Jason Kidd was recently named the NBA’s Coach of the Month for January. It’s not that this is such a prestigious honor — you will remember the last Nets coach to receive the award, Avery Johnson, was fired shortly after winning it — but it’s a formal acknowledgement of the significant growth that Kidd has apparently undergone as he has tried to figure out how to run a basketball team for the first time.
A couple months ago, the Nets were the most underprepared and unimaginative team in the league, stumbling grimly through losing streaks and looking hapless in a way a squad of established stars and aging future Hall of Famers shouldn’t. Paul Pierce was saying that Kidd and his staff essentially weren’t making halftime adjustments and Lawrence Frank was being demoted ostensibly because he and Kidd didn’t agree on Frank’s job description. There were problems other than Kidd, certainly, but he seemed to have little idea what a good coach does and how he goes about doing it. His incompetency was a particularly pressing issue because it’s not as if he had taken over a rebuilding effort and was being given time to learn on the job. The Nets were supposed to compete for a title this year.
The Nets are currently seventh in the Eastern Conference, which speaks to how dreadful they were early in the season: They had to go 10-3 in January just to crawl out of the basement. It appears, though, that they’re finally ready to — if not compete for a title — then at least make some noise and perhaps wrest control of the Atlantic Division away from the Toronto Raptors.
It’s always difficult to distinguish where the credit begins and ends with coaches — because the simple reality is that players determine wins and losses more than anything — but the Nets have done a couple of scheme-related things that have improved their outlook. They are noticeably more fluid on offense. The team is not necessarily better off with Brook Lopez sitting on the bench injured, but his absence has helped Kidd figure out that playing Kevin Garnett at center and Pierce at the four creates a much more evenly spaced floor. He has discovered the usefulness of Shaun Livingston, a long guard who moves off the ball and passes well. The team has been solid defensively because Livingston and Joe Johnson are small forward-sized, which narrows passing lanes and means the Nets don’t fret about switching on the pick-and-roll.
All of this is good news for Brooklyn fans. Their old-but-not-untalented team is mercifully watchable. Kidd is also slowly becoming legible as a coach. When his hiring was announced, it was somewhat surprising, but I think the consensus among the NBA community was something along the lines of If any player can go straight into coaching, it’s probably Jason Kidd. I think we thought this because he was such an intelligent athlete — inventive enough to contribute in the NBA well past his physical prime. As Kidd’s disastrous start demonstrated, there’s a difference between being a coach on the floor and an actual coach. Being a crafty passer is not the same thing as constructing a fully functioning offense.
One of the most pleasurable things about watching the Nets this past month has been that you can see traces of Kidd’s personality in the way his team plays. Not directly, obviously — it’s not as if Deron Williams has learned how to rip the ball from opponents with bear-trap-strong hands — but in the sense that they feel experimental, and you’re not entirely sure they will play one night the same way they do the next. Kidd is fiddling with the knobs, testing the capabilities of his players and seeing how they fit together in various combinations. The Nets aren’t a great team, but they are no longer anywhere near the drabbest. That’s a serious accomplishment for Jason Kidd, who is just a half-season into a brand new career.