WARR contributor Chris Pennant covers the Chicago Bulls and the NBA
The Milwaukee Bucks have been one of the NBA’s big surprises this season, and not for the reasons they would like.
Milwaukee, who was a preseason favorite to challenge the Cavaliers and Celtics for Eastern Conference supremacy, are holding on for their playoff lives as the All-Star break nears. Someone had to take the fall for this less-than-stellar campaign, and naturally, it was head coach Jason Kidd who was fired.
It’s procedure for a coach to be fired for the mistakes of their team. Tom Thibodeau, Scott Brooks, Avery Johnson, and Lionel Hollins are all successful coaches who have been fired after multiple successful seasons. So it’s not a surprise Kidd was the one released.
Bucks general manager Jon Horst made the decision “with the full support of team ownership” and there were other reported issues with players that made Kidd a fine scapegoat for Milwaukee’s struggles. Even so, I still don’t believe this was purely a basketball decision, and that leaves me to wonder: was Jason Kidd at fault for the Bucks’ mediocrity?
Kidd is not the only coach Giannis Antetokounmpo has known, but he obviously inspired loyalty and affection in the young superstar:
It’s not surprising for star players to publicly declare their support for an ousted coach; think of Kevin Garnett’s famous interview with John Thompson after the Timberwolves let go of Flip Saunders. However, rumors abound that a number of players were not as happy with Kidd’s management style as Giannis. In particular, a Bleacher Report article on the firing stated Kidd was not on speaking terms with injured Bucks star Jabari Parker.
There was also the curious post-game interview where he pointed to his team’s young age as the reason for their mistakes in a loss, even though Antetoukounmpo and Maker are the only rotational players under the age of 25. However, there’s nothing concrete to say Kidd had, as the popular phrase goes, lost the locker room. So Kidd haters can’t point to that as a reason for his firing.
Milwaukee’s offense is not a total write-off. According to Basketball Reference, they are sixth in effective field goal percentage, fourth in free throws per field goal attempt, and twelfth in turnovers. However, the Bucks only run eight men out on the floor every night, and only four are major offensive contributors. (I detailed some of this in my column on Niko Mirotic’s trade possibilities, but I’ll explain further here.) Giannis, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon are averaging a combined 80.5 points per game.
That’s nearly 80 percent of Milwaukee’s total scoring average! It’s no wonder that Antetoukounmpo and Middleton are playing 37 minutes per night. They pretty much have to be on the floor for the Bucks to score consistently.
Some of that is also due to bad luck, as the Bucks have a severe dearth of outside shooting. They are in the bottom five of the NBA in three-point shooting and in shots attempted, and Snell and Matthew Dellavedova are the only regular threats from distance.
The prolonged injury to Mirza Teletovic has hurt Milwaukee, and while rookie Sterling Brown has provided a spark as of late, the Bucks will continue to struggle as long as they don’t have two or more reliable catch-and-shoot players with Giannis on the floor. If Milwaukee had those guys, I’d criticize Kidd for lineup choices, but they aren’t available. So I really can’t.
This is non-negotiable: the Milwaukee Bucks should be a top-10 defensive team by nearly every statistic available. For starters, here are the listed heights and wingspans of Milwaukee’s most used starting five this season (wingspans are estimated using measurement at draft combine, from NBA.com):
Eric Bledsoe: 6’1”/6’7”
Khris Middleton: 6’8”/6’11”
Tony Snell: 6’7”/7”0
Giannis Antetokounmpo: 6’11”/unlisted
John Henson: 6’11”/7’6”
That alone would be enough to defensively throttle teams, but the Bucks also have Malcolm Brogdon (6’5”/6’10”), who started 18 games before the Bledsoe acquisition, and Thon Maker, who’s a seven-foot kudzu with three-point shooting ability. Prior to waiving DeAndre Liggins, the Bucks had a potentially horrifying defensive lineup available to them: either Brogdon or the pesky Matthew Dellavedova at point, Snell, Liggins and Antetokounmpo in the middle of the floor to threaten skip passes and Henson or Maker lurking under the basket.
The Bulls ran what they called the fireman’s drill in the early 90s with John Paxson, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, Horace Grant and Bill Cartwright, and it was one of the instrumental weapons in their first three-peat. Why couldn’t the Bucks use a similar full-court trap?
Kidd’s plan when he came to the Bucks was to play aggressively on defense and attack ballhandlers on the wing. Vice Sports’ Michael Pina outlined this in his article “The Case for Jason Kidd as Milwaukee’s Long-Term Coach”:
More often than not this team defends ball screens with aggression, keeping bigs up high to encourage ball movement while peripheral defenders are positioned to scurry around and induce controlled chaos. The backside help is always convincing the offense to make a dangerous skip pass, then counting on their own length and speed to recover in time or, better yet, steal the ball…It’s a risky system that cracks when all five players aren’t locked in or able to pull their own weight […] but Kidd’s goal isn’t to survive defensive possessions as much as dictate them with fury and purpose…
This is a great idea in today’s NBA offenses, which are built around the screen-and-roll. Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Snell can switch and attack ballhandlers with a greater chance of trapping on the sideline. But the numbers, even after the Bledsoe trade, are still glaring: Milwaukee is 16th in opponent points per game and 26th in points allowed per 100 possessions. This wouldn’t be as difficult to swallow if they were playing a transition game, but the Bucks are only 22nd in pace. Whether it was teams figuring out Kidd’s strategy or the players not buying in, the defense was not as good as it should have been.
Is Jason Kidd a bad basketball coach? The evidence points to no. Kidd carries a 13 games under .500 record in four-plus seasons with the Nets and Bucks, but only has one losing season to his credit and took both teams to the playoffs. It’s clear the Bucks were underachieving this season, but I don’t believe it was solely Kidd’s fault.
There are some questions with the offense that don’t have to do with personnel, and the defensive plan he brought to the table had been improving with the addition of Bledsoe. But it goes without saying that the coach will be blamed first.
If the Bucks don’t improve quickly and make a shout in the playoffs, however, it will be time for team management to face the music.
Chris Pennant is a Chicago-based sports writer and freelance announcer. In his spare time, he coaches roller derby and searches for good sneakers and good music. Follow him on Twitter @kwandarykitten; Follow We Are Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under We Are Regal Radio