Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Jason Kidd: The Player Coach

When Jason Kidd took over as the coach of the Brooklyn Nets, the outrage was palpable. Unlike former players like Brian Shaw and Patrick Ewing, Kidd never paid his dues as an assistant. He went directly from playing to running an NBA team, almost as if he were thumbing his nose at the very idea of coaching experience. Everything he needed to know as a coach, Kidd seemed to be saying, came from his 20 years as an NBA player.

And while most new coaches are given young or rebuilding teams with little chance of winning right away, Kidd received the type of cushy job that veteran coaches think they are entitled too - taking over a 49-win team with a $100 million payroll that had expectations of winning immediately. 

The moment that everyone remembers from those first few weeks was the infamous soda incident, when Kidd was captured on camera telling reserve guard Tyshawn Taylor to knock over his cup during a stoppage in play. The Nets were out of timeouts in the final minute and Kidd needed to draw up a play, which the time needed to clean up the mess would allow him to do. He was eventually fined by the league and widely blasted for his unprofessional conduct:

It was something no other coach in the league would have done. Kidd was bending the rules in an almost ludicrous fashion, doing everything in his power to help his team win. As a Mavericks fan, my mind instantly went to a play he made against Mike Woodson in a regular-season game in 2010:

I've watched a lot of NBA basketball in my life and I've seen a ton of coaches walk onto a court, but I've never quite seen anything like that. Jason Kidd thinks the game at such a high level that he sees things no one else does. He's a ruthless competitor who will do whatever it takes to win, even if it means stepping on other people's toes - literally, in the case of Woodson.

With the Nets struggling to integrate all their new players in the first month of the season and the media circus around the team escalating, Kidd knew he needed to do something to let everyone know that he was the one in charge. Many people seemed to believe he was nothing but an empty suit being used by Mikhail Prokhorov to sell tickets while Lawrence Frank, his former coach with the Nets, was the one doing all the actual coaching.

That's where the infamous daily reports came from. Kidd felt that Frank was undermining his authority so he laid down the law and banished him from the team. However, Frank was still drawing a paycheck and Kidd wanted his basketball insight, so he made him write book reports about the Nets and other teams. Did he read all of them? Probably not. However, I'm sure he perused them from time-to-time and it's not like Frank could complain, given how much money he was making to be a glorified blogger.

For most people around the league, including the many who wanted Kidd to fail, this was further proof of his inability to manage people or handle all the demands of an NBA head coaching job, especially in a market like Brooklyn. What it reminded me of was a scene from the American version of The Office, when Jim becomes a regional manager and has to deal with an unruly employee (Ryan) who doesn't respect his new authority:

Don't get it twisted, Kidd was saying. Just because I got a promotion at a young age that you may not think I deserve, don't think I'm scared for a second to exercise my authority. I am the boss and you will respect my decisions or I'm going to have your ass writing daily reports too.

The Nets, meanwhile, quietly became one of the most interesting teams in the league over the second half of the season, finding a new identity without Brook Lopez. Kidd's fingerprints were all over the resurgence - there was no coach in the NBA who was more inventive and more fearless with how he deployed his line-ups, starting Paul Pierce at PF and running a ton of stuff through Shaun Livingston, even though he was one of the lowest paid players on the team. Brooklyn became a bizarre hybrid of a 4-out team, using waves of similarly-sized 6'6+ players around Kevin Garnett and Mason Plumlee at the 5. They had one of the best records in the league over the second half of the season and they wound up upsetting the Toronto Raptors in a tightly-fought seven-game series, a victory that looks all the more impressive considering how well Toronto has played this season.

Their run ended with a 5-game loss to the Heat in the second round. The Nets just couldn't close out LeBron James, who took over several games in the fourth quarter and sent them home. It was a disappointing outcome for a team that started the season with as many expectations as Brooklyn, but it was hard to pin any of that on Kidd, who had dealt with a ton of adversity and gotten the absolute most out of his players. For all the mockery he had endured, he had established himself as an NBA coach.

If he was any other coach in the league, Kidd would have re-dedicated himself to the Nets in the off-season, eager to improve on his debut. Brooklyn wasn't seen as a title contender, but they were returning more than enough talent to be a factor in the East and their size and experience meant few would want to face them in a playoff series. However, if you look at the actions of a lot of the veterans associated with the team this off-season, you can see that something was up - Paul Pierce left for Washington and Shaun Livingston left for Golden State.

It reminded me of something I heard during the 2012-2013 season, one of the only times the Mavs missed the playoffs in Dirk Nowitzki's tenure with the team - the players always know. Once you have played in the NBA long enough, you get a pretty good feel for what the guys on your team can and can't do, especially after a few weeks of practices. Cuban eventually told the media that Dirk called him very early in the season and told him that it wouldn't work, something we didn't figure out for a few months. Interestingly enough, Kidd had backed out of a deal to re-sign with the Mavs that off-season, almost as if he knew that the party was over. Jason Kidd is living proof of the saying that you can't shit a shitter.

