They could have done what was widely expected and hired longtime NBA assistant Brian Shaw as the franchise’s 18th head coach. They could have retained P.J. Carlesimo, a 64-year-old coaching lifer, who led the team to a 49-33 record and its first trip to the NBA playoffs since 2007 last season. They could have gone a more traditional route, hiring any number of current NBA assistants who’ve paid their dues with years spent in the film room and riding shotgun on the bench.
But the Nets clearly aren’t interested in playing it “safe” these days. And if we’ve learned anything about the franchise under owner Mikhail Prokhorov, the team abhors doing what others consider the “traditional” route.
The Nets rolled the dice this week, taking the franchise’s biggest gamble since the move to Brooklyn. In hiring Jason Kidd, a man who’s never coached a basketball game at any level, as its latest head coach, the Nets moved all of their chips to the center of the proverbial table. A four seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and a first-round exit isn’t enough. The Nets, with their new arena, their extensive New York City-wide marketing efforts, and an insatiable desire to be the No. 1 show in town, took a big swing with the Kidd hiring.
"Yes, I have a lot to learn about coaching," Kidd acknowledged Thursday at his introductory press conference in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. "I went from being one of the oldest guys in the league to being a rookie all over again."
Kidd flashed a wry smile when asked how he was feeling, “Nervous. I’m a rookie.”
The welcome wagon was out in full force on Thursday, with the scoreboard suspended above the court at Barclays Center displaying a message: “Hello Coach! J Kidd back where he belongs.”
Brian Shaw doesn’t get such treatment. Nor does he attract the 50-person deep media swarm that Kidd got on Thursday.
But the looming question isn’t whether or not Kidd “belongs” with the Nets franchise, but whether or not he belongs now. Kidd is just a week removed from being an active NBA player.
"We didn’t start out looking for Jason,” general manager Billy King said of the team’s coaching search. “But Jason Kidd embodied everything we were looking for. The one thing that people will always know about Jason is that he’s always been someone who works hard. I think that will translate to coaching. Does he have a learning curve? Yes. But if you know Jason, he doesn’t take something and want to be good at it. He wants to be great.”
King, who signed a multi-year contract extension with the team in the spring, isn’t particularly concerned with the lack of coaching experience on Kidd’s resume. At the mention of the word “risk,” King shook his head in disagreement.
"I think anytime you make a hire, I think it’s a risk," King said. "But one thing about Jason, people have counted him out a lot of times and he’s proven them wrong. I’ve known him for a long time and with his work ethic, I believe he’ll be good. I don’t worry about the risk."
The backstory on Kidd’s hiring actually starts in Puerto Rico in the summer of 1999. Kidd was working out for Team USA, while King was serving as the organization’s treasurer. The two men hit it off and kept in touch over the course of the next several offseasons.
Fast forward 14 years, and Kidd is at a wedding in Georgia, where his agent, Jeff Schwartz, is a fellow guest. They get to talking and Schwartz asks Kidd what he wants to do when his playing days are over. Schwartz notes that Kidd can’t golf forever and that he’d eventually get bored of a life spent on the links.
Kidd thinks on it for a bit, finishes his 19th NBA season in June, and retires last Monday. He then gives his agent, Schwartz, the go-ahead to start putting out some “feelers” on different post-career opportunities. Mark Cuban, according to Kidd, reached out and emailed about an opportunity to get involved on the “business side” of basketball. Kidd, however, was more intrigued by a potential coaching opportunity with the Nets.
Sure enough, King was interested in Kidd, too. Very interested. Conversations accelerated from there and a meeting was arranged.
Kidd wowed King in his interview on Monday, breaking down Nets personnel and writing out plays, including things he saw the Spurs were doing in Game 2 of the NBA Finals the night before.
"My experience against Brooklyn was once they got to 88-90 points, they kind of came unplugged, so I want this team to get up and down, but you can’t forget about (Brook) Lopez," Kidd said on Thursday.
He has firsthand experience of the Nets’ strengths and weaknesses. After all, it was Kidd who beat the Nets on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer as a member of the Knicks last season.
After Monday’s initial meeting, King put in a call to a man who knew Kidd, point guard Deron Williams and King himself quite well — Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “Coach K” coached King at Duke and both Williams and Kidd with Team USA.
“[Krzyzewski] thought it was a great idea,” King said. “He thought that with the right staff and his basketball instincts, that he’d be good at this.”
Shaw was brought in for an interview on Wednesday morning, but the Kidd-to-the-Nets train had already left the station. King ran the idea of going with Kidd as the new head coach past his owner and got final approval. Around 7 p.m. on Wednesday, he sent a mass text message to the entire Nets team. Their new head coach was going to be the same man who rejuvenated the franchise when he was acquired via trade in the summer of 2001.
The homecoming angle is a sweet one and Thursday’s atmosphere at Barclays was festive, but there are various questions — and potential potholes — still at play.
Though longtime Nets head coach Lawrence Frank has been linked to the team as a potential assistant, Kidd still does not have a single member of his coaching staff confirmed. The initial wave of NBA head coaching hirings has come and gone, and some of the top available assistants are already locked up with contracts.
No specific offensive or defensive philosophies were detailed on Thursday, as Kidd spoke in generalizations, noting “The pass is just as nice as someone scoring,” and that his coaching vision "is to win."
The biggest question of all, of course, is whether or not Kidd and his point guard, Williams, will be able to maintain the same strong relationship they had as Team USA teammates when their arrangement transitions to one of player and coach. It’s no secret that Williams, an NBA All-Star, has butted heads with two other former NBA players-turned-head-coaches (Jerry Sloan and Avery Johnson) in the past.
On Wednesday night, Williams told the New York Daily News, “Nobody knows if he’s going to be a great coach, it’s going to take him a couple years to adjust. But at the same time, he could be a great coach off the bat.
"It’s a risk, but I think it’s somebody we can grow with. I think it’s somebody we’re definitely going to respect and listen to. And I’m excited about the ways he’s going to help me as a player and a leader."
Williams sat in the front row of Kidd’s introductory press conference on Thursday and the two sang each other’s praises at length. Kidd noted that he saw a lot of “himself” in Williams, and on Team USA, Williams “was a guy that I was ready to pass the torch to."
Kidd expanded, “When I played the game, I felt like I was an extension of the coach. Now, I look at Deron to be that guy."
In turn, Williams assured reporters, “I have no problem taking direction from him. He’s one of the smartest players to ever play this game." Williams said Kidd was his favorite player as a kid growing up in Texas.
King was certain to point out that Williams was not consulted about the team’s coaching decision beforehand and found out in the same group text message that the rest of the guys on the team did. The two players, longtime friends from their days spent together on Team USA, share the same agent in Schwartz. Everything seemed rosy and pleasant on Thursday, but it’s easy to feel the warmth in June. It’ll be interesting to see how the two are interacting in the midst of a four-game losing streak in the cold of February.
As the presser wrapped up, King was asked if Kidd was selected over Shaw because of the “buzz” the hiring would make.
The general manager played down the notion: “It wasn’t about a buzz. I know everyone’s talking about sexy names and whatever else. It was about finding the right person. I don’t know what’s considered ‘sexy’ or not, and I think you guys determine that. If you write it enough, it becomes ‘sexier.’”
Big gambles are always sexy in sports.
Wins are sexier.
With Kidd at the helm and a happy Williams running the point, the Nets are hoping the former will lead to the latter.