The retirements of Jason Kidd and Grant Hill over the past few weeks have left me in a nostalgic mood. The two 19-year veterans were the second and third picks of the 1994 draft, which was the height of my Milwaukee Bucks fandom. I was never more excited about a sports-related non-sporting event than the 1994 draft lottery when the Bucks won the right to possibly take either Hill or Kidd. Of course, they took neither player, opting for Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson (which caused me to dislike both Hill and Kidd who shared the 1994 Rookie of the Year award). At the time, the choice seemed like the obvious one after Robinson dominated the 1993-94 college season as a Purdue Boilermaker. He averaged 30.3 points and 10.1 boards.
Robinson’s domination did not translate to the NBA, although he did average at least 20 points in eight of his first nine seasons. Robinson averaged 20.7 points over his 10-year career, which ended in 2004-05 as a Tracy McGrady-like bench piece for the champion Spurs, so he has as many championship rings as Kidd and Hill combined. He never brought down more than 6.9 boards per game and was never more than an average defender. According to Basketball Reference, Robinson’s most similar player in NBA history is Johnny Newman (followed by Robert Reid and Chris Morris…)
The Big Dog’s mid-range jumper was his defining skill. I don’t think there are many players who were as deadly when catching and shooting from 15-to-17 feet. As long as Robinson shot quickly, he was relatively automatic with his jumper. When he held onto the ball or tried to do something else, like attack the basket, there were problems. Big Dog was not a good ball handler, although he was able to get away with a loose handle in college. During his prime years as a Buck, whenever he got the ball, I would shout “shoot” at the television (or if I happened to be at the Bradley Center). I wanted Robinson to rely on his instinct rather than thinking about the game.
There aren’t all that many ways in which Robinson and LeBron James are similar: they both grew up in the Midwest, were drafted first overall, and played approximately the same position (although LeBron is really a point power forward, while Robinson was a largish shooting guard). As I noted last week in my erroneous Finals preview (I said Heat in five), LeBron tends to hold the ball too long. One of the reasons that the Spurs are so tough is that their offense is predicated on quick passing. Tony Parker dribbles a lot, but he does not hold onto the ball in one spot. LeBron does, and it makes me think of the Big Dog. It speaks to how great LeBron is that he can be effective despite being a ball stopper at times. And, yes, it does feel funny to describe one of the league’s best passers as a ball stopper. I’d like to see LeBron play faster and more instinctually because he is hard to counter as is, but he would be pretty unstoppable were he to stop thinking and just let his basketball IQ take over. It almost sounds as if I am telling LeBron to use the force.
When LeBron holds onto the ball, my guess is that he is thinking strategically and trying to suss out the best play. While that may not make for the most aesthetically pleasing basketball, it does make me think that LeBron could eventually be a good coach in the league. It is fairly unusual for superstar players to become top coaches. I believe this is because the skills of an intelligent player and a good coach are quite disparate. Coaches have to think strategically, while players rely on their instincts because the pace of the game is usually too fast to allow for much decision making. Larry Bird may be the exception as a superstar who made the successful transition to coach, although he had Rick Carlisle next to him and a solid, veteran team that included players like Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, and Chris Mullin.
And this brings me full circle back to Jason Kidd, the new coach of the Brooklyn Nets. In his dotage, Kidd has become known as one of the smartest players in the NBA, so he could have a successful transition to coach. Like Bird, Kidd will have at least one veteran coach on his bench (and there seem to be plenty available) and he should be able to use his years of experience to the Nets’ benefit. The problem for Kidd and the Nets is that they are capped out and the team’s talent should not warrant championship expectations. Can Kidd be expected to raise the level of Deron Williams and Brook Lopez beyond what the duo provided P.J. Carlesimo and Avery Johnson the past two seasons? Will Kidd be able to coax something extra out of veterans like Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace (who are both signed to big contracts through the 2015-16 season)? As always in the NBA, talent wins. Coach Kidd may be hamstrung by his team’s talent level. Or he may the NBA’s version of Yoda who coaches his teams to trust their instincts with pithy statements like “there is no try, there is only do.”