NBA

NBA Sunday: Jason Not Kidding Around

After 50 games, is Jason Kidd being overlooked as a Coach of the Year Candidate?

Moke Hamilton profile picture
Updated 12 months ago on
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From the beginning, there were doubts.

On the court, he was always more of a lead-by-example type who galvanized his teammates not with his riveting words or spirited diatribes, but by his deeds.

And the challenge that Jason Kidd immediately faced when the Brooklyn Nets tapped him to become the 22nd coach in franchise history was not only how to motivate his team, but how to motivate a team chock full of veteran players whose only goal was to win a championship.

Over the course of his single season as the coach in Brooklyn, Kidd had his ups and downs and learned quite a bit.

Now, he has taken those lessons to Milwaukee.

In Milwaukee, Kidd entered a situation where he didn’t need to be overly concerned with expectations or with players who have been there and done that tuning him out. Instead, he has found himself properly cast and in the best possible situation. Like Scotty Brooks once upon a time, Kidd has found himself with a young nucleus of players under no immediate pressure to seriously compete.

But as usual, Kidd has surpassed those minuscule expectations, leading his Bucks to one of the more improbable turnarounds we have seen in recent memory.

In Milwaukee, as the leader of his young team, Kidd has admirably pulled the best out of his still-figuring-it-out youngsters, even without Jabari Parker.

You could use a lot of adjectives to describe that, but instead, we will use a noun.

How does “Coach of the Year” sound?

——

The Atlanta Hawks will enter play on February 1 with the league’s best record. The franchise-best 19-game winning streak that is intact as of February 1 leaves them on the verge of becoming just the fifth team in NBA history to win as many as 20 games, consecutively.

Out West, the Golden State Warriors will enter play on February 1 atop the mighty Western Conference and have only recently yielded the league’s top record to the Hawks. Considering the ultra-competitive level of play out West, any team that competes out there and finishes the regular season with the top record in the league warrants special recognition, and here, we will not withhold any of that.

So, with all due respect to Mike Budenholzer and Steve Kerr—a second-year and first-time head coach who have seemingly defied odds and have their teams leading their respective conferences, we pose a very difficult question:

Do either deserve the honor of being named the NBA Coach of the Year more than Kidd?

The answer to that question, obviously, depends on exactly how you define the Coach of the Year. In fact, the overall subjectivity for all of the NBA’s awards and designations are what make for such spirited discourse, year after year.

What does it mean to be the “Most Valuable Player?”

Is the sudden edict to “reward winning” really just an invention of the post-Allen Iverson era in which the overall value attributed to a player who makes a hefty individual contribution goes largely undervalued and overlooked?

What does it mean to be an “All-Star?”

Do you have to belong to a winning team to be an All-Star? Do you have to appear in the gross majority of your team’s games to qualify? Kevin Durant failed in each instance, but that didn’t stop the Western Conference coaches from voting him into the midseason classic over the likes of Damian Lillard.

On that, the outrage is quite justifiable. For as long as many of us can remember, the NBA All-Star voting system has been flawed, to say the least. What is supposed to be an honor for some of the game’s brightest and most deserving has become a parade a popularity to which, apparently, even the league’s coaches are susceptible.

But unlike All-Stars, selected members of the media vote for the Coach of the Year.

After about 50 games, it is fair to ponder how many votes Kidd deserves to receive.

——

With Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett joining Paul Pierce in the Summer of 2007, the Boston Celtics pulled off the league’s biggest single-season turnaround in history. One year after finishing the 2006-07 season with a 24-58 record, the Celtics ended the 2007-08 season with a record of 66-16—a win increase of 42. They would go on to win the NBA Finals and complete a storybook turnaround.

Way back, during the 1996-97 season, the San Antonio Spurs had been snakebitten and plagued with a myriad of injuries to key players. They would end up at just 20-62. They would go on to win the 1997 NBA Draft Lottery, which many dubbed “the Tim Duncan sweepstakes.” The following year, Duncan and David Robinson helped to lead the Spurs to a 56-26—a win increase of 36.

