Stretch after All-Star break will be telling for Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks were in an odd place in January. They were dwelling near the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, nowhere near the place the team expected to be.

On January 22, the team removed coach Jason Kidd from the job while they were 23-22, and had lost four of their last five games. The Bucks were underachieving, no doubt about it. The team’s record was better than it could have been, considering the net rating of the team was negative. They were allowing 107.5 points per 100 possessions while scoring 107.1.

All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was away from action for eight days while resting his sore right knee. The time was right for a change at the top and bringing in Joe Prunty as the interim coach was the right move.

Since Prunty took command, the Bucks have gone 9-3 and played the second-best defense in the league, sporting a 100.4 defensive rating. That stretch has moved them up from 25th in the league in defensive rating to a tie for 15th for the entire season. It’s been impressive to watch for Milwaukee, but the question looms about whether or not the Bucks have been that good, or if they’ve benefitted from the softest part of their schedule.

Of Milwaukee’s nine wins since Prunty took over, eight of them have come against teams that currently have records below .500. The lone win against a winning team came by knocking off Philadelphia with All-Star center Joel Embiid sitting out the second night of a back-to-back.

It’s surely a comforting thing for fans to see the team defeat the opponents it should, especially the way they’ve won. Doing it with defense is a great recipe in the NBA, and with that unit led by a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Antetokounmpo, the Bucks should be much closer to the top of the league than they were.

With that being said, has their defense improved because of Prunty or because of the teams they’ve played? They certainly have done some things differently on that end of the floor, specifically their pick-and-roll defense. With that being said, it’s an incredibly challenging thing to overhaul an entire defensive system on the fly, thus little tweaks will have to suffice. The Bucks were among the league leaders in trapping on the pick-and-roll and have since changed.

They’ve done that against some really poor offensive teams, however. Of their eight wins, the best offensive team they’ve beaten was Philadelphia, who comes in at 14th in offensive rating for the season, and that victory came without Embiid on the floor, as mentioned.

The remaining eight wins have come against Orlando (18th), New York twice (23rd), Brooklyn twice (24th), Chicago (28th), Phoenix (29th), and Atlanta (22nd)

The defense has been good in those games, however in the two instances in which Milwaukee has faced top 10 offenses, they’ve not performed nearly as well and lost. In the loss to Minnesota (third rated offense), Milwaukee allowed 108 points while finishing the game with a defensive rating of 111.6. When the Bucks hosted the Denver Nuggets (seventh), they allowed a season-high 134 points while their defensive rating was 129.1. That was mostly due to the Nuggets nearly setting an NBA record for most 3-pointers made in a game with 24.

After the All-Star break things won’t be getting easier for Milwaukee, either. The Bucks face teams with winning records in seven of their first eight games after the break. The lone team with a losing record, the Detroit Pistons, could potentially have a winning record at the time of the matchup as they have three games prior to taking on the Bucks and are currently 28-29.

The Bucks improving after firing Kidd was something that should have happened. They were underachieving and had the benefit of the softest three weeks of the year approaching. The real test for Milwaukee will be the post break stretch.

After winning 9-of-12 since Prunty took over, this becomes the most important stretch of the season for the Bucks. Showing that they can compete with some of the top teams in the league like Toronto and Houston could keep them in the race to hold home court in the first round. A disastrous stretch could place Milwaukee back fighting for the playoffs, exactly where they were when Kidd was fired.

Firing Jason Kidd was the right decision for Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks have underachieved their way through the first half of the 2017-18 NBA season. They’re currently 24-22 on the season and announced the firing of coach Jason Kidd on Monday.

Milwaukee has failed to live up to the lofty expectations that they placed upon themselves. This was supposed to be the year where the Bucks were supposed to improve upon their previous seasons and not only advance to the playoffs for consecutive seasons for the first time since 2003-04, but win their first playoff series since the team advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in the 2001 playoffs.

The decision may have been a tough one to make for Milwaukee general management Jon Horst, mainly due to the loyalty All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has shown toward Kidd. Successful teams have had to make difficult decisions like this in the past.

For examples, one can point to the two teams that have dominated the NBA over the past three seasons. The Golden State Warriors fired coach Mark Jackson following his third season that saw his team win 51 games. In his first year, he only won 23 games, before more than doubling their win total to 46 victories in his second season. Golden State management didn’t feel the fit was right for the team, despite the success.