When Kidd was traded from the Brooklyn Nets to the Milwaukee Bucks this summer, the story was that it was the result a failed power play for GM Billy King's job. Kidd, a habitual line-stepper, had finally stepped over the wrong line and was banished from the Big Apple to basketball Siberia for his trouble. Even worse, his machinations resulted in Larry Drew losing his job in Milwaukee, further sullying his reputation. Kidd was a no good very bad man that the Nets would not miss.

Six weeks into the season, it might be time for us to take a second look at what happened. Under Kidd's leadership, the Bucks have been one of the most surprising teams in the league, sitting at the No. 6 seed out East despite starting two under-20 players. The Nets, meanwhile, have been one of the disappointing, a game behind their old coach in the standings and hanging on to the No. 8 seed. It bottomed out this week, when Billy King announced that their three best players - Lopez, Williams and Joe Johnson - were all on the market.

Once again, Kidd was one step ahead of everyone else, getting out of town before everything went south. If he had stayed in Brooklyn, he would have had the thankless job looming ahead for Lionel Hollins, who will have to keep the team competitive as they try to rebuild on the fly. It's the type of situation that ends up getting a coach fired, something Kidd well understood. Instead, he gets to coach one of the most up-and-coming young teams in the Eastern Conference. It's almost as if he wanted to be fired by the Nets so that he could coach the Bucks!

Like Pierce and Livingston, Kidd could see the writing on the wall. The New York media had it completely backwards. It wasn't that Kidd needed a job from the Bucks because he was fired by the Nets - Kidd was fired from the Nets because he wanted a job from the Bucks. In essence, he had a better offer waiting him, but first he needed to get fired from his existing job. If that sounds familiar, it's because it was ripped directly off a plot from Seinfeld, when George Costanza is trying to get fired from the New York Yankees.

I really want to leave my mark. I want to walk away from the Yankees with people saying, "Wow. Now that guy got canned."

When you look at it that way, the stunt that Kidd pulled this summer was one of the most glorious moments in the history of employee-management relations. What would you do if you had to get fired from your job? Kidd told his boss (Billy King) what he really thought of him and he tried to get him fired. King isn't the worst GM in the world, but he isn't the best either and Kidd (like any coach in his situation) would have every right to believe that he would do a better job of picking the players. If you have ever had a boss whom you thought was kind of an idiot, how could you not appreciate that?

Once you look at things from Kidd's POV, everything else that happened this summer makes a lot more sense. What people in Brooklyn think of the new coach of the Milwaukee Bucks matters not at all. What they think of the Nets management matters a great deal. Brooklyn could hardly afford to say that their coach got a better job, could they? When things are being leaked to the media, the first thing you want to ask is cui bono, who benefits?

Kidd has proved his worth to the Bucks almost immediately, as there was no one picking them to even contend for the playoffs, much less be ahead of a team with as many big names as the Nets. If you watch his teams for any length of time, you can see that Kidd has an intuitive feel for the game and he knows exactly what he is doing. How can you tell that? By looking at how he manages his rotation.

The Bucks made a big change in their starting line-up a few weeks ago, one that should benefit them both this season and going forward.

They went from this:

PG - Brandon Knight
SG - Jared Dudley/OJ Mayo
SF - Jabari Parker
PF - Ersan Ilyasova
C - Larry Sanders

To this:

PG - Knight
SG - Mayo
SF - Giannis
PF - Jabari
C - Sanders

They started the season with Jabari Parker at the 3, but it wasn't a great fit for his game. At 6'8 250, he's a huge guy without the quickness you would expect from an elite perimeter player. As a big SF, he was constantly having to create offense against smaller players or trying to put them on the block, which is not the most efficient way for a young guy to score. Instead, what Kidd quickly realized was that Jabari would be best as a small PF, spreading out the floor for other guys and using his advantage as a quicker player to try and get around slower big men.

That, in a nutshell, is what coaching is, at least on the NBA level. It's figuring out how to deploy your players in a way that allows them to succeed. From the POV of a player like Kidd, the main job of a coach is to figure out his rotation and get the best players on the floor. If you have the right mix, everything else will figure itself out. These guys are grown men playing a children's game - they know what's happening on the floor and it isn't rocket science.

There's a lot of time and energy spent on Basketball Twitter dissecting the minutiae of coaching, the arrows and the squiggly lines that indicate where a player is supposed to be in a given coaching scheme. There are a few certain philosophical underpinnings to how and why players should be on certain parts of the floor, but once you clear that bar, it becomes less about the lines on a diagram and more about the players running those lines.

That's why I hate this idea that certain coaches are "defensive masterminds". There are coaches who emphasize defense and who play defensive-minded players, but if they don't have the guys who can carry out their assignments, none of the other stuff matters. Personnel dictates scheme - scheme does not dictate personnel.

