The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As an immature coach, Jason Kidd failed. Then he found Luka Doncic.

Jason Kidd and Luka Doncic have the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference finals. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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For Jason Kidd, Luka Doncic isn’t merely the superstar every NBA coach needs to chase glory. Doncic is an equal, a modern basketball prodigy to match wits with an old Hall of Fame player, the kind of talent that legends seldom get to lead after transitioning from court to bench.

Great players often make ineffectual coaches because of the very thing that spurred their fame. They’re gifted. They see a game that almost no one else can see, let alone replicate. It’s hard to translate the extraordinary to the ordinary. So teams cater to franchise players. Coaches are more like the caterer.

The Dallas Mavericks have a rare dynamic, though, and it’s becoming more distinct as they ascend to credible contenders during these playoffs. Kidd and Doncic have complementary basketball minds, and in the first season of their coach-player relationship, they are bridging multiple generations of point guard styles. Considering all that Doncic has accomplished at 23, Kidd knows he’s coaching more than a nice player who would be lucky to match his success.

Doncic possesses the potential to be so much more than Kidd — a top-75 player of all time — and the Slovenian star already has put four seasons of elite productivity toward fulfilling it. Doncic is both like Kidd — a big, cerebral floor general in total control of the game’s flow — and his own, incomparable thing. It gives new meaning to a player being an extension of the coach.

Look at the pairing as a dual muse. Doncic is inspired by a coach who has done what he hopes to do. Kidd is thrilled to work with a player who can do even more.

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Last summer, Kidd returned to Dallas, where the Mavericks drafted him in 1994 and where he came back to win a championship in 2011, grateful for a sweet opportunity after two rocky stops to begin his coaching career. He took the craziest path to Doncic. It was a journey lined with privilege: Nine years ago, he retired, and the next week, he accepted a job as Brooklyn’s coach. Then shame: He bounced from the Nets to Milwaukee after one season, having lost an attempt to gain power over General Manager Billy King. Later, the Bucks fired him 3½ seasons into his tenure, partly because his stern taskmaster act had grated on most of the team.

When Kidd left Milwaukee in 2018, he was a 44-year-old with an uncertain future in a profession he had entered too soon. Although he had a winning record and three playoff appearances on his coaching résumé, he had short stints with two organizations. After the power struggle in Brooklyn, former Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov offered a rebuke that still stings.

“There is a nice proverb in English: Don’t let the door hit you where the Good Lord has split you,” the Russian billionaire said.

Rivalries, controversies and utter nonsense defined the start of Kidd’s coaching career. Talk of his antics overshadowed evaluations of his ability to teach the game. Once, with Brooklyn, he was fined $50,000 for intentionally spilling soda on the court, which was a ruse to stop play because his team was out of timeouts.

Kidd took a year off after the Bucks fired him, then got a job with the Los Angeles Lakers as an assistant to Frank Vogel and won a championship in 2020. In two seasons with the Lakers, he reset his coaching reputation. Many speculated Kidd was in L.A. to take over if Vogel failed, but Kidd embraced the opportunity to learn and grow.

Kidd may have played his way into an immediate coaching gig, but that didn’t make him a coach. He needed time to turn all his hoops wisdom into fully formed philosophies that could create a culture. He had bursts of genius, including his role in igniting Giannis Antetokounmpo. His own development required much more patience.

And now he’s at his third stop, back with Mark Cuban and Dallas, and in the Western Conference finals. To get here, the Mavericks beat Utah, a perennial playoff team, despite Doncic starting the series injured. But it’s their comeback against Phoenix, the defending Western Conference champions who had the league’s best regular season record, that validated this new direction with Kidd and Nico Harrison, the team’s rookie president and general manager. They aren’t just Luka’s team. They are a budding defensive marvel with Luka as the playmaking centerpiece.

In Dallas’s stunning Game 7 blowout of the Suns, the Mavericks were so locked in defensively that it felt as though five Kidds were on the floor at all times. Doncic was spectacular and ornery, cackling as he orchestrated a masterpiece. Doncic plays at such a methodical pace — never rushed, always in control, affected only by his annoyance at the referees — that you can almost see his mind churning. In Kidd’s prime, speed was essential to his game, but when teams could slow him down, you recognized the same ability to process the game and anticipate everything that would happen.

Kidd arrived in Dallas saying of Doncic: “My job is to give him answers to the test. His imagination is at the highest level, which is a great thing to be a part of. I tried a lot of things, and I know I drove a lot of my coaches crazy. I won’t get mad because I’ve been in those shoes.”

His shoes probably couldn’t match Doncic’s advanced footwork and shot-making. Kidd was the classic pass-first point guard. Doncic is a scorer with exceptional court vision and feel, and Kidd is slowly teaching him how to play off the ball at times. But defensive awareness is the greatest impact Kidd will have on the superstar, and after the coach challenged Doncic to “participate” defensively when the Mavericks fell behind 2-0 against the Suns, Doncic responded like a player who burns to win. He probably won’t ever be considered a good defender, but at 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds, there are different contributions he can make in positionless lineups with better effort and focus.

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Before Kidd, Indiana Coach Rick Carlisle led the Mavericks and honed Doncic as an offensive force. But he couldn’t get the Mavericks to play on the other end the way that Kidd has. Dallas finished Kidd’s first season ranked seventh in defensive efficiency. Before his arrival, it had finished in the lower third for most of Doncic’s time. The Mavs aren’t as explosive offensively under Kidd, but the improved balance has meant everything in the postseason.

“Jason was able to bring an attitude that was much needed,” Carlisle said in an interview with Dallas radio station 105.3 the Fan.

Years from now, when we look back on this era of multipositional, multicultural basketball, we will have to recognize Kidd as an unlikely whisperer. He is the basketball mind who unlocked the atypical greatness of Antetokounmpo. Now, he is helping Doncic, already polished, translate his individual talent into team playoff success.

Kidd doesn’t need any more soda shenanigans. He has a player who can vibe with him. Actually, he has someone who completes his transformation from legend to coach: a young superstar destined to surpass him, then reach back and take him higher.