The Warriors inserted current coach Steve Kerr as his replacement prior to the 2014-15 season and since then they’ve gone 244-49 in the regular season, won the Western Conference three seasons in a row, and hoisted a pair of Larry O’Brien trophies. That was a tough decision to make, but it was the right one.

Flip back to the Eastern Conference and the Cleveland Cavaliers have also seen success after making a coaching change. The Cavs hired David Blatt as the coach in the summer of 2014, weeks before forward LeBron James returned to the team after spending four years in Miami as a member of the Heat.

It was evident from the start that the Cavaliers were not going to reach their potential with Blatt at the helm. He was fired in January of 2016, a year and a half into the job. Blatt had a record of 83-40 as a coach when he was fired. Management in Cleveland felt that he wasn’t the right fit for James and the rest of the Cavaliers. Coach Tyronn Lue replaced him on an interim basis and won the Cleveland’s first championship in 52 years five months into the job over Kerr’s Warriors in a thrilling 7-game series.

While those teams may not directly compare to the Bucks in terms of talent, the decisions made to compare. Milwaukee was underachieving with Kidd at the helm. The Bucks don’t have the perfect roster by any stretch of the imagination, but they do have a Antetokounmpo, who is regarded as arguably one of the NBA’s 10 best players, as well as Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and will have Jabari Parker again sometime soon.

Those players aren’t enough to win a championship in today’s NBA, at least not currently. That being said, those players are certainly enough to be better than a team fighting for a playoff spot.

Kidd wasn’t maximizing what Milwaukee has on the roster currently. With a player like Antetokounmpo the Bucks should be closer to fighting for the top playoff seed in the conference than the last one.

While Kidd was a tremendous player in his day, it was becoming more and more evident that he was nothing more than an average at best coach. He certainly made Milwaukee better in his first days on the job, elevating a 15-67 that he inherited to 41-41 and the playoffs in his first season deserves praise. With that, he deserves criticism for not growing beyond that. Failing to qualify for the playoffs the next season was a disappointment. Failing to win a playoff series last season should be looked at as underachieving, especially after leading the Toronto Raptors 2-1 in the series with Game 4 in Milwaukee.

The decision for Milwaukee may have been a tough one, but make no mistake, it was one that needed to be made. The Bucks did the right thing in firing Kidd. It became evident that the Bucks were not going to reach their peak and contend for championships under Kidd.

Now the search for a coach that can lead the franchise to its first championship since 1971 begins. The clock is ticking while Antetokounmpo is in town. There is no guarantee that he’ll be with the Bucks forever, just ask the Cavaliers about what it’s like to lose a once-in-a-generation talent without grabbing a title first.

That’s not a position that the Bucks want to be in, and the hiring of their next coach is one of the biggest decisions in the history of the franchise.

It’s the decision the Bucks must get correct if they want to have a legitimate championship window.

Bucks fire Kidd, defeat Suns 109-105

Monday was an interesting day for the Milwaukee Bucks as it started with the franchise relieving Jason Kidd of his duties as head coach. Later Monday night the Bucks snapped a short two game losing skid with a 109-105 win over the Phoenix Suns.

Forward Khris Middleton had 35 points on the evening. His effort was aided by guard Malcolm Brogdon who finished with a career-high 32 points in his return from a one game absence. Brogdon missed Milwaukee’s loss to Philadelphia on Saturday night while he was handling a personal matter.

The Bucks trailed Phoenix 79-76 to start the fourth quarter but outscored the Suns 33-26 in the game’s final period. Middleton and Brogdon combined for 23 of Milwaukee’s 33 points. Middleton made all four shots he attempted in the quarter.

Phoenix was led by forward TJ Warren in scoring with 23 points. Center Greg Monroe had 19 points and seven rebounds in his return to Milwaukee after being traded from the Bucks to the Suns earlier in the season.

Milwaukee All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo missed his second consecutive game with a sore right knee. He is expected to return on Friday night when the Bucks host the Brooklyn Nets.

Milwaukee Bucks need to ‘Own the Present’

The Milwaukee Bucks have been using the ‘Own the Future’ slogan since the 2014-15 season. That was the second season in the NBA for forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, the first for oft-injured forward Jabari Parker, and the first with coach Jason Kidd at the helm. Milwaukee was coming off of a 15-win season the year before. The slogan was appropriate at the time with today’s core of Antetokounmpo, Parker, Khris Middleton, and John Henson having little experience.

