At 39 years old, Jason Kidd probably is not looking to become the next great New York Knicks point guard. Eighteen years into his NBA career, Kidd would be content to merely help the Knicks' apparently incompatible stars find a way to play together.
And that could make him the perfect conductor of an otherwise dysfunctional orchestra.
The Knicks were a mess last season, as they are pretty much every season nowadays. If not for the Jeremy Lin-fueled thrust in the middle of the season, they might have missed the playoffs. Much was made of Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire's perceived inability to coexist, and the presence of Lin, another playmaker who dominates the ball, only exacerbated the issue. While Lin's departure eliminates one star who would have needed the ball, two of the proposed replacements — Raymond Felton and Argentine import Pablo Prigioni — are substantial downgrades from Lin.
The addition of Kidd — albeit for more money and more years than is reasonable for a player pushing 40 — therefore presents an interesting opportunity for the Knicks. At his introductory news conference, Kidd spoke of mentoring Lin, who at that time many assumed would be back in New York once the Knicks matched the Houston Rockets' offer sheet. Now Kidd, who will be 43 when his three-year, $9 million mini-midlevel contract expires, could start. What is more, he probably should start, because unlike many players on the Knicks roster, Kidd seems to understand his place. His job is to negotiate the complicated job of balancing touches for Anthony and Stoudemire.
"With Amare, I hope I can be like a [Steve] Nash, to be able to get him the ball where he likes it to be successful," Kidd told NBA.com. "Make it where he doesn't have to work as hard, easy layups, catch and shoot."
As for Anthony, Kidd added, "Melo is one of the top five players in the world. For me, it's to get him touches that put the ball in the basket, so he doesn't have to work so hard. He's the guy that understands how to play and also understands how to win."
The common theme is making it so Stoudemire and Anthony "don't have to work so hard." Kidd is not the guy he was 10 years ago, when he was arguably the league's most impactful player while guiding the New Jersey Nets to consecutive NBA Finals berths. He played a career-low 28.7 minutes per game last season and failed to average at least seven assists for the first time in his career. (In fact, he did not even crack six assists per game.) For much of the last two years, the Mavericks asked Kidd to simply bring up the ball and retreat to the weak side for a spot-up 3-pointer if Dirk Nowitzki was double-teamed. Kidd's plummeting 3-point shooting percentage made that approach less effective, although that did not keep Dallas from trying to bring back Kidd this offseason.
What Kidd has learned, gradually, is to defer. It was not easy for him in 2010-11, coming off a season in which he averaged close to a double-double in points and assists, to play fewer minutes while taking fewer shots and taking less of a facilitator's role in the Mavericks offense. A championship ring was not a shabby reward, though, and while the Knicks are not title-ready, they would benefit from having Kidd as a willing role player.
As he nears the end of his second decade in the NBA, Kidd is not the primary, secondary or tertiary option on offense. He is a safety valve, the player his team goes to when there is nowhere else to go. That is not a knock. Players need to learn their limitations as they get older if they wish to keep playing. Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis illustrated that those players who do not accept this reality find themselves out of the league prematurely.
Even with Anthony and Stoudemire on the floor, Felton will want the ball. Lin would have wanted the ball. J.R. Smith is always going to want the ball.
Kidd might want the ball, but like center Tyson Chandler, he does not need the ball to stay focused or to be effective. Kidd can set the offense, put Anthony and Stoudemire in positions to score and wait patiently outside the arc, on the off chance that Anthony decides not to take on the defense's triple-team for once. On defense, he can play the passing lanes knowing Chandler is protecting the rim, and his professionalism and decision-making should prove starkly different from Felton's shortcomings in both areas.
It has been a long time since Kidd has been in the discussion of the best players in the NBA. If he has any more good basketball left in his legs after all these years, he could turn out to be the best thing to happen to the Knicks this offseason.