Jason Kidd was brought to the Dallas Mavericks in 2008 to solve their stagnant half-court offense and make it easier for Dirk Nowitzki to get shots off the pass. And yet, the biggest shot Kidd has hit in his most recent three-and-a-half year stint in Dallas came in a half-court isolation for Nowitzki that would have made former coach Avery Johnson proud.
With a minute to go in overtime of Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals and the Mavericks and Thunder tied at 105, Nowitzki had the ball at the top of the key and Kidd was stationed in the right corner. Nowitzki drove, and Russell Westbrook gambled off Kidd. Nowitzki found Kidd with the pass, Kidd pump-faked to let Westbrook fly by and nailed the dagger three-pointer. Oklahoma City wouldn't score again.
There was a dash of Kidd's idiosyncratic flair in the shot with the pump fake, the same quality that has made him one of the most unique players in NBA history. But mostly, it was a spot-up three-pointer, one that tons of players in NBA history have taken. It certainly wasn't what the Mavericks had in mind when they sold the farm to acquire Kidd in 2008.
And sell the farm they did. To get Kidd, the Mavericks traded their own promising young point guard (Devin Harris), their part-time starting center (DeSagania Diop), two first-round picks that turned into two promising youngsters (Ryan Anderson and Jordan Crawford) and an extra $11 million. It was a blockbuster trade that bordered on insanity, one that owner Mark Cuban -- who is no stranger to bold moves -- suggested was "a little out there." It certainly worked out poorly at the start, as Kidd quarreled with Johnson, got lit up by Chris Paul in the 2008 playoffs and started showing his age. It looked like a disaster as recently as last year's playoffs, when Kidd shot 30 percent from the field in a six-game series loss to the Spurs.
But one year later, here we are. Kidd's Mavericks are in the NBA Finals, steamrolling through three strong opponents to get the chance to knock off the Heatles. To downplay Kidd's role in this team's revival is foolish. He's the one that gets Dirk Nowitzki the ball in his spots. He's the one that spaces the floor with his improved three-point shot and makes key decisions that make teams pay for double-teaming Nowitzki. He's the one that has guarded Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in key spots, succeeding despite supposedly losing his foot speed due to old age. He's the one that has fostered a culture of unselfishness with his leadership by example.
It's a reality even those who know Kidd well would have had trouble predicting. It's not a surprise that he changed the Mavericks' culture and helped extend Nowitzki's career. But for it to happen like this -- immediate disappointment, followed by Kidd adapting and persevering -- is so un-Kiddlike.
Hailed and treated as a savior in every one of his stops in his basketball career, Kidd has nevertheless been involved in three different blockbuster trades, arguably directly contributed to six different coaches getting fired and has dealt with lots of off-court problems. The 2008 trade to the Mavericks was the fifth stage of his NBA career, and the previous four had all followed the same pattern: immediate success, followed by extended disappointment and Kidd acting up. When the Mavericks traded for him, they did so hoping that pattern would continue, that Kidd would give Dallas that immediate shot in the arm.
Instead, a new pattern emerged, and the Mavericks are better off for it.
Jason Kidd was supposed to be the Mavericks' savior when they drafted him No. 2 overall in 1994. A high-school prodigy in the Bay Area, Kidd touched down in college for two years at California, reviving the program and doing enough to show the hype was justified. His play was so dazzling and unique that some of the oddities of the situation were ignored. For one, Kidd never really enjoyed the attention he received. For another, there was instability during those two years that proved to be a harbinger of things to come. Midway through his freshman year, coach Lou Campanelli was fired, and rumors persist that it was in part because Kidd and the rest of the players were tired of playing for him. Todd Bozeman took over and the team improved, so it was forgotten, but it was a strange sign.