That team went 41-41 and made the playoffs before losing to the Chicago Bulls in the first round. Milwaukee pushed the series to six games and that was an accomplishment against that Chicago squad. The Bucks had plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future. They were ahead of schedule for competing in the playoffs.

Fast-forward to today and there are still reasons to be optimistic about the future of this team. Antetokounmpo is one of the best young players in the NBA, and likely one of the 10 best players in the world. He’s a superstar in the league and has the potential to one day be the league’s best.

While the reasons to be optimistic still exist, the team isn’t ahead of schedule anymore, rather they’re falling behind.

Antetokounmpo is in his fifth season in the NBA, Middleton and Henson are in their sixth, and newly acquired guard Eric Bledsoe is in his eighth. Sure, they can still be considered young to some degree with Antetokounmpo only 23, but they’ve been around. These guys are veterans. Add in other players like Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry that have championship experience and the team doesn’t look nearly as young as the slogan might suggest.

At this point, only reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, Thon Maker, and Sterling Brown can be considered true young guys in the rotation. When Parker returns from his second torn ACL the case can be made for him as well. He’s technically in his fourth season, but he’s already missed 138 games in his career.

This season was when the Bucks were expected to compete for a top-4 seed in the Eastern Conference. Last year they finished above .500 and took the Toronto Raptors to six games in the first round of the playoffs. This year was supposed to be the year that Milwaukee made that jump from the lovable young team to one that could win a playoff series and push teams like Cleveland, Boston, and Toronto at the top of the conference.

In spurts this team has shown just how good they can be. They’ve beaten Cleveland, Boston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Minnesota this season. The Bucks have shown they can compete at a high level. They just haven’t shown the ability to be consistent in doing so.

A perfect example of this was the recent frustrating loss to Miami on Wednesday. The Bucks were leading the Heat heading into the fourth quarter. It was a game that they had every chance to win against a team that’s very similar to who they are. Miami is a team with less star power than Milwaukee, similar experience. In fact, the post LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh era Heat probably have less experience than the Bucks do.

“I think when you become 25 [years old] or on the 28 [years old] range you tend to think about the game,” said Kidd following the loss to Miami. “We’re talking about kids that are thinking about trying to put the ball in the basket and they all believe they can do it. Until we can think about being a team and making a play and being unselfish, bad things will happen. Good things can happen, we’ve seen it. When we’re selfish we are as bad as anybody. There’s no coaching, there isn’t anything you can do but go through it and learn. And we can keep telling them what’s coming, but the final decision is up to them and right now we have a hard time doing that.”

What Kidd said can be interpreted a number of different ways. It can be viewed as a coach becoming increasingly frustrated with the performance of his team, hiding behind the perception of being a young, inexperienced team, or a shot at Antetokounmpo.

Kidd’s frustrations would be warranted. There is growing angst among fans that Kidd is the problem with the Bucks and needs to go. One could speculate that his seat may be getting warm as the Bucks continue to underachieve. Whether or not Kidd’s job is on the line is up for debate and not the conversation this column is focusing on.

This being a shot at Antetokounmpo could make sense because of the players on the floor for the Bucks in the fourth quarter taking shots, he’s the only one that falls outside of the 25-28-year-old age range that Kidd mentioned. Middleton and Bledsoe were the other two players for Milwaukee to get multiple shots up in the final period. They’re 26 and 28, respectively.

In the fourth quarter, Antetokounmpo was 1-of-5 shooting, including 1-of-2 from behind the arc. He routinely settled for ill-advised mid-range jumpers instead of attacking the rim. He has yet to develop an effective outside shot, and relying on that down the stretch of a close game isn’t what the Bucks are looking for.

The last option, hiding behind the ‘Own the Future’ slogan, is one that is growing old. The Bucks have been ‘Owning the Future’ since 2014-15. When exactly does the future become the present?

“We are a young team, but we can’t use that as an excuse,” Middleton said. “That’s been an excuse for five years, since I’ve been here. I mean, getting better, it comes with experience. I mean, what we’re going through right now we’ve been through it for a long time. At some point that experience has to kick through, hopefully it will this season.”

Middleton is correct. The excuse of being a young team has grown stale. While it would make sense from a marketing standpoint for the Bucks to shed that slogan heading into next season when a new arena in downtown Milwaukee opens up, this team needs to start owning the present day instead of perpetually waiting for the future to arrive.

