Bucks bought into Kidd, turned into contender quicker than expected
MILWAUKEE — Anyone who drove past the BMO Harris Bradley Center on the afternoon of July 2 couldn’t miss the electronic billboards welcoming Jason Kidd as head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Regardless of his lack of experience on the sideline, Kidd brought the kind of name recognition franchises like the Bucks usually celebrate.
However, the circumstances surrounding Kidd’s departure from Brooklyn after just one season and eventual trade to Milwaukee left no room for pomp and circumstance inside the Bradley Center. The press conference held the vibe of an interrogation and was cut off with reporters still wanting to ask questions.
Every question Kidd was asked centered on either his sudden departure from Brooklyn or how he was going to handle the losing that would come with a rebuilding project in Milwaukee.
Nobody had any idea just how quickly everything would come together.
As the preseason neared, Kidd revealed his plan to sit a different member of the rotation for each exhibition game. It was a different philosophy, but the players bought in.
The practice continued, to a lesser extent, in the regular season.
Milwaukee had a deep team at the beginning of the year, and Kidd wasn’t afraid to use his entire roster. That meant less playing time on certain nights for players used to playing heavy minutes on a team that had a league-worst 15-67 record last season.
"We wanted to be a team and try to create the atmosphere of playing as a team," Kidd said recently. "We’re probably ahead of schedule on that. We got that kind of accomplished after (blowing a 24-point lead) Game 1. After losing a lead, you find out real quick if you are going to separate and become an ‘I’ team.
"Guys have stayed the course of being a team and not a bunch of individuals. If you look around the league, the teams that are playing as a whole are the best teams in the league right now."
Nothing alienates NBA players more than not playing as much as they’d like. There were no such issues with the Bucks, as the entire roster quickly bought into the team-first concept Kidd was selling.
Kidd’s Hall of Fame-level career – which ended only months before the Nets hired him as a coach — gives him credibility in the eyes of players most coaches can’t come close to.
"It helps that the information is sold, the teaching is sold," seventh-year Bucks guard O.J. Mayo said. "You see it being sold, you have to hop on, right?
"You know what it feels like? It feels like he is one of the veteran players. The things he sees are things I’m pretty sure are things a coach would see and explain in a coach’s form, but he explains it as if he’s the vet that’s on the way out but still holding it down. He’s all that in one. It is a unique situation."
By the time Kidd was traded to Dallas in 2008, the only thing missing from his illustrious playing career was an NBA championship.
Kidd was 35 years old and not the player he once was, but Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle didn’t need long to realize the impact he would have the team’s eventual run to the 2011 title.
"He was a huge part of that thing," Carlisle said. "If you are going to be in a foxhole with somebody, that’s one guy you want to be in there with.
"He’s a great competitor. You talk about guys that were the most competitive guys in the history of the game, in my opinion, he’s in a small handful with guys like (Michael) Jordan and (Larry) Bird. He just had an internal fire to win and had an uncanny resourcefulness as a player."
The competitiveness Kidd displayed on the court has carried over to his coaching career. He took little things from Carlisle to create competition in practice and in preparation.
Kidd installed a bell in the Bucks’ training center to be rung when a player hits a certain percentage of their 3-point attempts during practice. There’s a giant dry erase board next to the practice court that keeps track of how many times a player rings the bell throughout the season, among other things.
Kidd also implemented Carlisle’s post-shootaround tests, quizzing the entire team on everything from X’s and O’s to basketball history. Just as they want to ring the bell, players want to ace the test.
"He consistently wins 50 games and always has that chance to win a championship," Kidd said of Carlisle. "For me being a coach, that’s who I want to learn from and understand the game from (with) the coaching aspect of things.
"When you look at his patience, he is never up and he is never down. He can be down 15 and he’s not going to panic. When he calls that timeout, you always have that sense of security that you have that belief. Even though you have a player like Dirk (Nowitzki), your coach gives you that vibe that you can come back and win and it is not time to panic. I saw that in The Finals. I saw that in Round 1 against Portland. Being around him, you understand there’s no panic in him, he’s always giving you that confidence to make a play and find a way to win a ballgame."
