It was less than two years ago that Jason Kidd sat on a manufactured podium in the Barclays Center atrium, a smile as wide as his passing vision, basking in a round of applause from fans — and some media members — upon his official introduction as Brooklyn Nets coach. That day, it seemed like Kidd would be the face of the Brooklyn Nets for the next 20 years; between his status as a Nets legend, his youthfulness, and his extraterrestrial feel for the game, it seemed like a natural fit.
One June later, Kidd was roundly mocked for a clumsy power play, reportedly seeking a promotion from coach to executive over Nets general manager Billy King, and bolting for Milwaukee when he was rebuffed. Kidd’s coaching career with the Nets didn’t have a second act, though sometimes it felt like longer.
“My first year, I felt like it was five years in one,” Kidd said in his third trip back to Barclays Center. “The expectations we had coming into this season. You look at the marathon. Some like to come out of the gates to a sprint, and some might get off to a slow start.”
Yeah, and the Titanic had a slight leak. Less than one month into his coaching career, Kidd demoted his lead assistant, Lawrence Frank, to doing “daily reports,” banishing him from the bench during games. It all but ended Frank’s tenure with the team just a few months after Kidd led a public campaign to bring Frank on his staff. There were rumors that the front office thought about firing Kidd in December.
Oh, and the team won just 10 of its first 31 games, losing Brook Lopez for the season to a foot injury just before Christmas. By December 31st, the team was, like the Titanic, at the bottom of the Atlantic. Ratings were plummeting, and Kidd’s biggest move was spilling soda.
“I think it also just helps if sometimes things don’t go well,” Kidd added. “You find out the character of your guys.”
Sure enough, the Nets turned it around just as the year flipped from 2013 to 2014, coupling that 10-21 start with a 34-17 finish. Kidd’s quirky lineup fixes and his “active hands” defensive philosophy were integral to the switch. The team won a thrilling seven-game first-round series against the Toronto Raptors before falling in a tightly-played five-game series to the eventual champion Miami Heat.
“We started off slow here with a lot of high expectations, and some people might’ve forgot that there’s 82 games to be played, and that the season isn’t won or lost in November or December,” Kidd said. “We found our way into the playoffs, and won a big Game 7.”
Every step of the way, Kidd has won. He left Phoenix for New Jersey just as Phoenix’s ship began to sink and brought the Nets to two NBA Finals appearances. He bolted New Jersey when it was clear the team wasn’t gunning for a playoff spot anymore for a competitive Mavericks team. He left Dallas one season after their improbable title run got him his first championship ring. He retired from the Knicks just as they began their steep descent into the lottery. When it became clear the Nets were on the decline, he roughly doubled his contract and got a roster that fit his philosophy.
“For me, the Nets will always have a special place (in my heart), because I played,” Kidd said, declining to add the other, more recent thing he’d done with the Nets.
Now Kidd sits as the face of the Milwaukee Bucks, a team with more young talent than it knows what to do with, including “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo (20), former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams (24), all-around shooting guard Khris Middleton (24), rangy center John Henson (25), and talented post scorer Greg Monroe (25). The Nets signed a series of talented cast-offs this summer, so they’ve also got a lot of under-25 players. But the Bucks got to choose their talent, while the Nets had to.
The Nets couldn’t beat the Bucks even as Jabari Parker (20), the 2nd overall pick in 2014, couldn’t do anything but warm up. Parker, recovering from a torn ACL, went through a grueling pre-game workout with Bucks assistant coach Eric Hughes, who Kidd brought to and from the Nets with him. The Nets couldn’t beat the Bucks because, at least partially, Jason Kidd knew what was coming.
The Bucks will have growing pains. But that just means they’re growing. Without control of a draft pick until 2019, it’s not clear what the pains in Brooklyn are for. Two years ago, the basketball world laughed at Kidd. But as he’s shown time and time again, the last laugh belongs to him.