The Nets' 21-point loss to the Spurs on New Year's Eve was the low point of a dismal start to the season. As the final seconds of the blowout ticked away, Brooklyn's players dashed for the locker room. The only problem? The shot clock ran out before the game clock, forcing Jason Kidd to call timeout so that he could summon his troops back onto the court.
For some teams this would have been a nonevent. For the Nets, 10--21 at the time despite a league-leading $102 million payroll, and for Kidd, a much-maligned rookie coach, the potential for ridicule abounded. His players bailed on him—literally!
Whether prompted by that messy ending—or the preceding beatdown—Kidd realized that something needed to change. Two days later he inserted guard Shaun Livingston into the lineup. Brooklyn went on a 10--3 run in January, earning Kidd coach of the month, and the 28-year-old Livingston has held on to his starting job.
The man who helped resurrect the Nets' season knows a thing or two about reconstruction. As a star at Peoria (Ill.) High, the lanky, 6'7" Livingston drew generous comparisons to Magic Johnson, with a similar combination of height, vision and highlight-reel passes. He was selected by the Clippers with the fourth pick in 2004, and he endured the gradual development of many preps-to-pros. Then, in February '07, he suffered a left-knee injury so severe that he faced possible amputation. His career seemed done.
Livingston sat out the 2007--08 season before returning to the NBA. The Nets, who signed him for one year at the minimum, are his seventh team in six years. If their huge payroll is a pizza, Livingston's $1.3 million share is a couple of olives.
But Brooklyn's big-ticket items haven't proved nearly as reliable. With center Brook Lopez out for the season (foot), forward Kevin Garnett looking his age (37), shooting guard Joe Johnson prone to drifting and point guard Deron Williams limited (ankle), Kidd needed someone with verve. Enter Livingston, whose determined rehabilitation helped recast him as a do-it-all, two-way role player. Livingston would never become Penny Hardaway 2.0, but he could maximize his long frame and basketball intelligence.
Need a playmaker so Williams can move off the ball? No problem. Need a wing to keep the defense honest and to create spacing? Livingston is your man. Need a long-armed perimeter defender who can guard multiple positions? Ditto. Need someone to outwork his opponent, inspire his teammates and set a gritty tone? Ask Shaun.
Even if Livingston's stats (8.1 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game at week's end) aren't impressive, GM Billy King recently called re-signing him "priority No. 1." Livingston has logged the third-most minutes of any Net, and he joins Johnson in all four of Brooklyn's most commonly used lineups. All four are small-ball configurations—one big man and four perimeter players—that have helped the Nets go 27--12 since Jan. 1. None were among Kidd's 10 most-common lineups before the loss to the Spurs.
Livingston's promotion helped usher in a reconfiguration: Big lineups were out, small and gritty were in. That shift, according to King, has given the Nets an "identity"—which, since the start of 2014, is, The winningest team in the East.
In 2007, Livingston suffered a knee injury so severe that he faced possible amputation. His career seemed done.
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