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With Jason Kidd contractually tied to the Milwaukee Bucks until the 2019-20 season, there’s no reason to think that his seat is anything hotter than lukewarm. But as we analyze the pending offseason, and how crucial it might turn out to be for the Bucks, we wanted to break down how much we know (and don’t know) about the man calling the shots, and whether we think that the team and the coach are best-suited for one another. Today, we discuss Jason Kidd’s strengths, and how they help make the Bucks a better team.
The list of players who have achieved NBA relevance under Kidd is longer than you might expect. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the most notable, but he’s not the only one. Khris Middleton became an All Star snub. Jabari Parker, when healthy, became a 20 ppg scorer. Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker both made sizable impacts as rookies. Greg Monroe transitioned into a bench role, which he’s thriving in. Tony Snell went from “forgettable first-round pick” to “valuable 3&D wing” in a season. Even more marginal veteran players, like Jared Dudley, Zaza Pachulia, Jason Terry, Jerryd Bayless, and (before his suspension) O.J. Mayo showed signs of life that hadn’t been observed in seasons-past.
Jason Kidd doesn’t get all of the credit for all of these players’ successes, and he clearly isn’t a magic potion for anybody (see: Rashad Vaughn, Johnny O’Bryant, et al). No teacher can be expected to have such a high success rate, but the most important attribute of a successful teacher is the ability (and willingness) to put their pupils in a position to be successful, even if that means making mistakes along the way. Kidd revealed his stance on this topic back in October 2014:
"As the season goes, the good comes with the bad so how do we handle the bad?" Kidd said. "How do we stop a three-game losing streak? How do we stop an 8-0 run without using a timeout? This is stuff young players tend not to know ... For us, I'm a big believer that players can figure it out and work it out so it'll only get better as the season goes on."
At that time, many of the players considered to be major franchise fixtures were significantly less developed than we’ve seen them today, and it’s fair to say that we’ve borne witness to a ton of mistakes over the past three years. Back then, the Bucks also boasted the youngest average age in the entire NBA (24.2 years old) at the time, so while the roster has grown up a bit, the talent level has increased at a far higher rate. Part of that is due to Jason Kidd’s coaching, and it’s one of the core pillars propping up the Milwaukee Bucks’ resurgence.
When it comes to building a team with free agents, you have to be able to get your foot in the door. In the Age of the Internet, market size matters less than it has in years past. Here is what Jason Kidd has added to the Milwaukee Bucks pursuit of players like...
He [Greg Monroe] also was swayed by the presence of Bucks coach Jason Kidd, who led the team to a 26-game improvement last season after being hired by new ownership. (Monroe’s agent, David] Falk said the Bucks coach has a reputation "for making the people around him better, both as a player and as a coach."
"I loved playing for J-Kidd...I wouldn't say he's grouchy, I would say he gets in his moods like every coach. You get ups and downs. I would say this: (he's a) player's coach and the way he thinks is like a player. Because he played. And he tells you that. I played power forward and when Jabari got hurt he said, 'Hey Jared, I'm not going to leave you on an island.' He would let me guard (LaMarcus) Aldridge (but say), 'When Aldridge gets there we're going to trap the hell out of him. I got you.'"
...and Jason Terry.
“[Jason Kidd] was all for everything that I believe in,” Terry said in an interview on SiriusXM NBA Radio. “And that’s winning, that’s becoming a positive influence in the locker room on young guys, and he values his veterans and he knows how valuable I am to him and the Milwaukee Bucks organization and to our success this year as a team.”
Personnel acquisitions are the responsibility of the front office, but the head coach sets the tone of the environment that the front office is selling. Not only does a positive image amongst the NBA player community make the Bucks look more attractive (and gives them an extra grain of leverage in negotiations) to free agents, but it also improves their viability as a trading partner for players who might be interested in a change of scenery. It might not sway a big fish, but it matters for moves made on the margins that can help push a team over the hump.
Jason Kidd loves to tinker. He makes weird decisions. He stretches out lineups longer than another coach might. This might not seem like a remarkable strength, but it’s a good fit for the overall weirdness of the Bucks’ superstar. Point Giannis only would have happened with a coach willing to put the ball in his hands while putting up with mistakes. Khris Middleton’s growth as a playmaker is along the same lines. Thon Maker: Stretch 5 and Malcolm Brogdon: Point Wing are two more notable (albeit obvious) examples.
But bigger than his willingness to try stuff out is Kidd’s ability to visualize where the game has been, where it’s going, and how going against the grain could be beneficial. From this Zach Lowe article back in May 2015 (when Grantland was still a thing):
“I think the post-up makes a comeback,” [Jason] Kidd says. “Sometimes it feels like we are making the game harder than it should be. The bottom line is this: The closer you get to the basket, the bigger a threat you are.”
The knee jerk reaction to that quote could be railing against Kidd and his lack of (or refusal) acknowledging what the NBA has become, in terms of scoring points. And while that’s not unfair, it also ignores the logic inherent to his belief: if you can get the ball into an advantageous position, why not turn that into a weapon?
The post-up might feel archaic as we watch Golden State, Houston, and Cleveland literally try and shoot their way into the NBA Finals, but when everybody else zigs...sometimes you just gotta zag. Jason Kidd zags.
There’s only so much that one person can manage by themselves. The job of a head coach is particularly taxing, and with that responsibility comes the risk that, if you take on too much, the entire operation could come to a screeching halt.
In Milwaukee, Jason Kidd seems to have developed a strong rapport with his staff, and is willing to let them take the lead on items that other head coaches may want to retain control over. Sean Sweeney is the architect of Milwaukee’s blitz-heavy (and oft-criticized) defense, and Joe Prunty was an able interim head coach when Kidd went on medical leave. It’s fair to speculate that Eric Hughes, Scott Foster, and newcomer Stacey Augmon enjoy a relatively long leash when it comes to improving the Bucks’ players.
This was certainly not the case when Kidd ran the show in Brooklyn, but Milwaukee has become an entirely different climate than the woebegone Nets. Additionally, with Justin Zanik firmly entrenched in the front office, the chances that Kidd revives his alleged pursuit of a higher position are slim. That’s probably for the best, given how other coaches with additional authority (Doc Rivers, Tom Thibodeau, Stan Van Gundy, most notably) have struggled to varying degrees.
All told, this skill isn’t readily apparent, but instead speaks to the type of environment building up in Milwaukee, and management styles matter for anybody tasked with optimizing the performance of a 15+ person operation. Kidd’s loyalty has been questioned in the past, but it doesn’t seem that his staff’s loyalty should be. When it comes to coaching, that’s a plus.
This list of strengths is incomplete; to argue that Kidd’s coaching abilities boil down to these four points would be oversimplified. What other strengths have you noticed during Kidd’s tenure? Or are any of the items on this list ill-fitting descriptions? Let us know in the comments, and make sure to come back tomorrow when we hop over to the other side of the pro/con fence.