It can be hard to assess the value of coaches in the NBA. The only product fans see is what the players do, and it’s impossible to know how much of that is a function of their own abilities vs. what the coaches have schemed. It’s even harder to know how assistant coaches factor into the whole equation when head coaches are the ones generally held accountable for a team’s performance.
The one exception is if a team succeeds, then everyone gets the credit. That certainly appears to be the case with the Lakers.
Jason Kidd — who was hired with what has to be the complete opposite of fanfare — had never been an assistant coach before in his NBA tenure. Most people were unsure of how he would fit next to Frank Vogel for that reason, and because the two had no prior relationship.
But Kidd did have a pre-existing bond with another key Laker, LeBron James. That, combined with his encyclopedic knowledge of the game and experience as a former player, made him an invaluable addition to the Lakers coaching staff this season.
In a radio interview with Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Vogel lavished Kidd with praise for his performance as an assistant coach, particularly in the ways Kidd was able to complement Vogel’s own skill set:
“We hired Phil Handy, who had a previous relationship with LeBron working with him closely in Cleveland, and then Jason, having known LeBron through USA Basketball and having that relationship. I think that those two hires really helped me bridge the gap with LeBron. LeBron and I had a sort of professional relationship competing against each other.
“But I can’t say enough about Jason Kidd, and his impact on this year’s team. I mean he’s one of those guys that, there’s guys who study the game hours upon hours upon hours that don’t have the natural basketball instinct that Jason Kidd has, you know what I mean? And his ability to support me and and combine my sort of video study work with his lens of his basketball instincts I really think was a great partnership and a great pairing, and a huge reason why we were able to put this talented group of players and make them play as a team and obviously, achieve the ultimate goal.”
Vogel was upfront about never having played high-level basketball, not even at the collegiate level, so it helped to have Kidd — a former All-Star and Olympian — who could connect with the team’s stars with that shared experience. Vogel’s preparation for this job was clearly second to none, but he understood that Kidd saw the game in a way he couldn’t. Both those perspectives were necessary for the Lakers.
Kidd’s ability to connect with the players was especially important during the wildcat strike following the shooting of Jacob Blake. Play stopped for a few days, and there were questions about how the league and its players would proceed, both in their social justice endeavors and with the postseason itself.
Rob Pelinka noted on “The Woj Pod” with Adrian Wojnarowski that Kidd came through in that moment to help the Laker players come to a decision on finishing out the season.
“In that particular time, Jason Kidd emerged in a huge way (and) I’ll be forever grateful. Of course he was on the USA team with LeBron, and because of being a Hall of Fame player and winning championships as a player, he just has a way to be a listener and to be a problem solver. And that night, when the emotions were high — rightfully so — I can remember him being up til 3, 4 in the morning, just being there (for players) to talk and to work through issues. Because when LeBron and Anthony are making decisions about the future of our team, they’ve got to be heard. You’ve got to kind of unpack and go through all the issues with them, and Jason was a listening ear.
“Of course their agent, Rich Paul, played a big role too in kind of letting them see the issues from all the different spheres, the financial sphere, the social justice sphere, but there was a key moment that’s been publicized where — and I remember being with Jason when this was happening — where the players, LeBron and Chris Paul, and a couple others got on the phone with the former president, Barack Obama.
“That was a pivotal moment, just in terms of the advice that was given in terms of ‘hey, let’s just focus on a couple issues. If you try to bite off too much, you’ll get nothing done.’ And I think coming out of that time where they were able to then partner with the governors and the owners to come up with a voting plan and running ads about voting, in those times where the bubble seemed tenuous, leaders emerged. Who would have known Barack Obama would have gotten on the phone. Who would have known Jason Kidd was built for a time like that to be around our players, so that’s the other part of the bubble stories that the world doesn’t know.”
Kidd’s record as a head coach made him a fair subject to scrutiny when he first came to the Lakers. But he found a place where he could put his skills and experience to their best use, much like so many of the players who ended up on this roster in need of redemption.
Whether that leads to another head coaching job in his future is an open question, but as an assistant, Kidd proved his worth. Every piece of the puzzle is necessary when winning a championship, and Kidd fit right in.