I’ve alluded to it a couple times throughout the year in this column, but I was not a fan of watching this Nets team in their inaugural season in Brooklyn. They were assembled so hastily and haphazardly, they played a fairly unexciting brand of basketball, and minus one or two guys, they were an absolutely terrible fit attitude and personality-wise for the borough that they suddenly called home. It didn’t take too many games’ worth of Joe Johnson step-back jumpers, Brook Lopez set shots and quickly infuriating “BROOOK-LYYYYYYN” home chants for me to realize that this just wasn’t going to be a team that I was going to root for.
And the thing that really had to bum you out about watching the Nets — besides the fact that they paid over $70 mil this year alone for a starting lineup and still lost in the first round of the playoffs to a Bulls team whose bus probably drove everyone straight to the ICU after Game 7 — was that it didn’t seem like this roster was going to be materially different in years to come. Mikhail Prokhorov had bought his playoff team, but the price he paid was so steep that not only would it be impossible to pay for more guys, the guys he signed on are owed too much to ever get rid of. A minor tweak here and there, perhaps, but for the most part, this was gonna be the Nets’ team, and if you didn’t like the guys, too bad, because they weren’t getting new ones anytime soon.
Well, the offseason hasn’t even officially started, and the Nets have already made a big-name acquisition that would seem to assuage such worries. They’re signing a first-ballot future Hall of Famer, a respected guy in the clubhouse, and a guy whose teams have won more after his arrival pretty much everywhere he’s gone. What’s more, he’s a baller who’s played a pivotal role in previous franchise history — as much as the Brooklyn Nets have previous franchise history, anyway — and one who Nets fans still talk about with unparalleled reverence, one whose jersey will undoubtedly hang in the Barclays Center rafters before long.
The guy, of course, is legendary point guard Jason Kidd, undoubtedly to be the most-discussed, most-anticipated addition to the Nets franchise. Except he wasn’t signed as a free agent — he was signed as the team’s head coach.
My sense of history isn’t perfect on this one, but I’m pretty sure you’d have to go back to the days of player-coaches like Bill Russell and Lenny Wilkens to find a guy with such a short turnaround between his playing and coaching careers as Kidd has here. As recently as May 18 — less than a month ago — Jason Kidd was still an active player, firing blanks for the New York Knicks in the second round of the playoffs, giving every indication that he’d continue to do so for the remainder of his contract. (The contract still had two years left on it, by the way.) But in the period of a week in early June, Jason Kidd had announced his retirement, declared his intent to coach (for the Nets in particular) and lapped front-running candidates like Brian Shaw and Lionel Hollins for the open vacancy. Then on Wednesday, Kidd was officially announced as the team’s new coach, to the continued mind-blowing of basketball fans around the league.
Needless to say, this is crazy. It felt weird to see Jacque Vaughn on the sideline for the Magic this year, because even though memories of it weren’t totally fresh, you could probably still recall a couple things about the end of his career with the Spurs from 2006-09 and think to yourself “s—, that wasn’t even all that long ago, was it?” But for Kidd, that’s how it is with his Nets days, and that was three teams ago. Hell, it took almost all this season to just get used to seeing him in a Knicks uniform instead of a Mavs one. Now, just months after his last playoff run, he’s gonna be in a suit on the sideline, giving Deron Williams instructions that he actually has to listen to? How the hell are we supposed to get used to that?
Still, as weird as it’s going to be … it’s also kind of exciting, isn’t it? Aren’t Nets games going to be so much more interesting with Kidd steering the ship? Aren’t you already oddly curious about just about everything about his managerial style? How quickly he calls timeouts? How much he argues with the refs? What kind of suits he wears, whether he goes with a pocket square or some other subtle kind of flash? How loud he gets in the huddle? How short he gets with the sideline reporters? How short he looks diagramming a play with Brook Lopez? How expressive he gets immediate after a big win, and how much he tries to downplay it in the press conference afterwards? Just how coachy he is in general, even in his first season?
And of course, that’s just the superficial stuff. I’m also fairly pumped to see the on-court team product he puts out, and to pore over it (and read the results of other, better-informed NBA writers poring over it) for little signs of recognition of his playing career. That’s going to be the biggest question, isn’t it? How much is Jason Kidd’s team going to play like Jason Kidd? Will they push the tempo and set up beyond the arc in transition? Will they set solid screens and make a point to make the extra swing pass? Will the guards suddenly start rebounding better on both ends? There are few players we’ve gotten to know better over the last NBA generation than Kidd, and it’s gonna be novel as hell to see him assert his influence on a team in a whole new way.
It’s hard to remember a coaching change in the NBA that was ever worth anticipating this much. Newly-hired head coaches are usually either uninspiring retreads, half-unproven assistants or first-timers that nobody knows what to make of, and the really good ones rarely if ever switch teams. But with Kidd, not only is there a sort of history at stake — if he succeeds, it could set incredible precedent for respected NBA vets making the immediate jump to head-coaching, without any kind of non-playing apprenticeship or training first — but he has a chance to return to the team (figuratively, if not geographically) that he wrote history with once before, and to see if he can get it back to those golden days, as the team’s primary offseason pickup. It’s already one of the year’s best storylines, even if you don’t care about what kind of suits the guy eventually wears. I doubt anything short of a Phil Jackson return could possibly compete with it, as far as the still-coachless teams finding coaches hunt goes.
I have no idea how Jason Kidd is going to be as a head coach, but even if he’s a disaster in terms of on-court results, I’ll always believe that bringing him in was an incredibly shrewd move by Prokhorov and company. They took a team that one year into their 2.0 history already wasn’t going anywhere for years to come, that didn’t have the maneuverability or the opportunity to make their blandly above-average team into something interesting and exciting, and in one move that didn’t cost them a cent against the salary cap, they managed to land a player who will bowl over the fan base, while likely going own as one of this summer’s most impactful signings, even if he’s not actually playing for the team.
Whether that’s enough to make the Joe Johnson jumpers and Brook Lopez set shots tolerable remains to be seen. But for the first time in over a year, I’ll be tuning in to the Nets voluntarily now to find out.