Maybe it was worth it. The Bucks were 3-0 last week after firing coach Jason Kidd (along with three of his assistants), a sudden move that upset Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo but had at least some positive effect on his teammates. Kidd assistant Joe Prunty took over as interim head coach, and Khris Middleton, the Bucks’ up-again, down-again No. 2 scorer, was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the week Jan. 22-28.
Maybe it could have waited. Given the choices of making Antetokounmpo less than happy or “uncomfortable”, as he put it, or maintaining the coach’s uneasy status quo with some of Giannis’ under-performing teammates, it’s difficult to say that sacking Kidd mid-season was the right one for Bucks first-year GM Jon Horst. The three opponents the Bucks beat last week (the Suns, Nets and Bulls) had a combined winning percentage of .353 (a 53-97 record), a bad sample group to conclude much of anything about the state of the Bucks.
The Bucks opened this week with a 107-95 win against the Joel Embiid-less Sixers. The Sixers without Embiid have been even less successful than the Suns, Nets and Bulls, winning only twice in ten tries. Embiid scored 29 points in the Sixers’ 116-94 drubbing of the Bucks Jan. 20 in Philly, Kidd’s last game as Bucks coach. (Giannis was held out of action in that game to rest his sore right knee. Malcolm Brogdon also did not play due to a personal matter.)
But then Horst’s decision to sack Kidd was less a reasoned choice, apparently, and more so the final say in a nasty confrontation between Horst and Kidd at the Bucks practice facility on that fateful Monday. This explains a lot, like the hurried press conference later that day, wherein Horst offered few details to justify the firing, beyond overall team performance. The Bucks lost 5 of the last 7 games coached by Kidd, the tail end of a brutal stretch — 13 games in 23 days, all but two against teams now in playoff spots. Bucks won 6 of the 13, then lost to the Embiid-ful Sixers.
“We just felt that we’d gotten to the point in the season where this team could do more; it could perform at different level in a different way,” Horst said, adding that the Bucks were “looking for a fresh approach and a different voice in leadership for the team.”
There’s no question they had reached a point where things would be different with the toughest part of the schedule behind them. The softest part of the 2017-18 schedule began Jan. 23, the day after Kidd was fired — three off-days followed by 11 games to the Feb. 16 All-Star break, only two of the games against sure-fire playoff teams (the T-Wolves Feb. 1 and the Heat Feb. 9).
So whether Horst had terminated Kidd’s employment then and there or waited to make an evaluation in the summer, the Bucks were going to get some time to recuperate and (hopefully) stockpile some wins. For a while, at least, they would not be as exhausted as they looked losing at home to Miami on Jan. 17. The Bucks weren’t going to hover around .500 for long. Horst didn’t offer much detail about other “differences” beyond the coaching change. Different from what?
The Bucks offense has been in the NBA’s top 10 all season, and is rated 9th as of this writing. Under Kidd these last four seasons, the Bucks have been a habitual “smart shot selection” team that tends to play unselfishly but has resorted to more isolation sets with Antetokounmpo’s rise to stardom. Giannis is 2nd in the league in scoring at 28.5 ppg and will start in his 2nd All-Star game. The Bucks rank 5th in both True Shooting and Effective Shooting % this season, and with Jabari Parker cleared to play this week and set to suit up Friday against the Knicks, the Bucks offense looked to be formidable in the stretch run no matter who was coaching. The job fell to Prunty, Kidd’s top assistant, who posted an 8-9 record in 2015-16 when Kidd was out having hip surgery.
The defense is a different story — good in spots, sluggish in general and too often dreadful and foul prone. Only Memphis has been hit with more fouls per 100 possessions than the Bucks this season; and Bucks opponents get three more trips to the free throw line per game than the NBA average. Some of the trouble is referee-induced (the Cavs shot an absurd 38 FTs in Cleveland Nov. 7; the Rockets shot 42 in Houston Dec. 16).
But some of it is roster-induced. The Bucks play two slow footed guards, Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova, and their centers (John Henson and Thon Maker) are foul prone, among other deficiencies. (Those four lead the regular rotation players in fouls per 36 minutes.) And there is no defensive-minded, shut down forward on the Bucks bench (think Andre Iguodala, P.J. Tucker, Jared Dudley). Oddly enough, since the Bucks lost Mirza Teletovic to health issues, there are usually no forwards on the bench at all other than rookie D. J. Wilson, and he’s rarely played.
