2018 Hall of Fame
Jason Kidd's vision on court was to always assist others
During his 19-season career, point guard was a proven triple threat
The numbers speak for themselves.
Jason Kidd is one of only 13 players that rank in the top 100 all-time in points (81st – 17,529), rebounds (54th – 8,725) and assists second – 12,091). He’s the shortest one among the group and also No. 2 all-time in steals (2,684).
But when Kidd is enshrined at the Naismith Hall of Fame on Sept. 7, it will be about a lot more than the numbers. The unique story of Kidd’s NBA career is about vision, impact, leadership and evolution.
Soccer aided uncanny vision
You don’t dish out more than 12,000 assists by accident. But you can compile a lot of assists without being a brilliant passer if you have the ball a lot. That wasn’t the case with Kidd, the kind of of passer that we don’t see much of these days.
Kidd saw passes that others didn’t and had the nerve to make passes that others wouldn’t. He knew where defenders would be or how to move them (with a look-off) to where he wanted them to be.
He was at his best in transition, and a huge chunk of the highlights from his years in New Jersey are Kidd throwing a lead pass to Richard Jefferson, Kerry Kittles, Kenyon Martin or Vince Carter for a layup or dunk. He threw alley-oops off the glass, he avoided defenders by putting spin on the ball, and there may not be a more prolific behind-the-back passer in NBA history.
When asked about his vision, Kidd credits the game of soccer, which he played through the sixth grade, before schedule conflicts forced him to limit himself to just basketball and baseball. He and fellow 2018 inductee Steve Nash have discussed soccer’s influence on their passing and footwork.
“Soccer is a very pass-oriented game,” Kidd told NBA.com. “You have to pass, and you have to pass in small areas. It’s passing and movement, being able to move after you pass.”
Kidd had to give up soccer to advance his basketball career, but those years playing one sport served him well with the other.
Impact felt on court
Kidd was an elite athlete in his early 20s, and he won a championship at 38. But he was at his best in New Jersey.
In the summer of 1999, Rod Thorn was an executive in the league office. And was part of the Senior Mens Basketball Committee for USA Basketball, he was in Puerto Rico for the Tournament of the Americas, where the USA went 10-0 with an average differential of 32 points per game. Kidd started alongside Gary Payton, led the team in assists, and made a huge impression on Thorn.
“Everybody gravitated to Jason,” Thorn, also being enshrined this year, told NBA.com. “Without being the verbal leader, he was the leader. All the top players in the league wanted to play with him, because he passed the ball, because he did all the little things that help you win. And I became a huge fan of him that summer.”
Everybody gravitated to Jason. … All the top players in the league wanted to play with him, because he passed the ball, because he did all the little things that help you win.”
Rod Thorn, who acquired Kidd for the Nets as GM
Two years later, when Thorn was one year into his tenure as Nets general manager, he reached out to the Phoenix Suns, hoping to bring Kidd to New Jersey. The Suns obliged, and in hindsight, the Kidd-for-Stephon Marbury swap is one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history.
When Kidd arrived in New Jersey, he immediately said that the Nets would make the playoffs. At that point, the team was coming off a 26-win season, had been in the NBA for 25 years, and had made the playoffs just seven times.
“That’s not the way the Nets thought in those days,” Thorn laughed about Kidd’s bold proclamation.
Kidd showed he was serious by diving for loose balls in training camp. The Nets showed they were serious by playing preseason games to win, and according to Thorn, “you could see that we were a much better team.”
They weren’t just better. They were the best team in the Eastern Conference, winning 52 games and reaching The Finals for the first time since the ABA/NBA merger.
The Nets improved from 25th (in 2000-01) to 18th in offensive efficiency and from 24th to 2nd on defense. At the time, the team’s jump from 26-56 (in 2000-01) to 52-30 was the sixth biggest improvement in NBA history (959 team-seasons where a team played the season prior). It’s still tied for the the 10th biggest improvement (1,436 total team-seasons) and ’01-02 remains the Nets’ best season in their 42 years in the NBA.
Kittles returned after missing the previous season. They added Jefferson and Jason Collins in the Draft, as well as Todd MacCulloch in free agency. Martin was a better player in his second season than he was as a rookie, and a healthier Keith Van Horn played 32 games more than he did in ’00-01. Including Kidd, the Nets had five Lottery picks on the roster.
But the biggest difference between the 2000-01 Nets and the ’01-02 Nets was the point guard.
“There was some other things that fell into place for us,” Thorn said, “but he was the catalyst.”
Arguably, he was the most valuable player in the league. But he finished second in MVP voting to San Antonio’s Tim Duncan.
The Nets were swept in the 2002 Finals, but returned (with a 10-game, postseason winning streak) in 2003 and took two games off the Spurs. In 2004, they gave the eventual-champion Pistons their toughest series before Kidd seemingly ran out of gas in Game 7. He had microfracture surgery that summer.
