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After rocky start, Jason Kidd has grown as Nets coach

Jason Kidd talks to his players during the

Jason Kidd talks to his players during the first half of a game against the Charlotte Bobcats in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. Credit: AP / Chuck Burton

It didn't start well, to say the least.

Jason Kidd's first two games as coach of the Nets were spent serving a suspension, the result of a July guilty plea to a charge of driving while impaired.

In late November, he was fined $50,000 after spilling a drink on the court to gain a timeout at the end of a tight game against the Lakers.

He clashed with his million-dollar assistant, Lawrence Frank, and ultimately had him reassigned to writing daily reports in early December.

On New Year's Eve, the Nets, who had the highest payroll in the league, were 10-21. The rookie coach was getting hammered daily in the media, with reports detailing how the team, with Kidd at the helm, had devolved into chaos. One website named him the worst coach in the NBA.

"Early in the season, it was rough," Nets guard Joe Johnson said. "He was learning at first. We had to get his feet wet, and we all went through some tough times. I think it made him a much better coach. It made us a tight-knit team."

Make that a tight-knit team that is rolling into the playoffs with a coach now being celebrated for the Nets' turnaround.

After Saturday night's victory over the 76ers, the Nets (42-34) own the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, and their 32-13 record since Jan. 1 is the best in the conference.

Kidd was named the Eastern Conference's coach of the month in March for the second time in three months, joining the Bulls' Tom Thibodeau as the only rookie coaches to win the honor twice.

So what accounts for the turnaround? Kidd has brushed off any role he has played in the team's 2014 surge. "It's all about the guys in the locker room," he said after winning the March award. "Those guys are playing at a high level."

Yet, those who know Kidd believe it took a few months for him to figure out how to translate the competitiveness and court smarts he displayed during his 19-year playing career to his new role as coach.

"Of all the players I've been around, I think he has as good of a feel or understanding of the game as anybody," said NBA president of basketball operations Rod Thorn, who was the Nets' general manager when Kidd led the team to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003. "He knew what should be done. He was a thinking man's type of player when he played. There was no doubt in my mind, if he wanted to be a coach and applied himself, he would succeed."

Thorn said it's hard to overstate how large a leap Kidd made in one season, going from the Knicks' roster at this time last year to the front of the Nets' bench. Though the NBA coaching ranks are filled with former players, Doc Rivers and Mark Jackson are the only ones who jumped into the coaching ranks without serving time as an assistant. And both players took time off between their playing and coaching careers to work as broadcasters.

Johnson said playing for Kidd at first was a little weird, simply because he knew him so well as a player.

"It's still a little weird," Johnson said. "I played against Jason for years and with him in an All-Star Game. It's definitely different, but it's fun at the same time because he's very understanding of what we go through, having just come off of playing. He's been great all year and learning and he's just getting better."

Nets general manager Billy King said the organization always expected some growing pains. He heralded the job that Kidd did in adjusting the team's offense after All-Star center Brook Lopez suffered a broken foot in December and was lost for the season. King said the organization's support never wavered for Kidd, who turned 41 on March 23.

"The questioning was just people on the outside," King said. "I think he had the confidence and believed in himself, and he just let his instincts take over."

King said he became convinced that Kidd was going to be able to turn things around in late December, even while the losses continued to pile up.

"I could see things turning in practice, even when we were losing," King said. "He was working on things in the offense and kept adding and making sure guys were paying attention to detail. That's when I knew. He didn't panic. He just kept working and getting better and better."

Jason Collins wasn't with the team when it was struggling. But he played with Kidd on the Nets when they were in New Jersey, and he said it's very interesting to see how he's learned to translate his vision as a player to his vision as a coach.

"He's always been a lead-by-example kind of guy, but now he's more of a vocal leader," said Collins, who signed his first 10-day contract with the Nets in late February. "It's cool to see him continue to grow and evolve into being a great coach."

It's hard to recall when Kidd has panicked or even lost his cool on the court, whether playing or coaching. He's famous for his poker face. He had gone all season without a technical foul before getting one in the first quarter of a 110-81 blowout loss to the Knicks on Wednesday night.

"A lot of people during the season took it as being aloof, but he's so even keel that people stay calm on the sideline," King said. "He's not crazy. He's not jumping. He's very calm, and it translates to our players."

Kidd also has shown that he's not afraid to gamble and be creative on the fly. In the Nets' overtime win at Dallas in March, some thought he out-coached his mentor, Rick Carlisle, at the end of regulation when he used a small lineup of guards and small forwards with Paul Pierce playing center. This stretched the Dallas defense to the point that Johnson could go to the basket pretty much unchallenged for the tying layup.

The expectations will continue to be high for Kidd in the playoffs. It doesn't matter that he is a rookie coach. He has a veteran-laden team that is built to win now.

Thorn, who saw Kidd transform what had been a 26-win team the year before into a team that made the 2002 NBA Finals, believes he is up for the challenge.

"In everything Jason does, he's a competitor," Thorn said. "He's one of the toughest competitors. I'm thinking of guys like Michael Jordan. Jason is the same way. He plays to win and he wants to win and he understands what it takes to win. A lot of guys want to win, but you have to put it all together. Jason knows how to do that."

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