Early in his coaching career, Kidd has had his patience tested. He didn’t panic last season when Brooklyn started 10-21 and a large segment of the basketball world assumed he was going to be fired before the All-Star break.
A similar situation is currently presenting itself for Kidd, as the Bucks are in the midst of their first extended rough patch of the season.
Milwaukee is 4-7 since making a blockbuster three-team trade deadline move that sent leading scorer Brandon Knight to Phoenix and brought back Michael Carter-Williams, Tyler Ennis and Miles Plumlee.
Kidd hasn’t wavered with his message or changed his demeanor during a post-trade adjustment period that could end up causing the Bucks to fall in the Eastern Conference standings.
"Any time there’s a change, there are always outside influences that want it to happen right away," Kidd said. "Good things tend to not come until later. I was in that position from (New) Jersey to Dallas. I thought we were going to win a championship right away. It took a couple of years. Today’s generation wants it now, but you have to go through the process."
But the Bucks are still firmly in the playoff picture at 34-30 – 4.5 games ahead of seventh-seed Indiana — which makes Kidd one of the leading candidates for NBA Coach of the Year.
He not only has guided the Bucks to one of the biggest turnarounds in NBA history, but he’s done so having to deal with a season-ending injury to No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker and the unique situation of starting center Larry Sanders, who left the team for personal reasons and was suspended and ended up being bought out by the team.
"This is a great story of overachievement," Bucks general manager John Hammond said. "The players believe they are going to win every game when they step on the floor. I know Jason Kidd as a coach feels the same way. We go out so many nights short-handed. Different guys have stepped up on different nights and played so well for us.
"Jason as head coach and his staff deserve so much credit for what has happened. I do give Jason and his staff an awful lot of credit."
Including Parker going down with a torn ACL in December, Milwaukee’s roster has lost a combined 236 games due to injury, illness, suspension or personal reasons. Budding star Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player to appear in all 62 games, and the Bucks have employed a total of 20 players.
Kidd’s willingness to play everybody on his roster has paid off with the Bucks completely buying in to the "next man up" philosophy.
Kenyon Martin, Jorge Gutierrez and Chris Johnson each played the same day they signed a 10-day contract, and nine members of the current roster are averaging at least 20.0 minutes per game.
If Milwaukee’s bench is playing well on a given night, Kidd will stick with it. He’s left starters on the bench for entire fourth quarters, proving he’s not afraid to go with the hot hand or play a hunch or matchup.
"I’m just trying to learn how to be a coach and put guys in position to be successful," Kidd said. "A lot of it is feel. A lot of it is understanding guys are going to make mistakes, but how do they respond from their mistakes? We’ve made a lot of mistakes throughout the season, but that doesn’t change my trust in the guys that play.
"Sometimes I do make the mistake of leaving someone on the bench too long, but it is not because I want to. It is because I need to feel the process of the other guys on the floor because they all can play."
Although the Bucks have overwhelmingly exceeded expectations regardless of whether they hold on to a playoff spot, Kidd will tell anyone who inquires that the Bucks have yet to accomplish anything.
The current ownership (brand new, like Kidd), front office and coaching staff have their sights set on building a championship contender, which was why they weren’t afraid to shake up the roster at the deadline despite being in position to climb a spot or two in the conference standings.
"The culture is changing," Kidd said. "We are the second-youngest team. I think we are understanding what it means to be a team and to be a professional on and off the floor. Those things are changing. When you talk about the Bucks, people are more excited than they have been in the past. That’s all good stuff. But we are looking at it as something bigger."
With Parker, Antetokounmpo and Carter-Williams, the Bucks have a young core that fits their long-term plans. What was expected to be a long rebuilding project suddenly has an accelerated timeline.
"Some would say it has come together faster than some people expected, but when you deal with sports you can never put a time on it," Kidd said. "Some people are talking about the future. But you have to stay in the present to get to the future. These guys have done that. It has been a real enjoyment to come to work every day and see these guys get better."
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