If you have the personnel of the Memphis Grizzlies, a coach better be able to have them playing elite defense. If not, he will get fired and the FO will bring in someone who can. Lionel Hollins, the guy who replaced Jason Kidd, is a good coach and he was a really good coach in Memphis. The Grizzlies fired him and the team went right on winning. Hollins is good at his job, but you can hire his assistant (Dave Joerger) and he can do about as good a job too. A coach either has the players or he doesn't and he can be fired at a moment's notice.

The most important thing for a coach is having the right players. If you aren't in a situation to succeed, you won't. That's what Hollins is finding out in Brooklyn - he may have just walked into a trap. It's hard to blame him for taking the job since he had had been out of the league for over a year, but if you wait for jobs until they are open, you may not end up with a lot of opportunities for good jobs. Kidd saw that he had a bad job and he went out and found a better one.

Sometimes, the only way to win is to put the pieces back in the box and play a new game.

At the start of every season, the front office gives the coach a bunch of pieces and tells him to figure it out. Most coaches will play the guys the way the front office wants them to be played and they will defer to older and more experienced players. Kidd takes the pieces, he throws them on the board and if he doesn't like them, he is changing them quickly. How many coaches would have tried Paul Pierce at the 4? Not many and they certainly wouldn't have done it as quickly as Kidd. Once you do that, you have done about all you can do as a coach.

A lot of coaches would look at an under-performing line-up and think it's a matter of getting the guys to execute better. That was one of my main take-aways from the 2012 NBA Finals, the first I covered for RealGM. After Game 2, I asked Scott Brooks whether he had any thoughts of switching his starting line-up, due to how much they had been struggling at the start of the game:
Yet, instead of focusing on the match-up difficulties Spoelstra's adjustment gave his team in the first quarter, Scott Brooks pinned their slow start on intangibles: "I just think we were missing shots. We didn't come out with the defensive toughness, the disposition that we need to play with. We have to do that first, and then if it doesn't work, we'll think about [changing our starting line-up]".
Brooks is a former player but he thinks like a coach. He never changed the line-up - he just watched his team lose four straight games. His first, second, third and apparently fourth thought is always I can coach these guys better, we can tweak this or that or get them playing with more togetherness or whatever. I can do some coaching and make it work. Kidd still thinks like a player. He knows there's only so much good he can do for those guys on the floor. Sometimes, they just aren't good enough. If you have to coach those guys, you are going to lose.

This all goes back to Kidd being able to see the game at a really high level. He has developed a philosophical worldview about basketball, one that doesn't necessarily depend on results to validate it. He has models in his head for how the game will go and he can plug in new information to those models and come up with answers faster than anyone else. That's what allows him to be 2-3 steps ahead of most of the league, particularly the media. He can look at a roster and tell you what's going to happen before it does, just from his feel for the game.

How else would you explain him walking away from the Dallas Mavericks in 2012, the New York Knicks in 2013 and the Brooklyn Nets in 2014? The Mavs were coming off a first-round loss while the Knicks and Nets were coming off second-round losses. The next season, Dallas and New York missed the playoffs and Brooklyn looks well on their way too doing that, especially if they end up trading some of their best players. Jason Kidd knew the game was up before anyone else and he got out while the getting was good.

Where that rubs people the wrong way is that it shows a lack of loyalty to management. However, Kidd is well aware that management has no loyalty. The NBA is a bottom-line business and every coach and every player is constantly fighting for his place in the league. If you don't produce, you will be fired. Management doesn't owe you a damn thing.

The reverse, then, has to be true. If a player or a coach can get himself in a better situation, he owes it to himself to do it. If he wants to depend on the intelligence and kind-heartedness of management, he's not going to survive. Once management fires Lionel Hollins in Brooklyn, is he going to get another job as a head coach? Probably not. That's what he gets for being a good solider - to be run off at the peak of his success in Memphis and then given a much worse team so that everyone can blame him for their lack of success.

A guy with Kidd's basketball IQ knows full well that most basketball games are won or lost before the ball is ever tipped. That's what happened this summer - Kidd looked at the board and realized the only way he was going to win was to get new pieces. Maybe it means he's not the nicest guy in the world and maybe he owes an apology to Larry Drew, but owners and GMs fire guys all the time and no one complains. Billy King wanted to be able to blame Jason Kidd for whatever happened to the Nets this season and Kidd wasn't going to sit there and take the fall for someone else's mistakes.

Jason Kidd wins basketball games. It's in his nature. He has no time for losing and he's not going to be associated with a loser. He's a basketball nomad whose won, and won big, at every place he has been. And with Kidd coaching two guys with as much upside as Giannis and Jabari, my guess is the Bucks end up winning big too. Think of the difference in where his coaching career could be after five years with Milwaukee's two young stars than where it would be if he had to watch the Nets age in front of his eyes for a few years and then get fired. If you knew what Kidd knew, you would have to be crazy to stay in Brooklyn.

Everyone acts like being the first rat off a sinking ship is a bad thing, but rats know they can't stop a ship that be sinking. All they can try to do is try to survive. It's not their fault they can see the iceberg coming before anyone else.

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