Reports: Bucks to hire Horst as new GM

Amid internal strife, the Milwaukee Bucks apparently have their new general manager.

ESPN’s Mark Stein was the first to report the team would officially announce sometime Friday that they were elevating Jon Horst, their current director of basketball operations, to GM.

Earlier on Friday, Adrian Wojnarowski of ‘The Vertical,’ tweeted there was some “contentious ownership disagreement” over the search for John Hammond’s replacement. While interim GM Justin Zanik had the backing of owner Marc Lasry and coach Jason Kidd, there was no a clear consensus.

Horst has been with Milwaukee since 2008, and there were some reports that suggested that Hammond was considering him for a role with Orlando, where he is now the GM.

Zanik was thought to be the front runner when Hammond left last month, but the team conducted a vast search that has now lasted close to a month. During that time, Zanik has been preparing for the NBA draft, which is less than a week away.

Report: Bucks opening up GM search to external candidates

MILWAUKEE — Despite initially receiving the moniker “GM-in-waiting,” Justin Zanik will have some competition if he wants to become the next general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Zanik was hired away from the Utah Jazz last summer to work alongside John Hammond, who signed a five-year contract to take over as general manager of the Orlando Magic. In an interview with the Wisconsin Sports Zone Network last June, team president Peter Feigin gushed about Zanik as a “terrific hire,” but never committed to Zanik as Hammond’s replacement.

Hammond signed a contract extension two summers ago, taking him through the 2017-18 season. In the June interview, Feigin expected Hammond to eventually be on the same payment schedule as coach Jason Kidd, which would keep him on board through the 2019-2020 season.

“If you ask the owners, the intention would be that we’re making a commitment long-term…to have a plan and get somewhere in these first three to five seasons [under new ownership],” Feigin said. “…So there’s a plan to keep everyone intact.”

ESPN’s report about the Bucks’ GM search includes a detail stating that Milwaukee’s “special consultant,” Rod Thorn, would lead the way in the hiring process. Thorn cut his teeth in the NBA as a former GM of the Bulls and Nets, where he was responsible for trading for Michael Jordan and Jason Kidd, respectively.

Bucks cruise to a 104-77 win over the Raptors in Game 3

Game 3 was no contest for the sixth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, as they rolled over the third-seeded Toronto Raptors 104-77 Thursday night to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

From the opening tip the crowd inside the BMO Harris Bradley Center was roaring, and the Bucks responded in kind, outscoring the Raptors 57-30 in the first half on the way to their biggest margin of victory in a playoff game since 1984.

“We know they’re going to come back on Saturday afternoon ready, just like after (losing) game one,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said of the Raptors. “Bu I thought the guys did everything we’ve prepared them to do. Defense is what we’ve always concentrated on and sharing the ball on the offensive end. The guys did that.”

Guard Khris Middleton led the way for Milwaukee, scoring 20 points and handing out seven assists, while forward Giannis Antetokounmpo had 19 points and eight rebounds. Center Greg Monroe added 16 points off the bench for a Milwaukee squad that shot 52.7 percent from the field and 52.2 percent from beyond the arc.

As good as the Bucks were on offense, they were just as good, if not better, on the other end of the court. They limited the Raptors All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozen to 21 combined points on 4 of 18 shooting, including the latter going 0 of 8, the first time he’s been held without a field goal in his playoff career.

The win gave Milwaukee its first 2-1 lead in a playoff series since 2001.

Game 4 is set for Saturday in Milwaukee. Tip time is at 2 p.m.

Milwaukee comes up just short against Toronto in 106-100 loss

Kyle Lowry hit a tough jumper with 8.9 seconds left to help Toronto even up their best-of-seven series at one against Milwaukee with a 106-100 win on Tuesday night at Air Canada Centre.

With Bucks guard Malcom Brogdon right in his face, the Raptors All-Star was able to get just enough separation and buried the shot, taking with it Milwaukee’s hopes of heading home up two games to none.

“If I would have missed it, I still would have been happy, because I got to my spot,” said Lowry, who finished with 22 points. “I was going to try to make it.”

Lowry’s dagger came after Milwaukee got two open looks at 3-pointers in the final two minutes and trailing by just two. But both Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova couldn’t get their shots to fall.

