SAN ANTONIO — The Brooklyn Nets have a great culture outside their arena. Inside their locker room, not so much.
The Nets have talent, starting with three guys — Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez — you can run an offense through. That’s three more than a lot of teams in this league have. But their first-round defeat at the hands of the Chicago Bulls made it clear that the Nets lack the character, the drive and the cohesiveness to make the most of that talent.
Enter Jason Kidd, a New York Knicks point guard as of two weeks ago and the Nets’ new coach as of Wednesday evening. There are plenty of questions about such a quick, player-to-coach transition, but Kidd may be just what the Nets need.
There have been three trades over the last 15 seasons that have truly changed the culture of a franchise — moves that not only made a team better at basketball, but made its locker room a completely different environment.
A year and a half ago, the Clippers’ acquired Chris Paul and not only became the best team in L.A., but also a group that finally had it’s head on straight. In 2007, the Boston Celtics traded for Kevin Garnett, who turned them into defensive force and a championship contender.
And in 2001, the New Jersey Nets traded Stephon Marbury for Kidd, who changed them from “Clippers East” to the best team in the East. The future Hall of Famer led them to two straight Finals and six straight playoff appearances. In their 37 years in the NBA, the Nets have reached the conference semifinals just six times. Five of those trips took place in Kidd’s six full seasons with the team.
Kidd obviously played a big role, both on the floor and in the locker room, when the Dallas Mavericks won their only championship in 2011. And his influence on Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks this season was clear to most observers. He has a brilliant basketball mind and the respect of the greatest players in the world, having mentored a lot of them – including Williams – at the 2008 Olympics.
But mentoring players as a teammate and leading them as a coach are two different things. And with the rise of analytics, defenses designed to take away a team’s top options, and offenses that use misdirection to get defenses off balance, coaching in the NBA has never been more complicated.
Kidd will have to learn how to run a practice, put together a game plan, make adjustments on the fly, figure out the best role for every guy on the roster, develop an offense that works for three very different 20-point scorers, and put together a defense that the Nets can rely on when the shots aren’t falling.
That makes Kidd’s staff a critical part of his success or failure. He has pushed for former Nets and Pistons coach Lawrence Frank to be his top assistant, a hire that’s not done yet.
Frank led the Nets to within a few possessions of knocking off the eventual champion Pistons after he took over for Byron Scott in 2004. And in his first two full seasons as the coach, the Nets ranked in the top 10 defensively. But as the roster was stripped of its talent, the Nets regressed on defense.
In 2010-11, Frank was the lead assistant in Boston when they ranked No. 2 defensively, but wasn’t given much to work with in his two seasons in Detroit. While the Nets have three go-to guys offensively, they have plenty of questions on the other end of the floor, where they ranked 19th this season and where they got embarrassed by an undermanned Bulls team in Game 7.
Improved defense starts with buy-in from every guy in the roster. And Kidd’s history as a mentor to the likes of Williams, Anthony and LeBron James indicates that players will buy what he’s selling. In the Nets press release announcing the hire, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov said that Kidd has “the fire in the belly we need,” making it clear what the team’s priorities were when it sought a new coach.
When you’re looking to change the culture, you call on the guy who did it before.