Nevertheless, the Mavericks were impressed enough with Kidd's playmaking to pick him No. 2 overall. The Mavericks had two building blocks in Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn, and needed someone to get them the ball and lift them to new heights. Immediately, the vision was realized. Kidd, Jackson and Mashburn led Dallas to a massive improvement in 1994/95, winning 16 more games and establishing themselves as a team of the future. Kidd's play made the trio a trio instead of three separate parts, with an unselfish game that allowed Jackson and Mashburn to carry the scoring load.
But as quickly as it came together, it fell apart. First, it was Jackson and Mashburn feuding, with Kidd largely staying above the fray. Then, Mashburn suffered a season-ending injury, and Kidd and Jackson took things to a new level. It's not clear how much of the feud between the two men was basketball-related and how much was over a rumored love triangle between them and pop singer Toni Braxton, but either way, it got so bad that they went six weeks without speaking to each other. The Mavericks faded back to irrelevancy, and coach Dick Motta became the second of several coaches to lose his job in part due to something Kidd did.
The Mavericks initially decided to keep all three men together, hiring Bulls assistant Jim Cleamons to run the Triangle offense. But Kidd's erratic behavior made it impossible for the Mavericks to get things back on track. First, he ordered a public ultimatum that the Mavericks needed to choose between him and Jackson. Then, he backed off, saying they could work things out. First, he enjoyed the system; then, he chafed at it and claimed the Mavericks broke a promise to inform him of key decisions before they happened. He reportedly didn't speak to Cleamons for two months, and while Cleamons lasted in Dallas longer than Kidd, it wasn't long before he too was shown the door. The passive-aggressiveness was strange, to say the least, especially coming from a player who embodies everything a point guard should be about on the court.
That is how the Mavericks' one-time savior ended up getting dealt to Phoenix in a stunning move that gave the Suns the best player and allowed them to save money.
Jason Kidd was supposed to be the Suns' savior when they stole him in that trade. It really was an incredible coup for Phoenix. Not only did they acquire Kidd while only giving up one key youngster (Michael Finley), an impending free agent (Sam Cassell) and the albatross A.C. Green contract, but they also managed to create enough cap room to eventually fuel their mini-rise.
Through it all, Kidd was the catalyst. None of the immaturity Kidd showed in Dallas was there at the start. Coach Danny Ainge took a liking to him, as did Scott Skiles after he took over for Ainge in 1998. Under Kidd, the Suns became one of the league's most exciting teams, with Kidd leading the break and finding Antonio McDyess (before he left) and Shawn Marion for dunks. Playing with a renewed vigor after the death of his father in 1999, Kidd logged heavy minutes and kept the Suns in contention in a deep Western Conference despite injuries to expensive free-agent signings like Penny Hardaway and Tom Gugliotta. It appeared that the issue in Dallas was the environment, not Kidd.
That all came to a screeching halt in 2001, though it wasn't because of anything basketball-related. On January 18, Kidd spit a french fry in his wife Joumana's mouth, then struck her in the face during an argument involving their son. The incident tarnished what seemed like a happy marriage on the surface, and it came at a particularly bad time for Kidd, because his teammates were also getting in trouble with the law. Jerry Colangelo, the longtime owner of the Suns, was notoriously intolerant of poor off-court behavior, and ordered Kidd to apologize to Suns fans publicly before a game. That restored some goodwill, and to his credit, Kidd did work hard on his anger management to try to save his marriage, but the damage was done.
That summer, Kidd was traded for Stephon Marbury, who had maturity issues of his own. On his way out, Kidd claimed that Skiles was "intimidated" by him, a ridiculous suggestion that Skiles was stupefied to hear. It took just 51 games for Skiles to lose his job the next year. Make that a fourth coach Kidd helped run out of town.
Jason Kidd was supposed to save basketball in New Jersey in 2001, and he did, at least at the start. The way his presence alone immediately turned the Nets from also-rans to championship contenders was the stuff of legends. There's really no way to downplay Kidd's performance in 2002 and 2003. Sure, the Nets benefited from a return to health of several key players, but they turned into a championship-caliber team because of Kidd and Kidd alone. His passing ability unlocked the talents of Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson, Kerry Kittles and others, and his leadership helped make the Nets an elite defensive team. It also looked like he was finally putting his past behind him, both by being more communicative instead of passive-aggressive and by repairing his marriage with Joumana.