Still, Kidd himself is no stranger to single-season turnarounds and maybe it is from that experience that he has drawn to connect with some of his players. After being traded from the Phoenix Suns to the New Jersey Nets in July 2001, Kidd was the primary catalyst behind the 26-game win increase the Nets experienced immediately following his arrival. Before Kidd, in the 2000-01 season, the Nets managed to go 26-56. With him, the following year, they ended the regular season 52-30 and would eventually go on to win the Eastern Conference.

Yes, Kidd has probably drawn on his experiences in the past. When he took over the helm of the Bucks after his tenure as the head coach in Brooklyn abruptly ended, he probably told his team about the last time he found himself joining a floundering franchise. It was way back in 2001, after the Suns had traded Kidd to the New Jersey Nets for a package headlined by Stephon Marbury.

Within minutes of checking into his hotel room in Rutherford, New Jersey—just hours after leaving his family behind in Phoenix—head coach Byron Scott called Kidd and told him that he was not only being named captain of the team, but that he would have to address his teammates. Scott wanted Kidd to not only tell his teammates that they could achieve highly, but to actually go out there and achieve highly.

So Kidd worked meticulously with Kerry Kittles and Keith Van Horn. He learned their strengths and weaknesses as ball players and learned where they liked the ball and how to best feed them for scores. He was in Kenyon Martin’s ear incessantly, coaching the former number one overall pick and assuring him that he could be a force among the league’s power forwards.

It was impossible to argue with the results then, just like it is now.

The Bucks are probably not championship contenders, but it has been quite easy to overlook the fact that they ended the 2013-14 season with the league’s worst record of 15-67. The Bucks would end up adding Parker to a young core that was struggling to find its way, but would only get 25 games out of him before his rookie season abruptly ended when he tore the Anterior Cruciate Ligament in his left knee on December 15.

Yet, somehow, amazingly, the Bucks enter play on February 1 at 25-22. They are the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference and just four games behind the fourth-seeded Chicago Bulls.

On December 29, the Bucks got their 16th win of the season, surpassing last season’s win total.

They have done so while featuring mostly the same cast of characters that played last season under head coach Larry Drew. Natural progression often helps young teams improve over time, but no team has ever reached its potential without a capable head coach leading it—just ask Stan Van Gundy and his Detroit Pistons.

The Bucks are currently on pace to end the regular season with a 44-38 record and if that holds, they will have added 29 wins to their win total from last season. That would represent a monumental turnaround.

As the Hawks attempt to make history and the Warriors continue to dominate their conference, it’s imperative to recall that the Warriors were good before Kerr and that Budenholzer not only coached these Hawks last year, but that they were also rounding into form and becoming a solid team with Al Horford before he tore his right pectoral muscle.

Kerr and Budenholzer each took over rosters that everyone know were talented and laden with veterans who had made multiple playoff appearances.

Kidd had none of that, yet here he is, leading another monumental turnaround that has mostly flown under the radar because of the more exciting, sexy storylines that have dominated the NBA’s coverage over the course of the first half of the season.

——

As a player, Kidd was one who took special pride in knowing his personnel, whether they were his teammates or his opposition. He has taken a similar approach with regard to coaching his young Bucks.

Kidd has worked diligently to ascertain the elite skill sets that each of his players possess and has used the knowledge both to help the players succeed on an individual level as well as construct rotations that work well together. He is fully maximizing Jerryd Bayless and O.J. Mayo—both talented players who have had trouble sticking and flourishing with a team.

He is pulling the most production possible out of Brandon Knight and Giannis Antetokounmpo and developing and utilizing Khris Middleton and John Henson.

If there is one complaint that Kidd’s bosses in Milwaukee may have of him, it’s that he is leading the team out of the 2015 NBA Draft Lottery—something nobody on the staff of Basketball Insiders even thought possible before the beginning of this season.

Yet, here we are.

Overcoming injuries. Major single-season turnaround. Offensive cohesion. Winning.

In a word: Defiance.

It sounds like a to-do list of someone with ambition.

It also sounds a lot like something else: the man who gets my vote as the NBA’s Coach of the Year.

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Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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