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The Turnaround

From skepticism to buy-in, how Jason Kidd and the Nets turned me around 180 degrees.


Jason Kidd isn't qualified to be an NBA head coach, won't work hard enough, and is kinda stupid. - ghoti, 6/8/13

That was my visceral, unfiltered, blurted out reaction upon seeing the headline of Mike Lupica's PR test balloon of a column endorsing Kidd as the best candidate for the Nets' vacant position.

Four days later, Kidd got the gig, and I was convinced any other available option would have been a mistake.

What happened? Let's break it down.

Jason Kidd isn't qualified to be an NBA head coach.

Well, he's still not. Or mostly not. But what opened my eyes is when I realized he doesn't think he is, either - and that makes this not nearly as big a problem as it could be otherwise.

The example most people point to when discussing this hire is Mark Jackson. Jackson was one of the slowest, least athletic guards I have ever seen in the NBA, but finished his career with the second highest assist total in the history of the league - just ahead of Magic Johnson. That was accomplished with a lot of confidence and guile (and the use of his butt to back down all those little guys trying to guard him). He knew the game as well as a player can know it. He worked under legendary coaches and observed them. And when he decided it was time for him to start his coaching career, he had absolutely no interest in being anyone's assistant.

He seemed mystified that he was passed over for positions he coveted, including one with his hometown team - and the one he played for the longest - the New York Knicks. But eventually, he knocked an interview out of the park and convinced the Golden State Warriors to hire him as their head man despite never coaching a day in his life.

They gave him an experienced staff, including elite assistant Mike Malone, and he set out on his coaching journey. He had a rough first year. His young team suffered some injuries, some players who were productive before suddenly were awful, there were some communication issues. He entered the 2012-13 season with something to prove - and it all clicked. The Warriors made it to the second round of the playoffs and gave the Spurs a tough series. Jackson is now seen as a successful hire, and when something succeeds in the NBA, you can bet others will start trying it.

What makes Kidd different from Jackson is that he seems to know he needs experienced help. Jackson came off as stubborn and arrogant - like he thought coaching was easy and all he needed was the job (broadcasting on national TV didn't help with that perception). Kidd asked for an obvious name - his old Nets coach Lawrence Frank - but the Nets were also reportedly interested in 71-year-old development guru Tim Grgurich and former Suns coach Alvin Gentry.

This makes me more comfortable because I think Kidd can handle the basketball side of things, but, like Jackson, he is in for a big shock when he experiences the day-to-day stresses and responsibilities of being the man in charge.

At his introductory presser, Kidd said some terrific things about his philosophy on coaching. He repeatedly stressed "structure" and talked about preparation - saying players "want to be coached. They just want to know what the game plan is." He spoke of unselfishness, "picking each other up", the importance of team as "family". He talked about "putting players in a position to succeed". All things that indicate he has thought extensively about what makes a team successful - something with which he is intimately familiar.

But as anyone who was ever promoted from employee to manager or thrust into a management position with no prior experience will tell you, you have no idea what it's like to be the boss until you are the boss. Every day you run into new problems and situations you never considered and you spend a lot of time dealing with those things. You make mistakes. It takes time. There is trial and error involved. And if you have a limited window to win like the Nets do, there needs to be not a lot of trial and very little error. If there are not steady, calming influences around Kidd who have seen it all before and that he absolutely trusts, I see many ways this job could turn into a nightmare for him. The fact that he seems to get that is heartening and allows me to think more about all the positive things he brings to the position.

Without that support system and Kidd's willingness to rely on it, this will not work. He says he wants that, so on to blurt #2.

he wont work hard enough

The thinking here was that a guy who put in a heavy commitment as a player for 19 years and has a young family might want to enjoy his summer in the Hamptons and not begin a new 80+ hour a week job a week after retiring.

That was just flat wrong. Jason Kidd is apparently a different kind of cat.

He reportedly got Byron Scott fired because he felt Scott wasn't working hard enough and backed Frank (who looked like he was 12 and was a pasty gym rat) because he spent all day and night watching film and thinking about how to make the Nets better. I don't know why I thought anything changed.

Not an issue. Let's move on.

and is kinda stupid.

Well, now I feel bad. That was indelicate. But it's what I said, so let's roll with it.

First of all, as a player, Jason Kidd was Stephen Hawking, Marilyn Vos Savant and Sheldon Cooper rolled into one 6'4" ally-ooping, pump-faking, bowling-ball passing freak.

What I was so eloquently referring to is his not-so-quick-on-his-feet style of speaking.

At his introductory press conference, he was funny and engaging, but he still had trouble choosing the right words. He said "Larry Brown" when he was clearly referring to Larry Bird. He called Gerald Wallace a "point forward" which was informative and got his point across that Gerald can do more than stand at the three-point line and look for pretty girls in the stands - but a "point-forward" makes most people think of T-Mac or LeBron.

And no word on whether he will be turning these Nets around "360 degrees" like he did the last time.

So is this really a problem?

Well, he was hired based on an interview. That requires speaking in a coherent fashion. If he got his thoughts together and communicated them effectively enough that he convinced Billy King and a group of high-level Russian executives to hire him for this job with two days to prepare, I guess he's pretty smart.

He mentioned that his role model for press conferences is Gregg Popovich. Wise choice.

Verdict: not a problem.

So Kidd acknowledges he is a neophyte and needs help, is willing to put in the time and attention to do this job properly and is capable of speaking without drooling all over himself. Great! But that still doesn't answer the main question.

Why hire a man with no management experience for your very difficult and exclusive management job when there are plenty of other candidates who seem much more qualified?

The narrative I keep seeing is this was a "flashy" hire that was more of a marketing ploy than a path to on-court success. The Nets, after all, were snatched up from an apathetic real-estate developer by an egotistical Russian oligarch who recklessly decreed his team would be the World Champions within five years while he stroked a tiny giraffe on a remote feed from the top of Mt. Everest. They are famously driven by an overzealous self-promoting marketer with the world's most punchable face. Of course they chose style over substance! That's their M.O.

And that's the real reason I changed my mind. It's actually the opposite.

The Nets won 49 games last season, which is exactly nine less wins than they had the previous three combined. A lot of teams would be happy about that. They could have cranked up the old hype machine and told everyone everything was great. Heck, I see tons of folks on my TV telling me that they were great, and that the organization is silly for thinking otherwise.

Instead, they saw what a lot of everyday observers saw and chose not to live with it. All season the team had no identity, no winning culture. They looked like clock-punchers. Go to work, put in an honest day, come back tomorrow. They didn't represent anything. If they beat their men and made their shots they won. If not, they lost.

This was never more evident than in their playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls were clearly outmatched talent-wise, but they were coherent, emotional, fierce. They had the tools to succeed. They knew each other. They had a plan. They made adjustments. They policed themselves. The Nets players played hard. They gave the effort, but it wasn't enough. The contrast was startling.

And that is why you hire Jason Kidd. For all the potential pitfalls, the one thing I am sure he can do is change the culture of a franchise in an instant. I saw it with my own eyes. He knows how to do it. He will do it. He won't tolerate less. For this one purpose, he was far and away the best available candidate. He is the specific tool to fix what is most broken about the Nets.

And that makes him as qualified as he is hard-working and intelligent.

Last week me would like to apologize.