February 16, 2019

By Adam Spinella

When news broke over the firing of Jason Kidd on Wednesday, it seemed as if a collective sigh of relief came over NBA Twitter. After months of maligned math on end game strategy and years of stagnant and unimaginative offensive sets, the Milwaukee Bucks finally moved on from their once-promising young coach. The roster has steadily improved from a talent perspective, both internally and externally, and expectations have risen as a result.

Kidd appeared to simultaneously fall short of those expectations while attempting to lower them. In mid-December, after the team’s second loss to the Chicago Bulls, Kidd seemed to point to the youth and inexperience of his roster. “We’re a young team learning how to play the game at a high level with expectations that are a little bit too high,” said Kidd. “Understand that nobody in that locker room has ever won, so they’re learning how to win as a team.”

In the game Kidd referenced, the Bucks played only two players on their rookie contracts: one of them is reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, who is 25 years old. Youth is a convenient excuse, yet the Bucks haven’t given a ton of minutes to young players. As for the comment on winning games, it seems he forget about Jason Terry, a guy who won an NBA Championship… as Kidd’s teammate.

These snafus demonstrated a trend of excuses and a failure to really get a firm pulse on what it takes to advance teams to the next level. Yet they’re only the icing on the cake for a franchise that has experienced a dull offensive system and a defensive scheme seemingly failing as the NBA moves towards positionless basketball.

That defensive scheme was ultimately designed by Sean Sweeney, a young assistant with the Bucks who followed Kidd to Milwaukee from Brooklyn. When the duo first took over in Milwaukee they orchestrated an unbelievably quick turnaround to get the Bucks to being one of the better defenses in the league. The scheme was simple, but utilized the team’s great length and athleticism well: trap or aggressively hard-hedge ball screens set on the sideline, extend help from the opposite corner early and nearly front the post to prevent direct entry points to the interior.

Slowly, the Bucks’ defensive rating started to fall closer to the bottom of the league as Kidd and Sweeney refused to dial back their aggressive scheme and opponents figured out its weak spots. Under that game plan of aggressive and early help, the Bucks failed to discourage shots most teams want to take (shots at the rim and corner threes), they simply changed the ways in which teams created them. Simple skip passes and screening-in on the weak side thwarted their rotations, and Kidd rarely countered or changed his team’s methodology:

It remains to be seen if a team can tweak their entire defensive patterns in the middle of a season, but that might be the biggest area of need for the Bucks right now. They sit currently 25th in the league in defensive rating despite having plus-defenders like Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Matthew Dellavedova and Eric Bledsoe. Oh yeah, and an insanely versatile defender like Giannis. Long-term, a hybrid switching-trapping scheme might be best for this roster, but integrating change in February isn’t easy to do.

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Offensively, the Bucks are overpowering other teams with sheer skill level, relying on one-on-one plays rather than brilliant schemes or impressive ball movement. The Bucks are 24th in passes made per game, according to NBA.com, and 20th in assists. There are many above-average passers on their roster, and Antetokounmpo is one of those rare players whocan run an offense through him no matter what type of player he’s defended by. It’s shocking to see the Bucks throwing nearly 70 fewer passes than the Philadelphia 76ers, who are playing through a similarly-skilled rookie in Ben Simmons.

Milwaukee is also 24th in paint touches per game despite their multi-point guard looks and an athletic freak like Giannis anchoring the attack. For a team that doesn’t pass the ball, but doesn’t get into the lane with a high frequency, it’s head-scratching that the offense is thriving as well as it has been this year.

The one positive of their defensive scheme being as aggressive as it has been is the effect it has on Milwaukee’s transition opportunities. Trapping and blitzing all over the place leads to transition points; the Bucks have the third-highest percentage of team shots coming from the fast break, trailing only the Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Take that away and the Bucks look very vanilla in the half-court, running stuffy sets through the elbows with only one screening action taking place at a time. They love to post Giannis at the elbow, throw the ball to him, and stand around him while either one man raises for a handoff or they set a ball screen for him to come off. Even their best sets, an elbow get action designed for an inside pick-and-roll, features the lack of player movement off the ball that ruins offenses in the NBA:

Players like Antetokounmpo are generational. Eric Bledsoe is another dynamic playmaker who thrives as a cutter and in ball screens. Middleton can play out of the pinch post, but is an effective passer and efficient out of the catch-and-shoot. Perhaps the most gifted one-on-one scorer of them all, Jabari Parker, must also be worked into the mix. The point is, there are so many offensively gifted players on this roster for the sets to be run so slowly, deliberately and predictably time and time again. Leveraging multiple types of complimentary talent comes from having multiple options on each play based on what the defenses choose to take away. With four guys who can go off for 20 on any night, it’s a good bet defenses won’t be able to contain everything.

