by Jeff Van Gundy and Eddie Jordan.

The transactional history of Billy King is littered with underwhelming trades and signings. King’s drafting success is limited to Andre Iguodala, after that his best picks are Louis Williams, Samuel Dalembert and Kyle Korver. It’s probably a good thing he traded those picks for Pierce and Garnett. A look at the Nets current contract situation demonstrates the limits King has to add quality help for Deron Williams and Brook Lopez. Next year’s cap projects to be $63 million with the repeater tax at $77 million – the Nets exceed this total by $11 million. Combine that total with money that could very well be spent to bring back Pierce and the Nets’ financial projections are even bleaker.

The dictum of win now combined with Billy King’s career of questionable personnel decisions does not make the Nets a pillar of the Eastern Conference. This same team beat the Miami Heat every game in the regular season then meekly succumbed in the playoffs. There’s no arguing with a philosophy that is built around contending and winning, but the Nets have taken no moves over the past year indicative of a team looking to improve in order to win. Their moves are quick fixes aimed to maintain the status quo and hopefully catch lightning in a bottle.

If a team has the institutional advantages the Nets possess (unlimited ownership money, great market) a prudent course of action is to spend money on players that will help over the long term. The stop-gap solutions are proven not to work; some GMs have an ability to find the right player for a season or two. King has proven in Philadelphia and now in Brooklyn that he has the ability to trade too much for players that produce too little and are too old.

Kidd experienced learning on the job with a roster that would be, at best, the fourth seed in the East. He also knew that the plan for the next couple of seasons was bereft of better solutions. Always the analytical type, Kidd honestly believed he could do a better job than King. Based on King’s track record, Kidd’s unyielding self-belief is not unfounded – rather it seems plausible that an organization willing to cast its lot with a rookie coach is willing to give that same coach power over personnel – especially when that coach pressed all the right buttons during the second half of the season.

Of course, the Nets refused to grant Kidd such sweeping powers and thus cast their lot with King – a GM that over 14 years has one division title, one conference title, eight playoff appearances and no Executive of the Year Awards, instead of a future Hall of Fame player famous for his ability to see what no one else saw on the court.

Hello, Wisconsin

Of course Kidd hedged his bet – a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Kidd knew Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry and only they know the content of the conversations in getting Kidd to the Bucks.

The facts about the Bucks are stark and upon further examination leave one bereft of optimism for the direction of the franchise. The BMO Harris Bradley Center is the NBA equivalent of a dungeon, the team finished
worse than a team that was actively throwing the season (the Sixers), a new ownership group bought the team and surely many in Milwaukee are feeling uneasy about their roles going forward. Aside from Giannis Antetokounmpo the roster is probably less exciting than the one featured at UW-Milwaukee. The Bucks at least can say to their fans, “At least we’re not the Sixers, we’re just inept!”

Then there’s Larry Drew. Karma is a funny thing. Drew is a horrible coach. This is not said lightly. After greasing Mike Woodson’s skids, Drew presided over an Atlanta operation that showed no heart in the playoffs – multiple times. The Bucks with Drew in charge of tactics and lineups managed to finish worse than the Sixers. Drew is such a terrible coach that his team was actually worse than a team designed to be awful. A new ownership group comes in, has a plan to rebuild the team and expects these players to develop with a coach as bereft of ability as Larry Drew? That’s completely illogical.

Enter Jason Kidd. Snaking the Bucks from a horrible coach is a dastardly thing to do; the NBA is nothing if not Machiavellian. Perhaps the best example of Kidd’s behavior is Pat Riley. His fax lives in infamy amongst Knickerbockers fans.

Aside from the ownership familiarity, the Bucks present options that exist with few other franchises. The chance to reboot the team and climb out from the image of Milwaukee as NBA hell is enticing for a coach who has ideas about legacy. Kidd always aspired to be an all-time great player and transitioning to a coaching standpoint his ambition remains the same. Greatness never settles for mediocrity.

