When Rick Carlisle and the Mavericks decided to part ways, owner Mark Cuban realized he had to select the perfect coach to elevate franchise point Luka Doncic to the next level.
Doncic has generational talent, but he wasn’t always in the best of shape, he constantly argued with officials, and he clashed with Carlisle about the limitations of the Mavericks’ offense.
Jason Kidd was a great NBA point guard — an NBA 75 selection — but his coaching record had been checkered a best. He had a shaky one-year stint with the Nets, where he was expected to lead the franchise with an aging Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry to a title. They won 44 games and were dispatched by LeBron James and the Heat in the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals.
He then coached a young Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee but couldn’t lead the Bucks past the first round in three seasons and was fired in the middle of his fourth. He spent two years as a Lakers assistant and felt like he was ready to be a head coach again.
Kidd realized he had to make the best of his next situation, while the Mavericks wanted his leadership skills for Doncic. It has developed into the perfect match, as the fourth-seeded Mavericks are in the Western Conference finals.
Kidd, now 49, reflected on his coaching past, including the risky move of taking the Brooklyn job just weeks after his retirement.
“I think with the Nets I was still a player,” he said. “I had just finished. I had no idea what coaching was all about. I’m still learning what coaching is all about. Totally different situations. In Milwaukee, it was a franchise that was at the bottom, and we were trying to help build something and develop players.”
A more experienced and perhaps more humble Kidd has guided the Mavericks to an ascension similar to the Celtics’. The Mavericks were a decent defensive team that couldn’t score early in the season and the some of the results were ghastly. But the improvement from Jalen Brunson and Maxi Kleber, the trade of Kristaps Porzingis, and the addition of Spencer Dinwiddie have led to the resurgence.
“Totally different when you have a megastar like Luka who’s playing at a high level who’s been a pro since he was 14 years old, and then the other guys you’re trying to help develop when you talk about Brunson and Dorian [Finney-Smith] and these guys,” Kidd said. “It’s been fun. But I learned a lot being an assistant coach with the Lakers and winning a championship there, which was pretty cool, and understanding under Frank [Vogel] and learning from Frank a lot of great things that I didn’t know as a coach. So I borrowed those things and brought them here to Dallas.”
Kidd has learned patience. The Mavericks have been trying to recapture the magic from 2011 when Dirk Nowitzki and Kidd helped the Mavericks stun James and the Heat for the title. The Mavericks have reshaped their roster several times but finally took the right path with the acquisition of Doncic on draft night in 2018.
The Mavericks were not necessarily young but definitely playoff inexperienced after first-round eliminations the past two years. In the meantime, they have learned resiliency.
“The big thing is this group has always learned from its losses and its wins, and they will always bounce back, especially after a bad loss,” Kidd said. “They’re just playing better, I think. Mentally and physically they’ve grown up, too.
“This is a young group, so just understanding a lot of them haven’t been in this position, but they are learning on the fly, and so I would say that we are getting better, and we’re going to be tested in this series just because the Warriors have been through this. This is a great test for us, but the guys are playing better.”
Doncic, the cocky, supremely talented point guard from Slovenia, has drawn comparisons with Larry Bird because of his shooting ability and versatility.
“Luka reminds me of Luka,” Kidd said. “He’s one of a kind. You can compare him to the shooting of Larry Bird. His smile is Magic [Johnson], his play-making ability of Magic. A current player, LeBron. Just doesn’t jump as high as LeBron.
“But when you talk about those traits, they all have one thing in common, and that’s winning, and that’s what he does. He finds a way to win. When you talk about those traits, hopefully at some point he will be right there with those guys, just not his ability to play basketball but to have those championships.”
TNT analysts see four dynamite teams
While the Celtics are deep into their series with the Heat, TNT analysts Stan Van Gundy and Reggie Miller discussed whether either team is the favorite to win the NBA Finals.
