A New Old Leader

Well it’s official.  The greatest player ever to don a Nets uniform has just signed a 3-year deal to become the team’s 22nd head coach.  And don’t even mention Dr. J.  He played for the New York Nets of the ABA, but he’ll always be a 76er from that dirty city known as Philadelphia.  Sorry, Kidd is far and away the best Net ever.  When he arrived in New Jersey in 2001 the Nets were, at best, a laughing stock in the league.  In his first season alone, Kidd led New Jersey to a 52-30 record, 26 games better than the year prior, not to mention the first 50 win season in team history.  Not a bad start.  Although they failed to ultimately win an NBA title, the fact that Kidd was able to bring the Nets to back-to-back Finals is nothing short of astounding.  From 2001 to 2007 Jason Kidd turned the Nets into a legitimate contender, reaching the playoffs in each of the seasons, including 3 straight Atlantic titles from 2001/02-2003/04 with a 4th division title thrown in for good measure in the 2006/07 season.

Any of the about 200 Nets fans in this country, will always love Jason Kidd for his years as a player; and I expect that on opening night this coming season, before Kidd’s even coached a minute of real basketball, his number 5 will be raised to the rafters where it belongs.  But what does that mean going forward as Jason Kidd: coach?

As a player Kidd singlehandedly made the Nets relevant once; perhaps he can take them one step farther as head coach

As a player Kidd singlehandedly made the Nets relevant once; perhaps he can take them one step farther as head coach

First of all, I’m in favor of the hire, for reasons beyond simply his legacy as a player within the franchise.  Too often in professional, and even more so in major college sports, are coaches constantly recycled.  In some instances coaches who have failed with multiple teams in a variety of cities and markets continue to get jobs because of “coaching experience.”  It’s nice to see a guy be given a chance to show what he can do, even without the typical path of toiling away as an assistant, a path that doesn’t necessarily lead to a head coaching job (see: Ewing, Patrick).  Would I have preferred say, a George Karl?  Absolutely.  Karl has been an excellent head coach in the NBA, often getting more out of less than anyone else.  However, there is no guarantee that a guy like Karl and a guy like Deron Williams can see eye-to-eye.  Karl constantly butted heads with superstar Carmelo Anthony in Denver, which no doubt played a role in his eventual trade to the New York Knicks.   Equally, Williams infamously forced the great Jerry Sloan to resign his post with the Utah Jazz, and more recently got Avery Johnson fired in Brooklyn, despite his claims otherwise.  Karl, in all likelihood is better suited to coach a team without a diva superstar like Williams, and there was never really a suggestion that he even wanted the Net job to begin with.

From the minute Kidd announced his retirement earlier this month, it was no secret how badly he wanted the Net job.   Owner Mikhail Prokhorov could have emptied one of his 10,000 bank accounts to give Phil Jackson more money than all other NBA coaches combined.  But what’s the point of hiring a coach, as great as he may be, if his only real motivation is cash?  Jackson didn’t really want the job, but probably would have taken it for the right contact.  No thanks.  I’d rather take a chance on a rookie coach who actually wants the job and believes he can do it than a guy who could probably do it, but only for the right (insane) price.

Then of course, there’s the Williams factor.  Mentioned earlier, Williams has a bit of a reputation as a coach killer.  However, everything that I’ve read indicates that Williams idolizes Jason Kidd.  An issue with many major superstars in the NBA (and the other Big 4 as well) is an indifference to the past at best and blatant ignorance of it at worst.  Williams didn’t care about Sloan’s past successes in the league, and despite Johnson’s ring as a NBA PG, never believed that Johnson could teach him about the position.  Likely, in his mind Williams looked at Johnson and thought to himself, “I’m better than you at basketball, why should I listen to your coaching?”  Could something like that happen with Kidd?  I suppose.  But everything I’ve heard or read in the last few days seem to indicate that Williams has a genuine respect for Kidd, and recognizes that Kidd is one of the best to ever play the position.  I certainly think it’s worth a shot.  It’s a show-me time in Williams’ career.  Labeled as a coach killer and continually gaining a reputation as an underachiever, it’s time for Williams to take the next step or be lost to the history of good-but-not great selfish “superstars” the NBA sees come and go so often.

This is not to say that Kidd is without flaws.  He has quite a long list of them.  First of all, the fact that he was hired mere hours after he retired as a player from the Knicks is suspicious.  He walked away from $6 million the Knicks owed him when he retired, it’s certainly reasonable to think that he had an offer on the table to coach the Nets before making that decision; no one just “walks away” from $6 mil.  He too, like Williams, gained a reputation as a coach killer.  There are stories that he got his college coach fired, and he certainly got Byron Scott fired in order to bring in Lawrence Frank.  He’s bounced around the league more than a player of his caliber reasonably should have.  And of course, he’s had a multitude of off the court issues.  He’s been in court for domestic abuse and has had numerous incidents with alcohol and violence.  In fact, it’s the off-court issues that are the most worrisome aspect of this hire.  There is no doubt that Jason Kidd knows the game of basketball as good as anyone, and will likely have no problem with the in-game portion of the job.  However, his ability to handle the behind-the-scenes/off-court facets of the job remains to be seen.  Can he guide the other players, particularly Brook Lopez, to becoming better basketball players?  Can he set the right example as the team’s leader, or will he try to be too much of a teammate?  Obviously questions like these won’t be answered until the 2013-2014 NBA season is underway, but they’re serious concerns.

Kidd is far from perfect, with a long list of off the court foul-ups

Kidd is far from perfect, with a long list of off the court foul-ups

As of writing this, there is no deal with Lawrence Frank, but speculation and rumors continue to swirl that he will inevitably be brought in as an assistant under Kidd.  The two have a good relationship and Frank, unlikely to receive a head coach position going into next year, lives in NJ and word is he’d absolutely be open to being an assistant.  Frank can bring some of that “experience” that Kidd lacks and would likely be able to provide some much needed defensive guidance to the Nets.  Also, should Kidd struggle or fail as coach, Frank as an assistant would likely be able to step in as a replacement, giving him a path back to being a head coach again.  Still, though nothing is finalized, the idea of Kidd being backed up by Frank is appealing, and eases some of the concerns Kidd’s hire raises.

Kidd and Frank have had a good relationship, working together in Brooklyn could benefit both.

Kidd and Frank have had a good relationship, working together in Brooklyn could benefit both.

Ultimately, the hiring is a risk, but a reasonable one.  The Nets are married to Williams for better or worse.  Getting the best out of him is paramount, and there is sufficient reason to believe Kidd can do that.  Further, just this season, rookie head coaches Mark Jackson and Frank Vogel led their teams on successful playoff runs; a precedent that warrants giving Kidd a shot, even with a team that has high expectations.  Yes the risks go beyond the basketball court with Kidd, but his past transgressions shouldn’t bar him from the job absolutely, I know none of us would feel that way in our lines of work.  In the end, I probably would have preferred a proven great coach like a Karl or a Doc Rivers (if the Celtics had agreed to let them talk); but given the other options (Brian Shaw, Lionel Hollins, etc.); I’ll take the chance on a new guy rather than a mediocre retread.  Kidd is already the greatest player the franchise has ever had; now he’s got a chance to expand that legend if he can lead this franchise to a championship as a coach.  Sometime in late October/early November the #5 will be retired and raised to the ceiling, then Jason Kidd will return to the Nets bench now as head coach, and I for one, am all for it.