“I always fear that when I really impose my will on something, the universe is gonna punish me.” – David Foster Wallace
Metatron: “For their insolence, God decreed neither Loki or Bartleby would ever be allowed back into Paradise.”
Bethany: “Were they sent to Hell?”
Metatron: “Worse. Wisconsin.” – Dogma
Everything about the Jason Kidd power play in Brooklyn was surreal, from the fact that it was first broken by a RealGM poster 48 hours before any news-gathering organization in the world’s media hub could report it, to the odd timing of when the news finally exploded (an otherwise quiet Saturday night), to the sordid details of his calculated (though misguided) pitch to ownership, to Adrian Wojnarowski using the term “the Russians” in multiple tweets, to the revelation that Kidd had a previous business relationship with one of the Bucks’ new owners who provided a safety net when he was ultimately exiled from the Barclays Center.
Saturday afternoon, as far as everyone who covers the NBA was concerned, Jason Kidd was the guy who had rebounded from his early struggles as a rookie coach to win a playoff series, the happy head coach/part-owner of the franchise where he enjoyed his most productive years as a player. Here we are, 72 hours later, and for the price of two second-round picks, he’s none of those things. Instead he’s the new head coach of the team that finished with the worst record in the league last season, in a place about as different from New York City as you can find in the NBA – Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Much has been written of Kidd in the past couple of days, and almost none of it is flattering. The adjectives most commonly associated with him are “power-hungry”, “psychotic”, “Machiavellian”, “egomaniacal” and “insecure.” While some pieces revert to aggressive hyperbole, others have been measured and fair in their critical assessment of Kidd’s recent maneuvering, especially Zach Lowe, who revealed the sad financial state of the Nets’ basketball operations while he was at it.
Jason Kidd has a long history of thirsting for power and acting on his ambitions, consequences and collateral damage be damned. He feuded with his college coach, demanded trades during his time as a player, and had well-publicized spats with Byron Scott and Lawrence Frank (once as a subordinate, once as his boss) that proved costly. To say he displays somewhat narcissistic tendencies is completely fair. The Nets worked closely with him regarding free agents, the Draft and offseason plans, according to reports. He wasn’t exactly kept out of the loop or given marching orders by a dominant General Manager; Billy King included him on the decision-making process. It wasn’t enough. He wanted more money (the Kerr and Fisher contracts ate at him) and more control (like Rivers, Popovich, Van Gundy or Saunders).
All that being said, it may be fair to examine why Kidd may have decided to approach management to ask for more organizational control, besides a myopic quest for boundless power. There are two elements to consider – that his playing career (and success as a player) leads him to believe he is more qualified than your typical first-year coach, and that his financial stake in the team empowered him to make his brazen pitch for greater organizational control.
Kidd came to the Phoenix Suns via trade the day after Christmas, 1996. At the time, the Suns were 8-19. From that point on, they went 32-13, finishing 40-42 and as the West’s eighth seed, ultimately losing in the first round of the playoffs. The next time Kidd would find himself on a losing team was more than a decade later, his final season in New Jersey. He went to the Nets in a July, 2001 deal and instantly transformed a franchise that had won barely a third of its games over the previous three seasons into back-to-back Eastern Conference Champions. Seven games under .500 at the All-Star break in 2008, Kidd was shipped to Dallas, where his career began. Three years later, he helped lead Dallas to an NBA title. He spent his final season in New York, and while he was almost entirely washed up in the 2013 playoffs, the Knicks had their best season in more than a decade, thanks in part to his on-court leadership. Kidd played 19 seasons, and spent an entire year on a losing team just twice, his first two seasons in the league.
The point, as cliched as it may sound: he’s a winner. And while he might have been a rookie head coach last season, his authority came from the fact that he was one of the best point guards in league history, the best player on two Finals teams and an integral part of a championship team. In his eyes (and, perhaps, in the eyes of the guys he was coaching) he wasn’t starting from scratch, trying to make a name for himself or prove himself worthy of his players’ attention. The fact that Brooklyn rebounded after his (at times unbearably) shaky first couple of months at the helm is evidence of just how far ring credentials can go.
While Kidd’s ownership share in the team was very small, the fact that it existed at all meant firing him would be somewhat difficult or uncomfortable. Immediately after his playing career, he became an owner and a head coach with influence on personnel decisions, with no apprenticeship as an assistant or time spent learning the ropes in a lower-level front office position. He was afforded all that power right out of the gate – is it so shocking that he asked for more?
And as for asking for a raise – Fisher, Kerr and David Blatt will each make literally twice as much as Kidd despite having less experience. He’s finally in a basketball-related position where his salary isn’t controlled by a salary cap. He was working for billionaire owners with deep pockets and a penchant for spending. It’s not difficult to see why he’d inquire.
Clearly he crossed a line at some point, but asking for power over King – whose track record is certainly less than stellar – probably wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world. I’m guessing the true transgression occurred in his delivery and persistence. The NBA is full of machismo and power-hungry individuals, so this can’t have been the first time a coach or General Manager approached an ownership group clamoring for more control and better pay.
Whether Kidd began making waves in the Nets’ organization with the knowledge that the Bucks were a viable safety net remains a mystery – but the reality is, the deal is done. He belongs to Milwaukee now, and someday Milwaukee may belong to him. That depends on whether his ego is bruised, now that his kingmaking efforts were rebuffed, or if he’ll resume his role as Frank Underwood once he arrives in the land of beer and cheese.
Given the trend of hiring ex-players who haven’t spent much time as assistants (Fisher, Jacque Vaughn, Lindsey Hunter) we may see more power struggles like this – especially if stars of Kidd’s caliber (Chauncey Billups, Steve Nash) decide they want to follow in his footsteps to the bench. Were Kidd’s actions defensible? Hardly. Is there reason to think other former players would behave like him, if they were afforded the opportunity? Not necessarily.
But there are many lessons to learn on the way to the sidelines. Kidd passed the regular season tests but failed the offseason ones, and did so in spectacular fashion, providing us with one of the most entertaining and bizarre NBA stories in quite some time. He left Dallas, Phoenix, New Jersey and now Brooklyn in less than amiable fashions, so if you enjoyed the sideshow, stay tuned. Chances are it’ll happen again. For all his faults, Jason Kidd keeps getting chances. That’s what talent buys you in the NBA.