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Part of the issues with offenses that originate at the elbows is they don’t properly utilize the spacing and value provided by the three-point line. While effective on occasions or as set plays with counters, an entire motion-based system located there limits the amount of clean attempts a team will get from deep each night. Elbow-centric schemes shrink driving lanes and shorten re-penetration opportunities. They make post-ups easy to spot. They tighten the spacing of most impromptu ball screens. Simply they don’t allow for great players to improvise based on what the defense gives them.

For that reason we’ve seen the boom of offenses that feature big men at the top of the key – simultaneously stretching those same elbow-centric sets farther from the basket and opening up the lane for other cuts and drives elsewhere. Kidd clung to the traditionalist approach of using the elbows, and it’s made watching the Bucks feel like an experience straight out of the late 1990s.

There’s been a lot of surprise about the front office making this move during the middle part of the season, but this decision makes much more sense than sticking with Kidd for the rest of the season. The Bucks are currently eighth in the Eastern Conference, clinging for life in the playoff picture while they know their core needs to gain playoff experience together if a leap forward in the coming years to elite status is possible. If the organization felt Kidd wasn’t the right man to lead them there this year, or that the team would be in danger of missing the playoffs this season without making a coaching change, then they were obligated to make it at this point in the season.

Interim coach Joe Prunty will do a solid job holding down the fort until they hire a coach for the long-term. There’s no doubt Milwaukee is a desirable destination and could be the top coaching gig available this entire year. Antetokounmpo as a superstar to build around is as good as it gets. A new arena and a new G-League team are pristine assets, and the trio of Eric Bledsoe, Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton make for a nice core.

There’s something about the situation in Milwaukee that feels eerily similar to Golden State under Mark Jackson. A former great point guard with no coaching experience before taking over, the team began to play well for a few years, then plateaued from a stylistic perspective.

So, who will be Milwaukee’s Steve Kerr?

Plenty of names are out there that can modernize the offense, utilize the length and talent on the defensive end and propel this group towards elite status. Young general manager Jon Horst will have a lot of phone calls and great prospects to sift through. Whenever a coaching vacancy opens, all eyes shift towards the San Antonio Spurs to see what assistants might be available and primed for their own gig. Undoubtedly Ettore Messina and Monty Williams jump out as those ready and experienced. Former NBA head coaches like David Fizdale, David Blatt and Lionel Hollins all make for intriguing candidates that might be available. The lure of coaching Giannis might even be enough to lure Jeff Van Gundy out of the announce booth.

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First and foremost, the Bucks need to get a hire that can sustain a close relationship with Giannis Antetokounmpo. The bond he shared with Kidd was a tight one, and the firing of his mentor could be the impetus behind an unwinding relationship between both superstar and organization if the front office isn’t careful. If the Bucks don’t hire a coach who can create a tight connection with the Greek Freak, it could shorten his tenure in Milwaukee or strain the dynamic within the locker room.

As for Kidd, he’s already spoken about wanting to get back into coaching as quickly as possible. It’s hard to envision someone giving him a shot after the disappointment he’s responsible for in Milwaukee. His saving grace may be his relationship with superstar player Giannis Antetokounmpo, and all that the coach had done to develop his skill set and advance his career. Perhaps some day another team will give him a third chance at success as a coach, hoping some time away does some good for his motivational skills, tactical design and in-game management.

When expectations rise, coaches know the fate that they face: either rise with them or get the axe. Kidd ultimately didn’t get the most out of the talent on this roster, both this season and in years past. With a bona fide MVP candidate, three other offensively gifted players and a roster of solid role players and an Eastern Conference ripe for breakout teams, the Bucks couldn’t wait much longer for their coach to catch up with the window of opportunity presenting itself.

Coach Nick went through the footage to break down exactly what went wrong in Milwaukee and why head coach Jason Kidd was fired.
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