Thursday, February 16, 2006

Not Kidding Around
By Ben Valentine

In sports they teach you to expect the unexpected.

For the New Jersey Nets, the biggest question entering this season was whether Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter could co- exist. If they could and the team avoided injuries, then there was little doubt the Nets would be a top team in the Eastern Conference and a contender for the NBA title.

So now at the All Star Break, New Jersey sits at 28-23, atop the Atlantic Division yes, but not without a lot of trouble. To close out the first half, the Nets needed a last second Carter shot to beat the lowly Charlotte Bobcats. That’s a game a title contender doesn’t sweat out. Of course it’s better than a loss, which the Nets already have against the Bobcats this season.

So what’s the problem? It has to be that Carter and Jefferson aren’t playing well together right?

Wrong.

In fact, the pairing has worked better than anyone could have hoped for; Carter was named to the all star team after posting 23.8 points per game, 5.9 rebounds per game, 4.5 assists per game and a 44.3 FG percentage while Jefferson could have made a case for himself with a solid 18.9 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4 assists and 49.0 FG percentage. 22 year old center Nenad Krstic has been a solid fourth option, giving the team 12.5 points on average. So no, everything checks out there.

Injuries? Jefferson and Carter have missed some time, but nothing too serious. Carter has played 48 of the 51 games, while RJ 47. Nothing too bad there. So wait, what’s the issue then? What’s the problem that’s keeping the Nets from the promised land? The answer might surprise you.

It’s Jason Kidd.

That’s right the savior. The best Net since Dr. J. Kidd is the reason the Nets are not currently title contenders.

It seems strange to say. After all, Kidd resurrected the franchise after coming over from Phoenix before the 2001-2002 season. And while it has been two years since the back to back NBA finals trips, Kidd is averaging 14.5 points, 7.0 boards and 7.7 assists while putting up a 42.1 FG percentage this season. That in itself is not bad, especially the rebounds and assists, but when you factor in the point totals opposition guards are putting up, Kidd’s offensive numbers look a lot less impressive. In fact as I mentioned briefy in my birthday wish list column, it's downright ugly.

Opposing point guards are averaging 16.1 points per game against the Nets. While the rebounds and assist against are respectable, (3.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists) the field goal percentage is not. They are shooting an even 50 percent on the season against the Jersey. Throw in the fact Kidd’s assist totals have been dropping over the last couple of years, he hasn’t averaged below 8 assists a game since his rookie campaign, and one can see the Hall of Famer is on the way down.

To be fair, this is just opposing point guards. There is no magic statline that says “opposing PG when guarded by Kidd”. However, that doesn’t make Kidd’s position any more defensible, no pun intended. If he can’t guard the likes of Mike James (26 points) or Anthony Johnson (19 and 16 points) or Brevin Knight (25 points per game against the Nets this year, 12.3 overall) then what exactly is Kidd good for on the defensive end?

A decline is to be expected. At 33 years of age and on surgically repaired knees, it would be foolish to expect the Jason Kidd of 2002 on a night in night out basis. But while Kidd is somewhat the offensive player he was three years ago, he is a shell of his old self on the defensive end. Remember Kidd was first team all NBA defense in 2003-04, 2001-02, 2000-01, 1998-99 and second team all NBA defense in 2002-03, 1999-00 and amazingly enough, last season.

It is a surprise Kidd was so highly rated defensively last year, since speed guards have given him trouble for some time. Speedy Claxton tore him to shreds in the 2003 NBA finals, so much so that then coach Byron Scott put Kerry Kittles on the former Hofstra guard. Perhaps Kidd’s problems had been just localized to those small, fast guards or perhaps like many defensive awards (i.e. the gold glove in baseball) without a good measure of defensive statistics for guards, the positions are largely determined by reputation. Whatever the reason, there is no question Kidd currently is a poor defender and struggles against anyone who possesses better quickness. On his bum knees, that would be most guards on most nights.

The ultimate problem for the Nets is there is no real available solution open to them. Kidd isn’t shot offensively and still contributes a great deal on that end. Thus, they need him out on the floor. Since Jefferson and Carter must play crunch time minutes as well, and you can’t play either at the four, there is no way to put a defensive replacement out there for Kidd. Trading him midseason would make it impossible to get equal value back, and is difficult enough because of his maximum contract. Therefore Kidd, defensive sieve that he is, is going to be out there when the game is on the line.

The only other solution is to stop opposing point guards on the other end; in other words, when they get to the basket. The Nets don’t have a strong interior presence on the defensive end; Krstic is a developing offensive player but isn’t an intimidator in the paint. Jason Collins is average at best, and has battled injuries the whole season. Marc Jackson and Cliff Robinson are role players and neither is reminding anyone of Ben Wallace. Good big men, even defensive only ones, are hard to come by. The Nets might have the chips to trade; they have an extra first rounder this year and a rookie in Antoine Wright who is languishing on their bench behind Carter and Jefferson, along with a good prospect in Mille Illic in Europe. However, Rod Thorn appears reluctant to deal any of his young players, most likely sensing this team is headed for a change over in a couple of years anyway, with Kidd on the decline. So it appears the Nets options are limited.