Some of it probably was on coach Kidd. Since ranking 3rd in defensive rating in 2015, Kidd’s first season, the Bucks slipped to 23rd in 2016, 19th last year and 24th this season, despite improved rebounding. [The Bucks defensive rebounding is about average this season (17th), after being worst in the NBA most of last season.] The Bucks are a long-armed defensive squad that likes to double team the ball and force turnovers (5th best TOV% in the league), but they’re also on the “soft” side — most of whatever toughness they have is defined by Antetokounmpo. The roster constants during Kidd’s tenure have been Giannis and Middleton, and Henson, each of whom carries some semblance of a “good defender” reputation despite the results. Parker’s return isn’t likely to help, the D end of the court often becoming his personal Land of the Lost when he’s been able to play.
A common refrain since coaching change is that the Bucks “inexplicably awful” defense — as ever-intrepid NBA.com writer David Aldridge described it — ultimately cost Kidd his job. But Horst hasn’t offered up the D in explanation, and did not do so again in a one-on-one interview with Aldridge. The fewer the details the better for the Bucks front office these days. And the young GM (he’s 34) said he loves the Bucks roster, “loves our young core,” so no recognition yet – publicly – of any need to make roster changes.
At the initial press conference, Horst did explain that the firing decision was made “relatively quickly” and wasn’t “premeditated” and it came off as an “I’m in charge and I’ve made a decision” sort of thing. There was no careful evaluation done, other than to say evaluations are “ongoing” within the long-term goal of winning a championship. It’s great to set goals, but today the “win now” attitude the Bucks are trying to instill in their culture reads more like impatience, and the abrupt, mid-season firing didn’t cast the Bucks in the more flattering lights of league-wide media perception. There was a lot of that last week.
Yes, it has been tedious and irritating. On the home front, fans became distressed back in December after the Bucks lost twice in five games to a suddenly hot Bulls team. The #FireKidd online movement has simmered right along on the boiler plates of Bucks Brew-town diehards — but theirs was always a brew better-served in summer, after the Bucks had evaluated their roster with a healthy Parker in the fold.
Parker’s impending return made the timing of the firing questionable at best, and a little weird. This led to speculation about whether or not and Kidd and Parker were speaking. Questions about the struggles of Bucks ownership were raised. The easy speculation about who believed they should be in charge of player personnel decisions, Kidd or Horst, was a given. And so it went as the mid-season mess made in Milwaukee rolled on through the week. The #FireKidd brand might have been a half-way decent summer ale, but it’s many parts too bitter for January.
Lost in all this has been Eric Bledsoe‘s recent shooting slump — 37% and 23% from 3-point-land in the 7 games Jan. 8-20. The Bucks were 2-5 in those games (see full stat line below). In the Miami and Philly losses in the days before Kidd was sacked, Bledsoe shot a combined 7 for 31 from the floor (22.5%) and missed 11 of 12 from 3-point land. Bledsoe was more often than not a victim of his own bad decision-making, not Kidd’s coaching. He was as sluggish as the rest of team against the Heat. And his shot wasn’t falling.
Were the big expectations that arrived in Milwaukee last fall when the Bucks traded center Greg Monroe for Bledsoe overblown? Horst isn’t going there.
Will there be some nod from the Bucks front office that Monroe’s replacements (Henson and Maker) have been helpless against the likes of Embiid, Miami’s Hassan Whiteside and Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas? Not so far, with the trade deadline fast approaching and the Bucks needing help inside.
Instead, Horst got into it with Kidd and, well, here we are. Jon Horst is in charge. He loves the Bucks roster and its young core. Joe Prunty is interim head coach. And the Bucks have feasted on lottery teams and the Embiid-less Sixers for eight days.
Bledsoe’s slump dragged on after Kidd was gone (he’s shooting 33% overall and 20% from three in the last six games), and his scoring dipped to 12.6 ppg. Against the Sixers in Milwaukee Monday, Bledsoe played three minutes and left the game for good. The Bucks reported that he’d been playing on a sore left ankle and is not expected to play Thursday in Minnesota.
After the Bucks on Sunday beat the Bulls for the first time in three tries, Giannis offered at least implicit support for Kidd when asked how the team was responding.
