Leader, playmaker, defensive stopper; J-Kidd did it all. Following a devastating four-game sweep in the NBA Finals the season prior, the New Jersey Nets were on a mission to make it back to the promised land. In 2002, Jason Kidd finished second in MVP voting with averages of 14.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 9.9 assists per game. It was his first season in The Meadowlands after being traded for Stephon Marbury despite being named to the All-NBA 1st Team the three previous seasons in Phoenix. The trade worked wonders for the Nets’ franchise as Kidd miraculously revamped East Rutherford, turning New Jersey into championship contenders in merely one season. Improving by 26 wins under Kidd, the Nets enjoyed their first 50-win season in franchise history (52-30).
Jason brought a defensive presence the team had never before possessed, leading them to a league-best 99.5 and 98.1 Defensive Rating in each of his first two seasons in New Jersey. But as great as Kidd was, he and his relatively inexperienced teammates were no match for the three-peat champion Los Angeles Lakers. This did not stop J-Kidd from elevating his game, however. To start the 02-03 season, the Nets won 24 of their first 35 games, including a 10-game win streak from mid-December through early January. At the All-Star break, New Jersey was nine games over .500 with Kidd receiving his sixth career All-Star selection, fourth consecutive (he dropped a double-double along with 5 steals off the bench in one of the greatest All-Star games ever played).
The Nets finished the year with a 49-33 record which secured them the number two seed in the Eastern Conference. Jason Kidd’s 2003 season was arguably his best all-around showing. His marks of 18.7 points per game and 84.1 free throw percentage were, and still are, his career best (Kidd shot 87% in 2011 but only shot one free throw per game). His 2.2 steals per game were his most while playing 78 games or more. He led the league in assists for the fourth time in five years at just under nine per contest (he did it again the next season as well). Kidd was named to both the All-NBA and All-Defensive Second Teams, was December’s Player of the Month; finished third in defensive win shares, fifth in steals, seventh in defensive rating, and ninth in overall win shares. Oh, and he won the 2003 All-Star Weekend Skills Challenge too. Clearly, the man was eating.
The Nets’ success extended throughout the 2003 Playoffs. Jason’s playoff averages of 20.1/7.7/8.2/1.8 (P/R/A/S) helped steer New Jersey to another deep postseason run. Their first opponent, the Milwaukee Bucks, led by the balanced attack of Gary Payton (who was reunited with habitual line-stepping head coach George Karl), Tim Thomas, Sam Cassell, Toni Kukoc, and Desmond Mason, took the Nets to six games. The trio of Kenyon Martin, Kidd, and sophomore Richard Jefferson proved to be too much for the guard-centric seven seed as Martin’s 22.3 points, 10 rebounds, and 3.7 assists propelled the Byron Scott-coached Nets to victory (one time for da boy K-Mart!).
The second round was an Eastern Conference Finals rematch of the year before. In 2002, Jason Kidd averaged a triple-double (17.5/11.2/10.2) in six games against the Boston Celtics. This time around, things were slightly different. Kidd’s numbers remained impressive at 19/9/9/2 and Kenyon Martin’s hot streak resumed, but the C’s poor shooting percentages from All-Stars Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker (a combined 38% from the field) stagnated their playoff progress. The Nets swept the slumping Celtics on their way to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances.
The conference finals featured more brilliance from Jason Kidd. He was virtually unstoppable, shredding future Finals MVP Chauncey Billups on both ends of the floor. “Mr. Big Shot” was reduced to 27% field goal shooting and less than 10 points per game in another four-game sweep. Kidd, on the other hand, dominated the court with averages of 23.8/10/6.3/2.8, missing only three free throws for the second series in a row (88% and 87.5% on 25 and 24 attempts respectively). His turnovers were unusually high at 17 in total (the most by any player in the series) but that did not keep New Jersey from reaching their goal of returning to the coveted NBA Finals.
Kidd and the Nets were guaranteed to play a new team as the San Antonio Spurs knocked off the defending champion Lakers in six games in the Western Conference Semifinals. In the Western Finals, fellow All-NBA Second Teamer Dirk Nowitzki (25.3/11.3) suffered a left knee injury after bumping hips with Spurs guard Manu Ginóbili while attempting to box out for a rebound in the fourth quarter of Game 3. Former All-Stars Michael Finley (22.5/6.3/3.3) and Nick Van Exel (17.5/4.3/2.7) along with 2003 All-Star Steve Nash (14.8/3.8/6.5) did what they could, but ultimately fell short to the deeper, better coached Spurs team.
When the 2003 NBA Finals began, two-time reigning MVP Tim Duncan looked to be a huge matchup issue for the Nets. Kenyon Martin, at 6’9″, had a significant length disadvantage going against the 7-foot Duncan, but he still managed to put up decent numbers of 14.7 points, 10 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game. However, K-Mart struggled mentally opposite Duncan, averaging nearly five fouls and 3.7 turnovers a game and shooting less than 67% from the line. To make matters worse, the Nets’ role players were nonexistent for most of the series. “The Big Fundamental” controlled the painted area, putting on one of the most prolific Finals performances in NBA history with a near quadruple-double in the series-clinching sixth game (21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists, and 8 blocks).
The early 2000’s NBA was still a big man’s game. And Jason Kidd’s valiant Finals effort (19.7/6.2/7.8) was simply not enough to combat Timmy D’s low-post mastery (24.2/17/5.3/1 stl/5.3 blk). Despite back-to-back losses in the Finals, Jason Kidd continued to be one of the greatest NBA leaders on and off the court. A 10-time All-Star, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and 2011 NBA Champion, Kidd is a sure bet for the Hall of Fame come 2018. His 2003 season shows how much one man can change an entire city’s trajectory. Fifteen seasons later, Jason Kidd is the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, doing his best to mold his 6’11” point forward Giannis Antetokounmpo as they attempt to make it back to the playoffs later this spring.
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