NEW YORK –- A month before he would open his first training camp as coach, Jason Kidd attended a September coaching seminar filled with a who’s who in the business.
Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich were among the coaching behemoths at the camp. But there was one featured speaker whom Kidd naturally gravitated toward -– Doc Rivers.
When Rivers spoke to the coaches, Kidd felt as if the Clippers coach was talking directly to him.
“I have that power when I talk to people,” Doc cracked to reporters. “Don’t you guys feel that way?”
If there is one former player turned coach whom Kidd wants to and needs to emulate the most, it has to be Rivers. If the Nets are going to contend for a title this season, Kidd has to become something close to Doc and has to do it by April.
On a night when Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett both faced their old coach for the first time on the court (they missed the first meeting against the Clippers last month due to injuries), the duo’s new coach came away with a 102-93 victory over Rivers and the Clippers. Doc’s road-weary team was playing for the third time in four days and for the sixth straight time on the road.
Kidd, though, has the Nets playing their best basketball after a tumultuous and injury-ravaged start. He has his first three-game winning streak, and the Nets look like a completely different team than were even just a week ago, when they had their doors blown off by the Knicks.
Deron Williams is back playing with the confidence of an elite point guard and even had Chris Paul on his heels on a few plays. The Nets are playing better defense, and they just look like a team slowly gaining confidence and piecing things together.
“For the first time in a long time, I can honestly say every guy is trusting the [defensive] schemes,” Garnett said of what has changed.
Garnett and Pierce are closer to the twilight of their careers than even we all might’ve anticipated, and they will need Kidd as much as he needs them. They will need Kidd to pull a Doc and push all the right buttons with Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson to get the older veterans through the grind of the regular season and to the playoffs. And that’s when Kidd has to put them all in the right position in the postseason, when coaching and star players make the difference.
Yes, it’s totally unfair to ask a coaching novice to become one of the game’s best, like Doc Rivers, in a matter of months. When Rivers started in Orlando, he had the luxury of coaching a team in rebuilding mode, with little expectations.
Kidd is learning the ropes under win-now expectations, but he wouldn’t have signed up for this if he didn’t have the confidence he has what it takes to follow in the footsteps of Rivers or Mark Jackson.
“I wouldn’t mind following in Doc’s footsteps,” Kidd said before beating Rivers for the first time after losing to the Clippers last month. “I would take that career right now, winning a championship.”
In Boston, Pierce and Garnett never had to worry about X’s and O’s, or motivation as they had one of the best orchestrating everything from the sideline. If you’ve ever listened in to one of Doc’s riveting timeouts during many of the Celtics’ nationally-televised games in the past several years, you know what Pierce and Garnett had on a daily basis from Doc.
“Doc pushed those buttons and he kept pushing them because we are motivated by winning,” Pierce said of Rivers back in October. “We knew what he did to help us win and he pushed those buttons so we could try to win another one.”
“We are motivated,” Pierce added. “We want another championship. So all you got to do is give us the right guys around us and put us in position and we will be there.”
Kidd’s personality isn’t as outgoing or as outspoken as Doc. He’s more reserved, but he’s just as intense and determined. In a little over a month, you can see Kidd taking more control of the team.
He’s made some tough decisions. Kidd demoted Lawrence Frank -- a man initially considered so important to his growth that the franchise made Frank the highest-paid assistant in the NBA -- after he felt he could no longer trust or rely on his former head coach, who was in charge of the team's defensive principles.
Kidd benched most of his starters in the second half of a loss at Houston to send a message. And he’s now bringing Pierce off the bench in a new role that no one foresaw for the 10-time All-Star when the season began. Kidd’s also changed his sideline demeanor, going from stoic figure on the bench to frequently standing, pacing, pointing and shouting directions now.
The final results -- especially of the divorce with Frank and the Pierce sixth-man experiment -- all remain to be seen. But right now, things look a lot better than they did just a week ago.
“He’s a fighter,” Garnett said of what he has learned about Kidd in the first few months as coach. “All the changes were made and all the [disruption on the staff and with injuries], the first thing you noticed about him is that he took charge and trusted in who he was.
“We kind of backed that up by just showing a better effort and coming out and believing in what he’s saying to us,” Garnett continued. “One thing that stands out about him is his grit and his fight... very similar to Doc.”
The Nets (8-14) are still climbing their way out of the big hole they put themselves in. They’re getting a little healthier –- although Lopez twisted his ankle again –- and Kidd just might be getting a little more comfortable.
Without a doubt, there are going to be a lot more bumps, twists and turns for Kidd and the Nets. The rookie coach hopes he can navigate them as well as the man he so intently listened to in September at that coaching clinic.
“Just be himself,” Rivers said of his advice to Kidd. “Coaching is hard enough to try to coach for everybody. You get so much advice when you coach -– [since] my rookie year, and I still do. You’ve gotta have your own thoughts, your own ideas, and just follow them.
“Some of them are gonna be wrong, you have to live with them,” Doc continued. “And then you move on and you can’t worry about being wrong. I tell him that all the time –- you gotta just do what you feel is right for the team. And if you leave every decision that way, then good things will happen. But if you make decisions to make players or people or anyone else happy, it’s not going to go well.”
Kidd has been listening to Doc. And that's a good thing for Pierce and Garnett.