Even that didn't exactly last, though. Midway through Kidd's third season in New Jersey, the Nets shocked the NBA world and fired coach Byron Scott, even though Scott had led the Nets to two straight NBA Finals appearances. In return, the Nets promoted Lawrence Frank, a gym-rat type with no NBA head coaching experience. It was unclear exactly what happened, but it eventually came out that Kidd helped run Scott out of town for some reason. It was the fifth coach Kidd feuded with that lost his job because of something Kidd did or said.
The first edition of the Nets died with a 2004 NBA Playoffs loss to Detroit, and once again, Kidd was at the center of instability. Part of it wasn't his fault. He was forced to undergo microfracture surgery, and despite his tremendous recovery, he wasn't the same player in 2005. It also didn't help that the Nets let Martin go, a move that frustrated Kidd and caused him to begin to question management. The Nets stayed patient, and instead of trading Kidd, they swung a blockbuster to bring Vince Carter to town, a move that temporary quenched Kidd's discontent.
Once again, things looked good at the beginning. Kidd experienced a dramatic resurgence in 2006, adjusting his game to fit the half-court talents of Carter. The Nets surprised many by finishing with the third-best record in the East, though they fell in the second round of the playoffs. But another second-round loss followed in 2007, and Kidd was fed up again, this time with the losing, with Carter and with his messy divorce from Joumana, which included allegations of spousal abuse on both sides. The next season was incredibly awkward, with Kidd skipping a December game in protest of the Nets not trading him, then essentially issuing a trade demand in January. The Mavericks, needing that shot in the arm, bit, and suddenly, Kidd was being asked to be a savior again.
Three years later, and Kidd has proven to be a different kind of savior. He has changed the Mavericks' culture, ushering in one of unselfishness and offensive efficiency after years of isolation-heavy basketball under Avery Johnson. But it didn't happen right away. The Mavericks closed poorly in 2008, as Kidd and Johnson could never agree on his role. Kidd wanted the freedom his previous coaches gave him; Johnson wanted structure, control and direct involvement in every play. After a disastrous 2008 playoffs, Johnson was fired, becoming the sixth coach Kidd helped run out of town in his basketball career.
Since that moment, Kidd's game has undergone an unbelievable transformation. Where he was once the league's premier fast-break player, Kidd has evolved into being a tremendous spot-up shooter. The man they once called "Ason" because he had no J is now a 40-percent three-point shooter. He once knew all the angles in transition; now, he knows all the angles in the halfcourt. But his transformation off the court has been much more stunning. No longer is Kidd feuding with coaches or fellow players. His off-court maturity has finally caught up to his on-court wizardry and unselfishness.
How did all this happen in Dallas after the 2008 trade? It's tough to say. Perhaps Kidd found a kindred spirit in Nowitzki, someone who, like Kidd, responds to adversity by crawling into his own world, shutting out all distractions and isolating himself. Perhaps Kidd has been relieved from not having to be a prodigy or savior, something he never seemed comfortable with going all the way back to being an eighth-grader in the Bay Area. Perhaps Kidd is simply a different person, now that his messy divorce is behind him. Perhaps that was a moment where he shed so much baggage and finally started over.
In the end, who really knows? But one thing is for sure: Kidd has changed. Often times, when we write these career retrospectives of professional athletes who have been through a lot, we realize that they haven't changed as much as our perceptions of them have. That's certainly the case with Nowitzki, and we're finding that's also the case with LeBron James, the man who leads the Mavericks' opponent in the 2011 NBA Finals.
But it's not the case with Jason Kidd. Kidd, truly, has changed, and Dallas is better for it.