The NBA’s final four are teams that weren’t considered title favorites. The Warriors have bounced back after a couple of injury-filled seasons, while Dallas, Miami, and Boston are all playing their best at the perfect time.
Van Gundy said the Heat are a serious title contender and he doesn’t believe they lack a superstar. Jimmy Butler fills that role.
“Jimmy Butler is playing as well as anybody in the league in the playoffs,” said Van Gundy, a former Heat head coach. “He missed a lot of games during the year so he didn’t get the attention of some of the other MVP candidates, but when he’s healthy and playing, he’s truly a star.
“Miami is a team with great toughness, they play both ends of the floor and they get contributions from a lot of people, so it’s very tough to zero in on just Jimmy. They have so much shooting around him and they can win any type of game, which is an important thing.”
Van Gundy couldn’t pick a favorite to win the championship. The Celtics may be the best defensive team of the group. The Warriors have the experience and shooting. The Mavericks have Luka Doncic. The Heat may be the toughest of the four and are relentless when healthy.
“I don’t know if [the Heat have] been overlooked, and not given the attention they should have been,” Van Gundy said. “Miami and Golden State each won 53 games, Dallas 52, and Boston 51. It’s that close. There’s no way I would even hazard a prediction. The team with the most experience is Golden State, and Miami has been together through a Finals run, too.”
Miller lauded the Celtics, who have recovered from an 18-21 start to make an improbable run to the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics have used a stellar defense, along with the emergence of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, to unseat the defending champions in the conference semifinals in seven games.
“Boston all season long never really ducked anyone,” said Miller. “They got off to that slow start and somewhat predictable, new coach, new system. It took time, but this team really started to jell in the start of the new year. They had the best defense and you could see Jayson Tatum emerging as a superstar.”
Miller said he admires the Celtics pursuing a first-round meeting with the Nets and winning all four games by close margins, proving the better team with late-game execution against Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
“I give them a lot of credit,” Miller said. “They sweep the Brooklyn Nets. Those were very tough, hard-fought, down-to-the-wire games where they really grew up on the national stage, and we saw that. And then you go against the defending champs, and now you’re facing a Miami team that’s almost a carbon copy of what Boston is. They get it done at the defensive end. They can grind you out.”
Winning championships is as much based on fortune and circumstance as on talent. An injury to Ja Morant derailed Memphis’s run. The Heat has missed starting guard Kyle Lowry. Boston was without Marcus Smart and Al Horford for Game 1.
“When you get to this point, it’s anyone’s game, who’s playing well, who’s the healthiest,” Miller said. “They’re so many things that these players, coaches, and fan bases have to juggle to win a championship.
“The margin of error is so slim right now that any team can actually win it. That’s what makes it fun, you want parity.”
Grizzlies are in a special spot
The Grizzlies will wonder all summer whether they could have knocked off the Warriors with a healthy Ja Morant. He hurt his knee in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals and the Warriors finished off a game Grizzlies team in six games.
Although Memphis claimed the No. 2 seed in the West and had home-court advantage, it was the decided underdog in the series. But the Grizzlies are a team on the rise with a group of young players, an impressive coach, and a superstar as the nucleus.
Even without Morant, the Grizzlies put up resistance against the Warriors, giving themselves chances to win Games 4 and 6.
“I just told our group how proud I am of them, I’ve never been a part of a group like this, how special they are,” Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said after Game 6. “That’s the players, that’s the coach, that’s staff. This obviously stings, such a special season with a special group, and I want them to cherish that and remember that despite this loss and the end of our season right now how this is going to motivate us moving forward.”
What separates the Grizzlies from being an elite team is experience and likely another quality shooter who can take pressure off Morant. Former first-round pick Desmond Bane is an emerging star, but he experienced back issues during the postseason. Dillon Brooks was far too inconsistent in the playoff run.
“The growth individually, the growth collectively from this season, it’s only going to make us better,” Jenkins said. “This is a step in the direction of this bright future that we talk about all the time.