Basketball in Milwaukee is on life support. Adam Silver stated the BMO Harris Bradley Center is not fitting of an NBA franchise, and the NBA imposed a deadline in 2017 for the Bucks to have a new arena under construction or relocate. The current payroll stands at a cap friendly amount of $45 million yet the payroll is bereft of talent save for the mercurial Larry Sanders and the Greek Freak. However, the Bucks present options for any coach looking to establish a legacy.

Kidd was frustrated by Lawrence Frank, Andray Blatche and seemingly the hopeless roster construction of the Nets. In order to establish a legacy in Brooklyn, Kidd would need to weather the roster’s inevitable decline and hope the personnel arriving would eclipse the talent of the personnel departing. Milwaukee has no fears – because the roster is lacking in dynamic NBA talent, anyone who arrives is immediately an upgrade over the current brigade of Bucks.

Khris Middleton led the team in minutes played and Brandon Knight was the only player to score more than 1,000 points. Only four players appeared in more than 55 games (Knight, Middleton, Henson and the Greek Freak), and their ages are 22, 23 and 19. The high amount of playing experience at an NBA level is desirable, but the effect of players so young on leading a team amounts to being worse than the Sixers.

The Bucks major signing coming into last season was O.J. Mayo – he appeared in roughly 50 games, a complete disappointment. The highest paid players are Sanders and Mayo at $19 million total. The team may have been atrocious, but the salary flexibility in Milwaukee is to be envied. The biggest albatross is Ersan Ilyasova’s deal (7.9 million this upcoming season and next season, with an 8.4 million team option the following year) and depending on the contender interested in a decent bench player for the stretch run next season, he could find himself in a different color than the Bucks’ hunter green.

Then add Jabari Parker to a front line with Larry Sanders and John Henson. If Sanders keeps himself out of trouble and Henson translates all those minutes played into meaningful experience, then Milwaukee has a front line developing into one of the better triumvirates in the Eastern Conference. Kidd’s expertise is the backcourt, surely he can work with Knight and Mayo, add players like The Greek Freak and Middleton then suddenly this team will not be contenders overnight, but could play compelling basketball.

Kidd also will not accept anything less than the best from his players. He shrewdly handled the Andray Blatche situation, erasing any doubt that players will be held to standards. This is needed in Milwaukee as Drew has a history of allowing players to give less than their best (especially in playoff series against the Orlando Magic). Kidd also turned the Nets around in the second half of the season. The Bucks need a much larger turnaround than a 41-game sample size.

Kidd to Milwaukee makes more sense in that Kidd has an owner that seems to truly believe in his abilities; Prokhorov, King’s impetus for signing Kidd to coach, seemed to be an inject-life-into-the-franchise style move. They empowered Kidd by hiring Lawrence Frank (at Kidd’s request) and immediately the discord between Kidd and Frank was put forth for public consumption. The soap opera of Sodagate and the general haphazardness of the Nets’ first half of the season indicates the front office may suffer from leaks and other internal chemistry issues that could submarine a coach.

In Milwaukee, Kidd’s situation is one that promises him to have a voice in the front office and the ownership group wants him to coach because they respect his abilities – not because they’re trying to compete for ink against the Milwaukee Brewers or Green Bay Packers. All coaches have involvement in player acquisitions (to pretend that they don’t is ludicrous, although when coaches get overruled and whine they like to play the “no one asked me” card) and Kidd will be no different. Furthermore, Kidd has a young, malleable roster and no immediate pressure to win big. He can grow as a coach the way his team will grow as players. This was the formula the Boston Celtics used with Doc Rivers – a man now considered to be one of the best minds in the NBA.

Kidd’s selfishness created a certainly embarrassing situation for the Nets and Bucks alike, but the logic in his thinking is not impeachable. He is moving to a team seemingly less chaotic and with a higher future upside than the one he left. How many of us have left jobs because we found a better fit somewhere else? I thought so.

Feature Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

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