Is Jason Kidd a Good Coach?

It certainly didn’t seem like this question could be asked at the beginning of the season, but while the Nets were 10-21 before January 1st, they have gone 23-10 since. So is Jason Kidd actually becoming a good coach?

Brooklyn has suffered numerous injuries that have threatened to derail the season several times. Perhaps the most damaging injury came when Brook Lopez suffered a season-ending injury just before Christmas. At the time the Nets were eight games under .500 and looked to be dead in the water. Losing the their best player over the past two seasons seemed to mark the end of the road for a serious push to the playoffs.

Something odd happened after that point though: Kidd started doing weird things with the starting (and most used) lineup. Conventional wisdom prior to the season was that with Lopez in the middle Kevin Garnett should start at power forward. The duo seemed to be a great pair – Lopez providing post scoring while Garnett spotted up for jumpers and covered Lopez’s back on defense. Unfortunately Garnett’s reduced mobility has made center his best position for a few years, and the big lineup struggled. With Lopez gone, Garnett slid over to his now-natural center position.

That part made perfect sense, but it left Kidd with the decision of what to do at power forward. Andrei Kirilenko would have been the perfect small-ball answer, but he too was injured at the time. Mirza Teletovic hadn’t inspired much confidence, and Andray Blatche and Mason Plumlee are both better suited at center. Reggie Evans had gotten a few starts here and there, but continued to be Reggie Evans – a highly flawed specialist with no business starting for a playoff team.

So Kidd just said screw it and threw out what he thought would be the best combination of players at his disposal. That happened to feature two point guards, two wings, and no second big. Teletovic got a couple of spot starts at power forward, but for the most part the four-wing lineup has started ever since the Lopez injury. When one of the wings goes down, Alan Anderson is slotted in; when Garnett went down Mason Plumlee took over at center.

There’s no need to worry about spacing or passing with these lineups; when Paul Pierce or Joe Johnson is your power forward you’re always going to have space and someone to handle the ball. Up top Deron Williams may have lost a step or three, but he can still score, especially when surrounded by decent enough shooting, and he hits a respectable chunk of the threes he takes himself.

The real oddball in the lineup, the guy that could have easily spent his entire year coming off the bench for 12 minutes a night, is Shaun Livingston. Livingston can’t hit the broad side of a barn and shares the floor with three other players who are both paid much more richly than he is and who have made their careers out of being lead ballhandlers. Livingston’s only offensive value is in setting up others with the ball in his hands. At first it’s difficult to see the fit.

Livingston is often the primary ballhandler, with the smaller Williams playing the nominal shooting guard in a surprising number of sets as Livingston guides the offense into position. This only works because of the respect Williams, Pierce, and Johnson get, and because of the space that their presence provides. Livingston would cramp most offenses with his lack of shooting, but in these lineups he’s the perfect complement, setting up everyone else without having to worry about scoring himself unless the opportunity is too good to pass up.

On defense playing three equally sized wings and a big point guard in Williams gives Brooklyn a chance to switch everything, should they choose to, and lots of active hands are taking up space in passing and driving lanes. Due to their age, most of these guys are fairly slow when playing their natural positions, but sliding down one spot opens up the speed advantages that have otherwise been lost to age, and they know how to capitalize.

All of this stems from the odd and somewhat unorthodox approach Kidd has taken with the team after the start of the year. He has also grown in other ways. Gone are the slapstick shenanigans deployed to try to cover mismanaging timeouts, buried in the past the fights with assistants and players-only meetings. The team looks and feels like a real NBA team.

Kidd has come a long way, but does that mean he is actually worth a damn? It’s too early to tell for sure, but a few notes on the roster need to be considered before making any declarations:

  1. This team is costing roughly infinity-billion dollars due to salaries and luxury tax this season. That may not mean much to their Russian owner, but it does give a good indication of the talent level that is available here. Old or not, these guys can play.
  2. There have been a ton of injuries. Aside from Lopez, two guys who have the skills to make the smallball thing run like a dream – Garnett and Kirilenko – have both missed significant time.

That said, Kidd’s lineup choices and ability to generally avoid making headlines with stupid or immature choices has given the team’s talent enough breathing room to right the ship and post one of the best records of the 2nd half. While not quite in the ranks of the top coaches just yet, he has shown the creativity that it takes to succeed in the NBA. His improvement seems to span beyond a stroke of luck with the Lopez injury forcing him to make a change that happened to work. This is sustainable.

Because of the market and the quick change from player to coach Kidd was thrust into a bright spotlight to start his 2nd career, but when it died down he quietly coaxed some truly inspired basketball out of the players that were left. He’s weathered the storm for this season, and should be able to build on his craft in coming years.