“It was in and out,” Brogdon said of his shot. “It was wide-open. I was hoping it would drop, but it didn’t. That’s what happens sometimes.”

Milwaukee trailed by as many as 12 in the final quarter, but continued to fight its way back into the game only to come up just short in the end.

“It would have been easy to let go of the rope,” coach Jason Kidd said. “We got down, but they kept playing. We had an opportunity there. We got some great looks. The ball goes halfway down and comes out. That’s just basketball. It can be nice or it can be cruel.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo led the way for Milwaukee with 24 points and 15 rebounds, while Khris Middleton added 20 and Greg Monroe had 18 off the bench.

Toronto was paced by DeMar DeRozan’s 23 points.

The series now heads back to Milwaukee for the next two contests, with Game 3 taking place Thursday night at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

Bucks lose regular-season finale at Boston

A depleted Milwaukee (42-40) team finished the regular season with a 112-94 loss at Boston (53-29) on Wednesday night.

Coach Jason Kidd opted to keep four players back home to rest for the playoffs, including Giannis Antetokounmpo, leaving a skeleton crew to take on a Celtics squad that was fighting for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. And for three quarters, the Bucks made them sweat, trailing by just four with less than six minutes to play before Boston pulled away down the stretch.

Michael Beasley and Spencer Hawes paced Milwaukee with 15 points apiece, while Rashad Vaughn added 14 points.

The game meant little for the Bucks, who were already locked into the No. 6 seed in the playoffs, but Kidd believes they accomplished what they set out to do.

“We got a lot done today. One, our health. We came out healthy. Two, guys were pros (and) they played (hard),” Kidd said. “For three quarters it was a ball game. Fatigue might have set in a little bit. But I thought guys really gave their best.

“We got some minutes with (John) Henson and Malcom (Brogdon). Now we have to turn the page and get ready for Toronto.”

Milwaukee will open the playoffs on the road at third-seeded Toronto on Saturday afternoon. The Raptors won the season series 3-1.

Full schedule:

Game 1 – Sat. April 15 Milwaukee at Toronto, 5:30 p.m., ESPN
Game 2 – Tue. April 18 Milwaukee at Toronto, 7 p.m., NBA TV
Game 3 – Thu. April 20 Toronto at Milwaukee, 8 p.m., NBA TV
Game 4 – Sat. April 22 Toronto at Milwaukee, 3 p.m., TNT
Game 5 * Mon. April 24 Milwaukee at Toronto, 7 p.m., NBA TV
Game 6 * Thu. April 27 Toronto at Milwaukee, TBD
Game 7 * Sat. April 29 Milwaukee at Toronto, TBD, TNT

Antetokounmpo’s 25 points not enough as the Bucks fall at Indiana 104-89

The hottest team in March has yet to win a game in the month of April.

For a third straight outing, the Milwaukee Bucks were on the losing end, this one a 104-89 setback against the Indiana Pacers to drop coach Jason Kidd’s team into the No. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race with three games to play.

“It’s hard to win in this league in March and April,” Kidd said afterwards. “Everyone’s trying to win. The teams that aren’t in the playoffs are trying to win, too, and trying to get better. You can’t take anybody lightly. You can’t exhale. For us, we’ve got to get back to being the aggressors.”

Playing without rookie Malcom Brogdon (back soreness) for a fourth straight game, the Bucks turned the ball over 21 times – the second-most they’ve had in a game all year – allowing the Pacers to turn defense into offense and keeping Milwaukee out of any kind of rhythm.

“We had way too many turnovers. We talked about it before the game,” Kidd said. “You turn the ball over against them it puts you in a bad situation defensively, because they’re going to take advantage of it, and they did.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo had a game-high 25 points, while Mirza Teletovic had 15 points (5 of 8 on 3-pointers) off the bench for the Bucks.

Had Milwaukee won, it would have clinched a playoff berth for just the third time since 2010. As it stands, the Bucks are now a ½ game back of Atlanta for the No. 5 seed, and a game up on the Bulls and Pacers.

“We can’t worry about (Indiana) or Chicago. We’ve done our job in the sense of the (season) series and tiebreakers (with them) if that comes into play,” Kidd said. “But we are still in control of our own destiny. We just have to find a way to win.”

Milwaukee will finish out the year at Philadelphia on Saturday, a home game against Charlotte on Monday and then a trip to Boston next Wednesday.