They never got closer to a championship, but over Kidd’s six full seasons in New Jersey (2001-02 to ’06-07), only the Spurs (65) and Pistons (63) won more postseason games than the Nets (43). Those 43 wins account for 69 percent of the franchise’s 62 playoff wins in its 42 years in the NBA.
New Jersey wasn’t the only place where Kidd made an impact upon arrival. In his rookie season, the Mavs won 23 more games than they did the season prior. In his first full season in Phoenix (1997-98), the Suns saw an increase of 16 wins. In the final season of his playing career, he helped the Knicks win 18 more games than they did the season prior. He was a rookie coach for the Nets’ only playoff series win in their six seasons in Brooklyn, and when he moved to Milwaukee, the Bucks tied the ’01-02 Nets and ’03-04 Nuggets for the 10th biggest improvement in NBA history.
A quiet leader
That kind of impact obviously goes beyond Kidd’s ability to pass, score, rebound and defend. Kidd was a leader. He wasn’t the “rah rah” type, but he brought out the best in his teammates, and not just because he got them the ball on time and on target.
“The guy was a fierce, fierce competitive guy, and he never gave up,” Thorn said. “He didn’t talk a lot on the court. He didn’t say much at all. He just played. But he was a fierce competitor.”
“He inspired confidence in players, and he inspired players to follow his lead without talking about it all the time. He just did it. They would all say that he pulled them to another level by the way he played and the way he conducted himself on the court.”
That Nets’ core was young and impressionable, and they had the right guy at the most important position on the floor.
”It’s unbelievable when you see the star practice hard all the time,” teammate Lucious Harris told the New York Times before the ’01-02 season began. ”He’ll never look you off. Even if you miss four shots in a row, he’s still going to pass to you.”
Even when Kidd wasn’t the star that he was in New Jersey, he remained a leader, guiding the Mavs to the only title in franchise history and the Knicks to their only 50-win season in the last 18 years (and the only season in which they’ve been a better-than-average defensive team in the last 17).
“A lot of people don’t understand that you can mentally be the strength of the team,” Kidd said, “and everybody will look at you when things are bad to see how you’re reacting. You don’t have to be fast. You don’t have to touch the rim. But mentally, if you’re strong and people see that, they’re going to be like, ‘We’re all right, because Jason’s not panicking. So why would we panic?'”
Game evolves with time
Of course, Kidd’s success with Dallas was about more than leadership. He was still a valuable contributor at the age of 38 because he saw where he needed to get better at the age of 33.
In his prime, Kidd on the break was something to behold, and he didn’t need a consistent jump shot to be an MVP candidate.
“At that time,” Thorn said, “Jason was as fast with the ball, from foul line to foul line, as anybody in the league, with the possible exception of Iverson. He was incredibly fast with the ball. He was 6-4, 215 pounds. He was very strong.”
But knee surgery in 2004 took away some of Kidd’s athleticism. And the Nets’ acquisition of Vince Carter a few months later took away some of his touches. Kidd understood that he’d have to become a more consistent shooter, so he started working with Nets shooting coach Bob Thate.
“I knew Vince was going to take the lead,” Kidd said. “I didn’t really think about being bumped down, I thought about how I could still be a part of the offense. So I had to figure out how to make the open three.”
He figured it out and the work paid off. After shooting 33 percent from 3-point range over his first 13 seasons in the league, Kidd shot 38 percent over his last six seasons. Though Kidd had a lower field goal percentage over his last six seasons, he had a much higher effective field goal percentage than he did over his first 13, because he shot more (and better) from 3-point range.
On a recent episode of the Bill Simmons Podcast, Stephen Curry said that at each stage of Kidd’s career, “he figured out a different skill set to call on.”
“He was an entirely different player,” Curry said of Kidd’s final few seasons, after Curry had come into the league, “but he was very impactful, in terms of orchestrating the offense, standing at the top of the key, finding the guy that was open, and knocking down an open three. He did that and got three extra years out of his career, and a championship.”
Indeed, Kidd hit some big threes, including a dagger with 1:26 to go in Game 5 of The Finals, along the Mavs’ road to the 2011 title. And he wouldn’t have been there without the work he put him years earlier.
“It goes to his mentality,” Thorn said. “It goes to his intelligence.”
It was quite an evolution.
“Phoenix was great, because that’s where I learned how to win,” Kidd reflected. “And then the timing of going to New Jersey was probably playing at the best that I had played in my career. In the same breath, to be older in Dallas and still have an effect on the game, not being the main guy, not being quick or able to score, but still, mentally, being able to have an impact.”
It’s a Hall-of-Fame career, and in every phase, Kidd’s impact was felt. He was an elite athlete, an MVP candidate, a guy who made his team better on both ends of the floor, and one of the smartest players the league has ever seen.
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