“As disappointing as it is I had to remind them of everyone’s commitment every single day, not the work just in the games but the work in the offseason, the work in the preseason, non-game days, and at the end of the day what it comes down to is the care factor.
“I’ve never been a part of a group, collection of players and staff that have had this level of care, for many years now, but this is a third season here and this group earned everything they got, just wasn’t good enough in the end. That’s basketball, but I’m just beyond proud of everyone’s commitment and care to making this such a special season and that I also know that this is going to motivate them to continue to having that care factor moving forward to continue to build one year at a time to hopefully bring a championship to Memphis.”
Morant’s knee injury was the center of controversy because of a play in which Golden State’s Jordan Poole yanked at Morant’s knee during a scramble for the ball. Morant left the game with a bone bruise and never returned to the series. Jenkins suggested Poole was the source of the injury but eventually backed off those assertions.
“I’m not going to go down that path,” he said. ”We had different guys with injuries all season long, COVID, the whole league deals with that. Obviously you want Ja out there, but just the way we rallied and two close ones and then we take care of business in Game 5, we’ve been doing that all season long.”
Morant is coming off an All-Star appearance, Most Improved Player Award, and is considered one of the most exciting players in the game. He is also due a five-year, $195 million contract extension this summer. The Grizzlies are certain to offer the max and continue their surge in the Western Conference.
The Grizzlies do have some cap space with Tyus Jones, Kyle Anderson, Jarrett Culver, and the contracts of Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn coming off the books. Jones is expected to be a hot commodity in free agency because of his ability to run the team in Morant’s absence. Anderson is likely to draw mid-level exception offers, although he could return to Memphis.
The Grizzlies are an intriguing team and should be better for this year’s experience.
“So I know, just like the entire team, [Ja will] be motivated to come back,” Jenkins said. “For all of us this is great learning, how to be healthy at the end of the year and maintain that endurance and all that stuff, how we put the work in in the offseason, how we mentally get better from learning from this, the winning plays that you got to make, this is such great experience for all of us.”
The Suns have some offseason issues after their abrupt disposal from the playoffs at the hands of the Mavericks. Deandre Ayton, the former No. 1 overall pick who has developed into one of the league’s top big men, is a restricted free agent this summer and wants a maximum contract. The Suns have already maxed Devin Booker and are paying Chris Paul $30 million per season. Owner Robert Sarver has notoriously been hesitant to approach the luxury tax but might have to for the Suns to continue their run. Swingman Mikal Bridges, one of the top defenders in the NBA, agreed to a $90 million, four-year deal that begins next season. Sharpshooter Cameron Johnson is also eligible for a rookie extension. Meanwhile, the Suns will have to find a way to add talent to a roster that slipped as the season progressed, getting taken to six games by the shorthanded Pelicans and then losing to the Mavericks in seven games. JaVale McGee is the team’s lone contributor who is a free agent, so the Suns are facing major salary-cap issues if they sign Ayton to an extension . . . The Celtics are in the midst of their playoff run, but they’ll have one contract issue this summer, with Grant Williams. The third-year forward, who is coming off the best year of his career, is eligible for a rookie extension. The Celtics should be able to bring back Williams at a fair price, and he’ll likely earn in the $10 million range on any extension because of his value as a defender and shooter . . . Did you know that prior to signing a 10-day contract to return to the Celtics that center Luke Kornet finished a 10-day deal with the Bucks and he counted $102,000 against the team’s payroll this season? Kornet played in one game for Milwaukee, three minutes total, and did not score. Meanwhile, the Bucks, considering their shortcomings against the Celtics, need more reinforcements to support Giannis Antetokounmpo, as they have payroll issues with Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton, who have player options they are likely to decline. Portis played for just $4.3 million this season and is guaranteed to get at least the mid-level ($9.5 million), while Connaughton could get the same. Strangely, Grayson Allen, who struggled mightily in the Boston series, will earn $18.7 million over the next two seasons. The Bucks may lose Portis and Connaughton, who are more valued on the market than Allen.