It’s been an eventful summer for new Brooklyn Nets coach Jason Kidd, as he’s made the unique transition from veteran player to rookie coach. The responsibilities of a coach are brand new to Kidd; he’s even perturbed at the idea of speaking with the media three times a day.
Kidd spent much of the summer shortening his learning curve. He spoke with some of the greats of coaching at a two-day clinic in Los Angeles. He studied under Phil Jackson and Pat Riley. He heard from San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers. He listened to Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel talk his team’s top-ranked defense. He reviewed last year’s Nets film, he’s taking baby steps with analytics, he’s working with his six-person assistant staff to make the transition as smooth as possible.
Kidd’s approach speaking with media — something he’s improved upon greatly since June — reminded me of Popovich in subtle ways. Kidd would talk about making the right play and finding the right shot, rather than zeroing in on one player. He took a shot at lazy analytics about the end of a close game, while saying the right thing about how to approach those situations: “The game of basketball is something that if you put five guys out there and draw up a play for one player, most of the time it’s not going to end up being that one player who takes a shot. He creates a problem which results in one of his teammates getting a wide open look and, make or miss, it’s the right basketball play at the end.”
That’s a very Popovich way to put it: make the right play, regardless of stats. (For the record, Kidd is also new to analytics, specifically how they relate to coaching. “It’ll be a part of our process of trying to win.”)
The Nets flamed out famously at the end of last season, losing a seven-game series to the decimated Chicago Bulls. The team made numerous changes after the loss, sending Gerald Wallace to the Celtics and Reggie Evans to the bench, replacing them with future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Even with the offensively deficient forwards, Kidd still took a shot at last year’s offense.
“It was just vanilla,” Kidd said of the roster last year. “I think you guys can see after the trade with Garnett and Pierce that it’s kind of changed. I think we’re doing the right thing and changing the identity. There was no flavor. So no identity. And now with that trade, it changes the whole game.”
Kidd sees this year’s team as more complete than last year’s Nets, a cohesive unit rather than an amalgam of individual talents looking for their own shot. He also thinks more about fitting players into roles instead of positions, another forward-thinking Popovich-style strategy. “What we’re trying to get to … is just basketball players that play the game. When the Celtics were winning, I don’t know if they ever called Bill Russell a center. They were just basketball. Then along came labeling the individual. We’re going to try to go against that and just have basketball players out there playing the game of basketball at a high level.”
Kidd, one of the best passers in NBA history, doesn’t see unselfishness as an issue with this roster, not with aging veterans who want to win a championship together. He doesn’t worry about the team being united under one common goal. “I think I’ll talk more about defense and then talk about being unselfishness, making the basketball play for a teammate,” Kidd said. There are players in that locker room whose makeup is to be unselfish, so I don’t know if I really have to preach it.”
That doesn’t mean that the Nets won’t run through their star. Williams will still spearhead the offense, poking and prodding to create for others. Lopez will still get touches in the post. What it does mean is that Kidd wants the Nets, like an NFL quarterback, to run through a series of options, rather than clear out for Joe Johnson or Paul Pierce.
But after a year of vanilla, if Kidd has his way, the team might finally have some flavor beyond the branding.