It would not surprise me if the Nets gave up a second rounder for a role player type big man, ala Cliff Robinson, like they did last year. But I just don’t see something major happening with this team right now. They are the third best team in the East and like every other team in the conference outside of Detroit, is great at home and terrible on the road. Jersey is in the same class as the Cavaliers and Heat; pretty good but not on the Pistons level right now. In a first round series they would be favored over whoever came to the Medowlands and most likely be underdogs when they had to go on the road for the next round. Of course, Rod Thorn is one of the best general managers in the NBA. If there’s anyway this problem can be fixed, you can bet he’s going to find it.

However, I just don’t see a way. So while the Nets are a very good team and can beat anyone on any given they aren’t a title contender right now. Unfortunately, Jason Kidd has been the root of this team’s success and will now sow the seeds of their failure.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I respect your column but think that it is ridiculous. The things that Jason as always been known for never show up in the stats column. His leadership and his ability to make everyone on the court better are what makes him the Hall of Famer that he is.

It is not a coincidence that Vince and Jefferson are playing so well.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Here's the thing, I don't doubt Jason Kidd is still a good offensive player. That isn't the question I raised here. It's about his defense at this stage.

To say he's been someone who goes beyond the stats column isn't fair to Kidd either. His career numbers are very good, especially in assists and rebounds for point guards. The point totals aren't always high but he helped through assists.

But like I said, there is just no way to defend his defense this season. As good as he is offensively, you can't let the Brevin Knights of the world light you up. It shows a glaring deficiency in your team.

Look, I've defended Kidd as much as anyone in the past. He is without question a Hall of Famer and should have won the MVP back in 2001-2002. But I have to be fair here; for me to gloss over the liability Kidd's become at the defensive end would be wrong. And the fact remains, whether I mention it or not, the Nets will not be a title contender until they do something to shore up this weakness.

2:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ben - For anyone who has watched the Nets this year (or even the last couple of years), your observation is obvious. Kidd cannot guard quick point guards. We've seen it with Brevin recently, but we've seen it with Mr. Longoria for years. That point is a given. But, I think your post discounts how much Kidd is worth to this team. Despite his lack of quickness on the defensive end, Kidd is still the quickest guard in the league on the break and his two steals per game (he still has great hands) create running opportunities as well. Take him off the team and they are no longer able to generate points on the break (Vince can't run and Jefferson can't run alone).

While the fact that Kidd's defense is a weakness is correct, your conclusion that the Nets will not be a title contender until they shore up this weakness is overreaching. First, with a genuine shot-blocker to hide Kidd's weakness, they could compete with the big boys. Second, Kidd was not much better of a defender in year's past when the Nets have challenged (and beaten) Detriot. And, yes, I know Detriot is a better team, but I'm not as far in the bandwagon as everyone else. Third, where is your suggested alternative? What should Thorn do? Trade Kidd for draft picks and start over? You're not the only one to know Kidd's on the decline and can no longer guard quality point guards. What do you think other GM's are going to give up for Kidd?

The best chance the Net's have to win over the next 2 years is to let the big 3 gel further, hope Krstic continues to develop and find a way to bring in an athletic big man to patrol the paint (I was hoping to see a first rounder plus Mark Jackson for Stromile type of deal). Getting rid of Kidd would set their title hopes back, not the other way around (unless your playing NBA Live 2006 and can trade Kidd for whoever you want).

3:39 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Kidd still is one of the best PGs in the league on the break, Steve Nash might be better, but it's not all that important. We're not debating Kidd's value on the offensive end.

I disagree. Kidd was a much better defender in years prior, to believe that at 33, with knees that have been surgically he's anywhere close to what he was, I just don't feel is realistic.

With that in mind remember in 2002, Billups had a bum ankle. Kidd did an admirable job on one leg in 2003, but that doesn't change the facts now. This season Billups is averaging 24.3 points, 3 boards, 8 assists and is shooting 51.4 percent against Jersey. Kidd just can't guard him.

I don't have an answer for Jersey in terms of what they can do. As I said, trading him midseason is impossible and unfeasible. Adding the big man is the best option but do you mortgage your future when its clear the direction of your team is going to have to be changed in a few years?

The Nets need to take a PG in this year's draft and let him learn behind Kidd. But as for right now, I just don't see them having much of a shot. And I'm a Nets fan.

4:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you go to 82games.com you can actually see stats such as "opposing point guards vs. Jason Kidd".

7:39 PM  
Anonymous Kevin Appleby said...

You mean like on this page??

Kidd's slipped, but he's outperforming his counterparts. The Nets backup PG's are not, though.

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Kevin Appleby said...

Oops. Hosed up the old link there.....

Anyway, Kidd's doing fine.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Good site guys. However, even the stats they use there show Kidd's on the decline. His net (which I'm to assume is overall productivity) has declined from 16.0 to 8.6 this season.

In addition, when I checked out their PER ratings, the Nets are getting a -.3 from the PG position. Maybe I'm misunderstanding the stat but considering Kidd has played the vast majority of the minutes this season that is indicative that he is at best and average PG this season? For the Nets to win as currently constituted, Jason Kidd cannot be an average PG, he has to be consitently outperforming his counterparts. And he is not doing that. Again, I said he still plays well offensively but defensively he's become such a liability its hurting the team. As the Nets are made up right now, unless Kidd starts improving on that end, they won't be a contender this season.

3:05 PM  

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