Veteran duels with young counterparts
DALLAS -- Jason Kidd usually keeps his hair cropped tight, but flecks of gray pop up when he has gone a week or so without visiting the barber.
The Dallas Mavericks believe the wealth of basketball knowledge inside Kidd's head is more important than any evidence of the 36-year-old point guard's aging process.
Kidd doesn't claim to be the same caliber of athlete he was when the Mavericks made him the second overall pick of the draft 15 years ago. He acknowledges that he doesn't move as well as he did when he carried the New Jersey Nets to consecutive NBA Finals appearances at the beginning of the decade.
Although Kidd relies less on his legs than ever, he refuses to accept that he's a lesser player than he was in his prime.
"At this point, it's all smarts," said Kidd, who will match up with a pair of elite young point guards in Utah's Deron Williams and New Orleans' Chris Paul the next couple of nights. "I've seen hopefully pretty much everything, so just understanding different situations and anticipating, I can use those skills to bail me out of situations that maybe somebody that didn't know what was coming would be in trouble."
Kidd, who ranks behind only legends Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson in career triple-doubles, doesn't stuff the box score quite like he used to. He averaged a career-low 9.0 points per game last season. His 6.2 rebounds per game was his lowest average in more than a decade, although it still ranked second among NBA guards. His tally of 8.7 assists per game (fifth in the league) was below his career average.
But Mark Cuban, whose blockbuster trade for Kidd that sent Devin Harris and a pair of first-round picks to New Jersey before the 2008 trade deadline has been roundly criticized, has mathematical evidence that Kidd still belongs in conversations about elite point guards.
Statisticians paid by Cuban created a formula that is a variation of adjusted plus-minus, measuring players' effectiveness and value in various lineup combinations. According to those metrics, Paul was the only point guard who had a better campaign than Kidd last season.
"I think Jason is still in his prime," said Cuban, who re-signed Kidd to a three-year, $25 million deal this summer that probably will keep the future Hall of Famer in Dallas for the duration of his career. "He's just not going to do quite the same things, not that he ever dunked. I don't think he's lost a step speedwise. I don't think he's ever been a highflier. I think he's a better shooter. I think he's just as good a passer.
"I think the only thing that Jason has lost, like everybody else, his brakes aren't quite as strong. He can't quite stop underneath the basket like he could, but he finishes in different ways, so I think it's pretty damn close."
And then there are the intangibles.
Ex-Mavericks coach Avery Johnson trumpeted Kidd's leadership and knack for finishing games when Kidd arrived in Dallas after the blockbuster deal. Rick Carlisle, Johnson's replacement, actually gave Kidd opportunities to display those traits by giving him control of the offense midway through last season.
The Mavericks have faith that Kidd will make clutch plays in close games, whether it's knocking down a big shot, grabbing a rebound, drawing a charge or getting the ball to the right guy at the right time.
"There are just some guys in sport that you want on your team when it comes to winning a game," Carlisle said. "In football, [Brett] Favre is a guy that comes to mind. He has an incredible will and finds ways. Kidd finds ways to win, too."
The Mavericks count on Kidd in the clutch. But he can be a complementary piece for long stretches.
Dallas player development coach Darrell Armstrong, a former point guard who played with Kidd in New Jersey and against him for years, sees a player who has learned how to use his energy wisely.
Kidd, who has developed into an accurate spot-up 3-point shooter, often focuses on facilitating the offense instead of on creating. He controls the tempo, preferring to push the pace, which he usually does by advancing the ball with a pass instead of 100 mph dribbling.
Six-foot-4, 205-pound Kidd gets frequent breaks from chasing around point guards such as Williams and Paul, covering a wing player instead, although that occasionally means accepting the challenge of guarding a Kobe Bryant, as Kidd did for stretches in the Mavs' win over the Los Angeles Lakers last week.
Carlisle and Cuban think Kidd has never been surrounded by a better team than these Mavs, a point Kidd agrees with.
"The biggest difference is he's in a situation where he doesn't have to carry a team offensively and defensively," Carlisle said. "We believe he's in a perfect situation for him and us."
Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.