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NEW YORK -- Deron Williams interrupted a vacation in Anguilla, showed up Thursday in a sharp gray suit and hung off to the side of the lobby at Barclays Center, listening to his good friend Jason Kidd's first press conference as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets. Now let's see if Williams shows up more for Kidd than he did for the last two head coaches the Nets have had in the last six months. Because what Kidd needs Williams to do now is to be the "Second Coming" of Jason Kidd and turn the Nets into NBA finals contenders, much like Kidd did on his arrival as a player in 2001.
Kidd -- a first-ballot Hall of Famer who retired from the Knicks just 11 days ago after 19 NBA seasons -- was a far better player at his absolute peak than Williams has been so far. But Williams was a better player in Utah than he's been for the Nets. When Williams spoke to reporters Thursday, there he was, pining yet again for those salad days of his, as if he had nothing to do with not recapturing them. Asked about Kidd's plans to run a more up-tempo offense, Williams said, "I definitely like to get out and run. That's what we did in Utah."
|Can D-Will be the Second Coming of Jason Kidd?|
The Nets' new head coach had to be someone Williams, their $98.7 million point guard, could get enthused about, if only because the gap between what Williams could be for the Nets and the player he actually has been didn't come close under Avery Johnson, whose offense he didn't like. He was marginally more dynamic for interim coach P.J. Carlesimo, who didn't come into the job with anything close to the footing Kidd does.
Williams pinpointed other flaws in the Nets after their grating Game 7 loss in the first playoff round against the Chicago Bulls, who played without Kirk Hinrich (except for Game 1) and Luol Deng, and never considered asking Derrick Rose to shake off a year of rust. And still the Nets got spanked.
"After we won Game 6 [in Chicago] we felt like this was our series," Williams admitted then. "We talked about the word inconsistency all year ... [and] toughness, mental breakdowns. We just tend to have stretches, whether it be a quarter or two quarters, where it seems like the wheels fall off all at once and we can't get it back ... You can't do that if you want to be an elite team."
The Nets didn't come close to being an elite team last season. But they could have won more than the 49 games they did. Their intensity was constantly in question; during their playoff series, a Bulls beat reporter actually said the Bulls were privately saying the Nets were "gutless" and heartless." Joakim Noah even guaranteed the undermanned Bulls would win Game 7 on the Nets' home court. And when they did, Nets forward Gerald Wallace was even more critical than Williams, bitterly conceding that Chicago "came out with a sense of urgency. And we didn't."
How does that happen? How does Williams let it happen?
"Yeah, you could say we underachieved last season," Williams said Thursday. "It was a learning experience ... [A lack of toughness] is something that definitely hurt us in the playoffs."
Not good enough.
So along with the nostalgia kick that hiring Kidd brings, what the Nets could really use is a heart transplant. Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov had to be referring to his highly compensated, room-temperature team cornerstones -- Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez -- when he mentioned the "fire in the belly" he hopes Kidd will add. The Nets' craving for that fire clearly outweighed whatever concerns they might have about Kidd's lack of formal coaching experience, or enduring the bad visual of their newly hired coach having a DWI hearing scheduled next week in Southhampton.
This is the calculation Prokorhov and GM Billy King made instead: They decided the fact that Kidd and Williams are on such good terms that they vacationed together last summer in the Hamptons was a plus, not a connection that could breed distrust among the rest of the players in the locker room or leave Kidd unable to be hard on Williams.
Nets management also realizes their greatest improvement will have to come from within, because their payroll is capped out the next two seasons. King said as much Thursday, acknowledging, "The core will stay the same." Trading Kris Humphries and his expiring $12 million contract is their most obvious way to bring in more help.
Kidd has a proven record of improving every team he joins. The Nets' problem last season didn't trace to X's and O's. It was chemistry. Williams wasn't able to galvanize the team despite being the Nets' franchise player and floor general. And with the Kidd hire, Williams is robbed of excuses going forward.
Those last facts alone are enough to spare Prokhorov (for now, anyway) from having this out-of-the-box hire compared to how he's been a sucker for making big empty gestures before. Prokhorov still hasn't lived down buying that enormous banner outside Madison Square Garden to taunt the Knicks about the Nets' move to Brooklyn. When Jay-Z was still associated with the team, the Nets also liked to bluster about who really owns the city -- until the Knicks blew by them for the No. 2 spot in the East.
The Eastern Conference will be tougher next season when Rose rejoins the Bulls and Indiana gets Danny Granger back. But the Knicks could slide. Even the Heat no longer look invincible.
The joke is not far off: What would really help Kidd succeed as a head coach is having Jason Kidd in uniform, same as Bill Russell when he coached the Celtics.
But Kidd, in discussing Williams, called him "someone I can pass the torch to. I saw myself in him, in the sense he's a guy that can fill up a stat sheet. He loves the competition. He works extremely hard."
And what does Williams think he can learn from Kidd?
"An infinite list of things," he answered.
Who will the face of the franchise be now? "Jason," Williams said.
The NBA is a player's league.
What will really help Kidd and the Nets succeed, on this uncharted path Kidd is embarking upon, is if Deron Williams changes his career arc, too.
That's how the Nets transform back into the NBA Finals team Kidd made them, once upon a time.
Kidd needs Williams to play like the Second Coming of Jason Kidd.