Jason Kidd simply ran out of time. On Monday, the Bucks head coach was fired, the latest casualty of the increased expectations surrounding the franchise. Giannis Antetokounmpo is now a legitimate superstar, but the rest of the team has not kept pace. There was a massive shake-up in their front office over the summer, and they traded for Eric Bledsoe in the first month of the season after a disastrous start. Things haven’t been much better since: Milwaukee is hanging onto the no. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 23–22 record, a far cry from the leap the Bucks seemed poised to take after last season. Outside of a deadline trade that might soon come, the only other change they could make was firing their coach.
Milwaukee has been a one-man team this season. Giannis is leading the Bucks in per-game scoring (28.2), rebounds (10.1), and assists (4.6), and is second on the team in steals (1.5) and blocks (1.3). Their net rating plummets from plus-3.7 with him on the floor to minus-11.6 without him. The final straw came in a 116–94 loss to Philadelphia on Saturday, which Giannis sat out with a sore knee. The Bucks looked helpless, especially in the fourth quarter, when they were outscored by 18 points. Kidd could not come up with any answers.
It hasn’t been for lack of trying. Kidd made several changes to their starting lineup this season, and he has played 14 different players more than 100 minutes. He even dialed back the aggressive defensive schemes that have been his trademark as a head coach, both in Milwaukee and Brooklyn. Kidd loved to blitz pick-and-rolls and force offenses to execute under intense ball pressure, but there were diminishing returns to his unorthodox style. After finishing with the no. 2 defense in his first year as the Bucks head coach, they have not been ranked above no. 19 in the three years since.
Interim head coach Joe Prunty has to figure out some way to stabilize their defense. Milwaukee has the no. 25 defense in the NBA this season, and the underlying numbers suggest that something is fundamentally broken. The Bucks are no. 3 in opponent 3-point field goal percentage (38.1), no. 2 in the percentage of corner 3s (24.1) allowed, and no. 1 in the percentage of shots (32.5) at the rim allowed. Letting opposing teams take the most efficient shots on the floor is a recipe for disaster.
Milwaukee has the personnel to be at least respectable on that side of the ball. The Bucks are one of the longest and most athletic teams in the NBA, with John Henson at center, Giannis and Khris Middleton on the wings, and Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon in the backcourt. There aren’t many obvious weak spots for offenses to attack. The easiest solution might be a more conservative style of defense that discourages gambling and protects the rim and 3-point line at all costs. There’s no reason to have so many physically gifted players playing out of position when they should be able to keep their men in front of them.
Prunty has to figure out a new identity quickly. Jabari Parker is expected back from a torn ACL at some point in the next few weeks, and integrating him will require major changes. He’s an elite scorer who averaged 20.1 points on 49 percent shooting in 51 games last season, but he wasn’t much of a defensive player even before the injury. The worst-case scenario is what happened in Cleveland when Isaiah Thomas returned to the lineup. Adding a poor defender to an unstable defensive foundation can cause the whole thing to collapse.
Milwaukee might end up trading for a more traditional defensive anchor like DeAndre Jordan, as it has long been linked to the Clippers center. The problem is that that would probably mean moving future picks and promising young players like Brogdon and Thon Maker. It would be hard for a small-market franchise to give up players on cost-controlled contracts when its payroll is set to explode. Parker will be a restricted free agent this summer. Bledsoe will be a free agent after next season, and Middleton will likely waive his player option for the 2019–20 season and join him on the open market.
Bucks GM Jon Horst, who took over the job this summer, has a lot of big decisions to make. Giannis won’t be a free agent until after the 2020–21 season, but an NBA team lucky enough to have a player of his caliber is always on the clock. Keeping this group together will be incredibly expensive, and Horst needs a better idea of how good they can be before he commits. If he pays Bledsoe, Middleton, and Parker, he will not have any flexibility to build around Giannis going forward. The rest of the league will be watching what he does closely.
Few of the available head-coaching candidates will be willing to join a team midseason, so Prunty is probably safe for now. To have any chance of removing the interim tag, he would need to win at least one playoff series, if not two, which is possible considering how wide open the East is. If Prunty doesn’t keep the job, the obvious candidate is David Fizdale, who built deep relationships with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade as an assistant in Miami and modernized the Memphis offense before losing a power struggle with Marc Gasol. It will be a comprehensive search, and the Bucks will have their pick of candidates. The opportunity to coach a superstar like Giannis doesn’t come around often.
Kidd was hired in 2014 to shepherd a young team along, and both Giannis and Parker blossomed under his direction. However, there is a big difference between developing individual players and maximizing a roster. Firing a coach can be the next step in the growth process of a franchise. The Bulls fired Doug Collins before they hired Phil Jackson. The Warriors fired Mark Jackson before they hired Steve Kerr. Of course, getting rid of the last guy is the easy part. Who the Bucks hire now is the most important decision the franchise has made since it drafted Giannis. Milwaukee doesn’t have much time to get this right.