”I see that guys are playing harder. Some guys – I don’t know what they’re thinking in their heads. Maybe (they were) not OK with what happened. I just see guys playing hard.” — Giannis Antetokounmpo
Khris Middleton had a different take, and talked about how the Bucks were “a little bit looser” and “much more relaxed” playing for coach Prunty; and how teams “usually take on the personality of their coach.” He also praised Prunty’s “side-to-side” passing offense in the wake of Kidd’s preference to isolate mismatches and have the team “playing off one match-up”.
It’s the schedule, Khris.
Coach Kidd, too, would doubtlessly agree that the Bucks latest opponents were more relaxing than Toronto was in two January meetings, or Miami on Jan. 17. The Miami game was the Bucks 13th game in 23 days, the Bucks toughest, most unforgiving stretch of the season — three back-to-backs and 11 of the 13 opponents now holding playoff spots. Over the final 10 games of the stretch, they had no more than a single off-day between the games.
But the Bucks won 6 and lost 7, beating the Wizards twice on the second nights of back-to-back games. They lost twice to the Raptors and twice to the Heat, but beat Minnesota and OKC back-to-back, no easy task. They split with Indiana. In the 13th game, the Bucks were visibly exhausted against the Heat, as Giannis missed 7 free throws and Bledsoe shot 2 for 13 in the 106-101 loss.
They didn’t make it through unscathed. When it was over, Giannis sat out the next two games to relieve soreness in his right knee, a recurring problem that forced him to miss two games earlier this season and summer international play with Team Greece. Malcolm Brogdon also missed the game in Philly, and two more since, with a calf injury. Bledsoe was playing on a bum left ankle, and isn’t expected to play against the T-wolves Thursday. And Jason Kidd lost his job.
The scheduling reality and the mid-season wear on tear on the team beg the “what if” question. A win here, a win there, a timely extra day off — would Horst and Kidd have had a problem? Should they have had a problem as it stood, the Bucks record at 23-22, given the grueling schedule?
Contrast all that with the three-day break the Bucks enjoyed after beating the Suns the day Kidd was fired. They were able to rest and recharge, to recuperate Giannis’ aching knee and other team ailments; and Prunty had plenty of time to prepare the team for the 3-games-in-4 days stretch against lesser teams of the East. The Bucks have a two-day break this week before meeting the T-Wolves in Minneapolis Thursday.
What a difference the schedule makes: A four game win streak built on the bottom feeders of the East, then five more lottery-bound opponents before the All-Star Break Feb. 16, and 7 off-days in two weeks (Feb. 2-15).
The Bucks are 27-22 and in 6th place in the East as of this writing. They remain on track, maybe not to win 50 games, but to at least challenge for the No. 3 or No. 4 spot in the East and fulfill their goal of winning a first round playoff series, something Bucks teams have done only twice in the last three decades. Jabari Parker is due back on Friday, right on schedule.
Funny, it’s pretty much the same situation they Bucks were in when they fired Kidd, give or take a few wins against the patsies of the East.
Who the heck is Jon Horst?
- Excellent feature 6/18/17 on Jon Horst in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: -https://www.jsonline.com/story/sports/nba/bucks/2017/06/18/who-new-bucks-gm-jon-horst/406803001/
- Brewhoop on the weird process of Horst’s hiring: https://www.brewhoop.com/2017/6/16/15815804/report-milwaukee-bucks-closing-in-on-hiring-jon-horst-as-new-gm
- NBA.com on Justin Zanik, the GM candidate the Bucks owners couldn’t agree to hire: http://www.nba.com/bucks/release/bucks-name-justin-zanik-assistant-general-manager
Bledsoe stats per 36 minutes in 7 games Jan. 8-20. The Bucks fired Jason Kidd Jan. 22.
Notes: The 3.4 steals per 36 are great, the 3.2 turnovers normal for Bledsoe, but he’s had some awful shooting games in the last seven before the Suns game Jan. 22. The Bucks posted a 2-5 record in those games. A BIER100 of 0.115 is a very low impact and efficiency rating — well below average for a shooting guard (the SG median last season was 3.4). It’s tough to beat good teams when your star guard is suddenly playing like a replacement player or worse. Bledsoe BIER rating was about double the BIER median (6.74) at the midway point of the season (game 41), so his numbers have fallen off a cliff this month.