Before you decide that 11 games is all you need to deem Jason Kidd utterly incapable of making the jump from Hall of Fame player to rookie head coach with no intermediate steps or stops, consider the following history lesson.
Courtesy of Rick Carlisle: “Most people forget that, with [Larry] Bird, we got off to a 2-5 start and had many of the same challenges with an older team and a challenging early schedule.”
Count me among those people. It had certainly seeped out of my memory that Larry Legend, when he started coaching the Indiana Pacers in 1997-98 flanked by a couple of superstar assistants named Dick Harter and Rick Carlisle, lost five of his first seven games and had folks saying that he was in way over his head.
As legend has it, with Harter as defensive coordinator and Carlisle running the offense, Bird swooped downstairs and instantly was overseeing the most successful three-season run in Indy’s NBA history as a sideline CEO.
“And what we did not have in Indiana,” Carlisle recalls, “were the injuries to key players and the massive influx of new players that the Nets have.”
It’s a handy tale to keep in mind when the urge strikes to declare that the Nets, off to a 3-8 start in the Kidd era, have made a horrible mistake.
The Nets undeniably rank as the NBA’s biggest (and most expensive) disappointment in the season’s opening month. No one expected them to promptly sink to the bottom of an Eastern Conference that, as of Friday morning, boasted exactly four teams with winning records. Nor did anyone forecast that Kidd, so sure-handed as a floor leader for some two decades with the ball in his hands, would so quickly (and so loudly) inspire doubts about his ability to handle a greaseboard or to know what to say in a huddle, as captured in this recent Bleacher Report piece by my longtime colleague Howard Beck.
Kidd no doubt understands that he has no grounds to complain. No one forced him to push for the job so hard just days after coming to the realization that his playing days were done ... and without the benefit of some semblance of a coaching apprenticeship. Too late now to lament how much there is to learn and how challenging it is trying to home-school on the fly with a win-now team that will cost its impatient Russian owner nearly $190 million this season alone when you factor in all of the luxury tax.
Yet there’s also no reason why we can’t be fair and take note of all the factors working against him early. For an old team riddled with injuries -- itself a crushing combo -- starting the season with 11 of 17 games on the road is no treat. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have arrived with minutes restrictions, while another key newcomer -- presumed Sixth Man Award contender Andrei Kirilenko -- has scarcely been able to play at all. Maybe I’m not the world’s most objective Kidd observer, given my longstanding admiration for the pass-first winner/leader he was as a player, but even the more detached can surely see how November must still feel like the preseason for this group, especially given how much training camp time Deron Williams missed.
Hell, I've said this many times, but I learned more about NBA coaching working with Kidd during his four years in Dallas than any other period in my career.
”-- Mavs coach Rick Carlisle
You remember D-Will, right?
The reality is that, for all of Kidd’s growing pains and the concerns already mounting about how much Pierce and Garnett will have to contribute in the postseason when they’re looking so creaky now, you’re really skipping steps to talk about what these Nets are or aren’t capable of unless they can get Williams healthy and right. Yes: Mikhail Prokhorov was convinced to hire Kidd for the job he couldn’t get Phil Jackson to consider because A) he bought the premise that the 40-year-old was born to coach and B) not-so-secretly loved the idea of stealing Kidd’s star power right out of the Knicks’ locker room.
But one of the other major plus-points in Kidd’s favor, to offset his lack of experience, was the premise that he could reach D-Will like no other coach and nudge him back in Chris Paul’s direction in the face of an ever-widening gap between the two QBs from the 2005 draft who once inspired such heated debate.
The Nets made D-Will a $100 million player and desperately need him to get himself back to that level. Kidd has a long way to go, so much to learn about this X's-and-O's life, but nit-picking the infancy of his coaching career is pretty pointless if the guy who’s supposed to be the Nets’ next Kidd on the court suddenly sports injuries to both ankles.
The beauty within that eyesore known as the East standings is that a top-four seed -- Brooklyn’s projected regular-season range -- is still well within reach. I also suspect Kidd will retain stronger support from his locker room than outsiders presume, not only thanks to Garnett’s loud and consistent backing but also because he’s only months removed from being one of them, and one of the two or three most respected players of his generation.
Yet even if you disagree with either premise, we gotta ask: How does Kidd not get more time to be graded when D-Will has been yo-yoing in and out of the lineup? The on-court extension of the new coach expected to haul the Nets back to the NBA Finals like Kidd did a decade ago can’t even claim to have much of a conditioning base because he’s missed so much time.
"I spent three days with Jason this summer and it was clear to me that he went into this with eyes wide open, knowing it would be the biggest challenge of his professional career,” Carlisle told ESPN.com. “[But] in my 30 years in the NBA, the only other person I’ve been around that even approaches Jason's level of drive and basketball resourcefulness is Larry Bird himself. Jason will personalize this situation and make it work.
"Hell, I've said this many times, but I learned more about NBA coaching working with Kidd during his four years in Dallas than any other period in my career."
Like Carlisle, naturally as big a Kidd fan as you’ll find after their championship collaboration with the Mavericks, I have little doubt things will get better for the rook, just as it did after a similarly bumpy baptism for the legend in Indy who’s frequently cited as the blueprint instacoach.
Just how much better, though, realistically hinges on how healthy D-Will gets as much as anything.