Jason Kidd's Great Escape
On the surface, Jason Kidd’s jump from the Brooklyn Nets to the Milwaukee Bucks doesn’t make a lot of sense. After a rough start, Kidd found his sea legs in the second half of the season, leading Brooklyn to the second round of the playoffs and establishing himself as a legitimate NBA head coach on a perennial playoff contender. Milwaukee, in contrast, is a perennial underachiever coming off a 15-win season that hasn’t made the second round since 2001.
However, if you take a closer look at the environment surrounding both teams, you can see the logic behind Kidd’s thinking. As he is undoubtedly aware, an NBA head coach is hired to be fired. No matter how successful a coach has been, they can lose their job at any time. The key is expectations and the appearance of forward progress - the Bucks have nowhere to go but up, the Nets have nowhere to go but down. For a young head coach, the choice is easy.
The Nets have far more talent than the Bucks and they will almost certainly be a better team over the next two seasons, but they don’t have much room for growth. After trading three future first-round picks for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, they went all-in last season, only to see their best player (Brook Lopez) go down in the first two months. Kidd responded admirably in changing their identity on fly, but the limits of the approach were exposed in the playoffs.
With Pierce and Garnett aging and no other ways to add talent to their roster beyond the free agent bargain bin, Brooklyn will need Mikhail Prokhorov to continue writing monstrous luxury tax checks just to stay in place. Even if Prokhorov doesn’t tire of subsidizing half of the league, what’s to stop him from looking at the coaching staff for an upgrade next off-season? Kidd only needs to look at Mark Jackson with the Golden State Warriors to see how quickly the knives come out.
Milwaukee, on the other hand, is an almost ideal situation for a young head coach. After bottoming out under the old regime, they have a new ownership group looking to start over and a promising young core to build around. Last season was a perfect storm of injuries, bad free agent signings and back luck. Even without a coaching change, they are almost certain to have a dead cat bounce and regress to the mean, which will give Kidd breathing room.
When you take a look at the elite young talent under contract, the Bucks situation going forward looks even more promising. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are both under 20 and have as much upside as any two young players in the NBA. Just as important, their games complement each other, which will allow them to grow together over the next 3-5 years. They could be the best two players on an elite team and Kidd gets them at the ground floor.
After only one season, Giannis already looks like the steal of the 2013 draft and possibly its best all-around player. At 6’10 210 (and growing) with a 7’4 wingspan, he has a freakish combination of length, skill and athleticism that allows him to match up with multiple perimeter positions and impact the game in a number of ways. He’s a franchise-type talent - if he had stayed an extra year in Greece, he could have been a Top 5 pick in this year’s draft.
And while Giannis can defend and slash to the rim, Jabari can stretch the floor and command double teams on offense. The No. 2 pick in 2014, he is an elite prospect who was also one of the safest picks on the board. At 6’9 240 with a 7’0 wingspan, Jabari already has a high-level combination of athleticism, ball-handling, shooting and feel for the game. He averaged 19 points and 9 rebounds a game on 47% shooting at Duke and should be a ROY front-runner.
The big concern for Jabari comes on the defensive end, which is what makes Milwaukee such a good fit. Not only do they have Giannis to handle the tough defensive assignments on the perimeter, they have two quality rim protectors - Larry Sanders and John Henson - to play behind him. There are spacing issues with playing Sanders and Henson together, but they should combine to protect Jabari over 48 minutes and you can always trade an athletic 6’11+ player.
The Bucks current mix is far from perfect, but there is talent up and down the roster that can be moved around in order to better complement Jabari and Giannis. That will be what next season is all about - figuring out which combination of Sanders, Henson, Khris Middleton, Ersan Ilyasova, Ekpe Udoh, Brandon Knight and OJ Mayo is worth keeping around. No matter how it shakes out, they don’t have the same type of cap-killing contracts as the Nets.
For Kidd, the plan is simple. Develop Giannis and Jabari, consolidate the peripheral talent around them and add another high lottery pick - preferably a two-way perimeter playmaker and shooter - next season. With a new Big Three and one of the Henson/Sanders duo upfront, Milwaukee isn’t that far off from being a playoff contender and a long-term power in the Eastern Conference. They just need to add shooting and improve defensively over the next two years.
If Kidd plays it right, he can be the Scott Brooks to their version of the Oklahoma City Thunder North. Kidd’s already proven he’s a more flexible strategist than Brooks, so hitching his wagon to that type of young talent could give him nearly unparalleled job security. Throughout his long career in the NBA, Kidd has been the consummate survivor, one step ahead of the pitchforks and leaving disaster in his wake. His latest move could be his greatest escape yet.