No one should draw any conclusions from the first preseason game of the season, coming just a week or so into training camp. There is really nothing to do but be happy that basketball is back in your life. But there was one moment—a series of moments, really—that stood out to me Wednesday night, when the Mavericks took on the Utah Jazz B team. And I do think it might mean something. I’ll get to that in a bit.
Most of the Mavs’ new additions made their debuts with the team. (Only Frank Ntilikina sat out, along with Dorian Finney-Smith, Dwight Powell, and Tyrell Terry.) Nothing to get too excited about, but that isn’t really the point with these guys. Sterling Brown had a sweet reverse dunk. Reggie Bullock knocked down a couple of threes. Moses Brown looked like he might have something, imposing his 7-foot-2 frame on both ends of the court.
You can see by those names that what the organization is really counting on is internal improvement. Luka Doncic somehow leveling up a little more. Kristaps Porzingis rediscovering his bubble form. Powell and Maxi Kleber returning to full health. Jalen Brunson carrying his shifty regular-season skill set into the playoffs. Boban Marjanovic becoming a knockdown three-point gunner. (Joking, but he did hit two in a row on Wednesday.)
Perhaps the biggest internal improvement they’re counting on comes from their de facto biggest signing of the season: new head coach Jason Kidd.
News of his hire was met by many with a fair amount of side-eye. Certainly, there is the extremely bad look of this franchise—with an investigation into its toxic culture barely in its rearview mirror—hiring a man with Kidd’s history of domestic violence to consider. As far as how he has evolved in that respect, Kidd and the front office have unfortunately been opaque, referring to his “journey” but with few specifics attached.
Beyond that—and I know those two words are doing some powerlifting here—there was a reasonable concern that Kidd just might not be a very good coach. Over three seasons with the Brooklyn Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks, he compiled a 183-190 record, which is not too bad. Until you consider that the 2017-18 Bucks went 44-38 with Kidd in charge, good for seventh in the Eastern Conference, and the 2018-19 Bucks, after Kidd was fired, went 60-22, with largely the same roster.
And then Mirin Fader’s fantastic biography, Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP, came out and Kidd’s time with the Bucks seemed even worse. While he helped unlock Giannis Antetokounmpo’s prodigious talents by playing him at point guard, Kidd also played mind games with the entire squad, essentially forced Larry Sanders to give up on basketball, and generally came off as an insufferable asshole.
Kidd is unquestionably a basketball genius. But that doesn’t always make for a great coach. In fact, it usually doesn’t. Also, there is not a long history of NBA coaches who were just OK—and that is absolutely the best possible assessment of Kidd’s coaching career up until now—and then suddenly got great. Generally, it goes the other direction.
But Kidd said something on media day that got me thinking that maybe he might be able to improve. He was asked what he learned as an assistant to Frank Vogel with the Lakers.
“You can be hard and demand and demand and demand, or you can go about it differently,” he said. “Watching Frank and the way he communicated and talked to the players, it wasn’t hard. You can see the response that the greatest players in the world respected that.”
It’s just a quote. It’s still just talk until the season starts, and even then, it doesn’t matter until they run up against a little adversity, injuries, a rough stretch, an endless road trip. That’s when you’ll see if Kidd really did learn from Vogel. I want to believe that he did, that maybe he was elevated too soon, going directly from a Hall of Fame playing career to head coach. That maybe it took him being humbled to learn what it means to be a coach.
Like I said, no one should draw any conclusions—about that or anything else—from Wednesday night’s game. But I will tell you what I saw. A couple of times in the first half, during trips to the free-throw line, the Mavericks broadcast found Luka and Kidd together, talking on the sideline, and Luka was smiling and laughing. He is always at his best when he is full of joy. I know this sounds like it’s coming from an inspirational quotes account on Instagram, but it’s true. He’s good when he gets mad, but he is best when he is having fun.
Again, it’s just a series of moments, but it’s not something you saw much between Luka and former coach Rick Carlisle. Maybe that’s just enough internal improvement to lead this team somewhere.