For over a year now, you could find a smattering of #FireKidd tweets if you paid enough attention to Bucks Twitter. Fans had grown impatient with head coach Jason Kidd’s stubborn defensive system, haphazard rotations and questionable explanations for his odd decisions. Then, as this NBA season went on, and the Bucks found themselves fighting for a playoff spot despite Giannis Antetokounmpo cementing himself as a top-seven player in the NBA, #FireKidd became much more than just a hashtag. It became a mantra.
It doesn’t take a lot of research to figure out why. The Bucks have a two-way superstar, two almost All-Stars, the reigning Rookie of the Year and more talent to boot. And yet, the Bucks currently sit as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, barely hanging onto a playoff spot over halfway into the season. The peripheral numbers are even worse, as Milwaukee has just the 11th-best net rating in the East and sports the 25th-worst Defensive Net Rating league-wide. Giannis leads the league in minutes per game and is unsurprisingly in the midst of a two-game absence due to knee soreness. To say this team is underachieving is a laughable understatement.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports Joe Prunty will serve as the Bucks’ interim head coach for now, which makes sense. Prunty has been an assistant with the team since 2014 and served as the interim coach for 17 games in 2015 while Kidd recovered from hip surgery. During that span, the Bucks went 8-9, a marked improvement on the team’s 10-18 start under Kidd. Prunty’s edition of the Bucks played at a faster pace and stressed rebounding, the latter of which is a huge weakness for Milwaukee this year.
Considering the difficult a new coach would have implementing a new system in the middle of the season, at this point it seems likely Prunty serves as interim head coach for the remainder of the year. This should also give Horst and the Bucks’ owners plenty of time to perform a thorough and in-depth coaching search.
It’s an exciting time for the Milwaukee Bucks franchise. It has one of the most dominant under-25 players the league has ever seen, Jabari Parker, loads of talent, new owners willing to spend money, great new branding, a brand new sports science facility and a fresh, innovative stadium set to be ready for next season. The future is as bright as it’s ever been. But in order for the Bucks to capitalize on that future, GM Jon Horst absolutely must hire the right person to replace Jason Kidd. Giannis will be a free agent entering the 2021 season. It’s a lot sooner than you think.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at potential head coaching replacements for Kidd. Based on all the nuggets in the paragraph above, this is likely to be a job in hot demand. Being able to mold a player of Giannis’ potential is a coach’s dream come true, yet Milwaukee still doesn’t have heightened pressure and expectations like the Lakers or Celtics do.
Unless the Bucks can find the next Steve Kerr, the ideal coach will be someone in the mold of Tom Thibodeau or Mike D’Antoni. Both coaches had impressive track records of success at the head coach level but were fired when things got stale with their old teams. Both are set to coach in the playoffs this year.
When David Fizdale was fired by Memphis early in the season, many unhappy Bucks fans had already begun whispering about him replacing Kidd. Fizdale was a long-time assistant in Miami under head coach Erik Spoelstra, working his way up the NBA ranks until Memphis hired him. He led Memphis to the playoffs in his first season as head coach despite Mike Conley missing 13 regular season games.
Fiz was fired after the team started 7-12 this year, though some people around the NBA – including LeBron and Dwyane Wade – thought he took an unfair fall for an inadequate roster and possible front office issues. The Grizzlies are 9-17 since he was fired. Fizdale is probably the leading candidate for the job as of now, given his recent head coaching success and the fact that he’s currently unemployed. He’s also recently been linked to the Lakers, should they fire current head coach Luke Walton. On the off chance that were to happen, you can throw Walton’s name into the Bucks mix as well.
There are a slew of other options. You didn’t ask, but my vote is for Ettore Messina. Messina serves as the top assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs under Gregg Popovich, It’s safe to say he’s probably learned a thing or two from Pop about coaching, and also feels safe to point out you don’t become Pop’s right hand man without the proper credentials. Messina has 17 years of head coaching experience in Europe, where he led Virtus Bologna and CSKA Moscow to four combined EuroLeague Championships. He wouldn’t be a splashy signing, but he might be the right one.
Other current NBA assistants with head coach potential include former Bucks Darvin Ham and Sam Cassell, as well as Adrian Griffin. Ham is an assistant in Atlanta, Griffin in Dallas, while Cassell coaches under Doc Rivers for the Clippers. There are qualified assistants around the league on staffs such as Toronto, Boston, San Antonio, Miami and more, but it will be a waiting game to see if any other names emerge.
One intriguing option is Mike Budenholzer, the coach of the Atlanta Hawks. Budz has a pristine coaching track record, famous for earning Coach of the Year after leading Atlanta to 60 wins in 2015. Several of his former assistants have already gone on to successful head coaching careers of their own. His situation is tricky though. Supposedly, when Budenholzer stepped down as Team President in 2015, his contract wasn’t revealed publicly.
Atlanta is in the midst of a vast rebuild, currently tied for the worst record in the NBA. Regardless of his murky contract situation, it’s possible he may want to leave to avoid a rebuild, and it’s equally possible the Atlanta front office doesn’t view him as the right coach for the team’s new direction. Should he become available, the Bucks better come calling.
Not many other options stand out across the league. From my research, zero current head coaches have contracts that expire this season. Rick Carlisle and Quin Snyder have had past success and likely won’t make the playoffs this year, but poaching either one of them is likely a pipe dream.
Former head coaches provide one other path Milwaukee can take. There are many unemployed head coaches who the Bucks may be able to coax out of retirement. Mark Jackson had decent success in Golden State, though his legacy is marred by Steve Kerr turning that same Warriors team into an all-time juggernaut. He’s still around the game as a broadcast commentator, but his coaching track record is short and undistinguished; the Bucks can aim higher. David Blatt remains a possibility, and has a much stronger resume given all his success overseas. Still, Blatt’s name still feels like somewhat of a joke after LeBron laughed him out of the NBA. Seems unlikely.
Former Pelicans head coach Monty Williams is an option. Williams had a decent NBA career, served as an assistant coach in Portland for five years before landing the gig in New Orleans. He led the Pelicans to two playoff appearances in five years, both first round exits. He’s very well-liked around the league but his coaching resume isn’t as extensive as other candidates. Still, expect his name to be brought up a lot.
Jeff Van Gundy is a color commentator for ESPN, but he has a career .575 winning percentage throughout 11 seasons as a head coach. While certainly qualified, JVG hasn’t coached in over a decade.
If finding the next Steve Kerr is Horst’s goal, which is much easier said than done, there are potential gems for him to mine. The biggest name that comes to mind is former NBA All-Star Jerry Stackhouse. Stack, who played one season in Milwaukee, is the reigning D-League Coach of the Year (now the G-League) and probably the biggest wildcard of the bunch. His coaching history is limited to one season as a Raptors assistant coach and his two years as the head coach of Raptors 905 in the G-League. But not many assistants have ever been the head coach, even for a G-League team.
Last year, Stackhouse’s team led the D-League in team defense. Stackhouse learned how to adjust his lineups and schemes every day based on which players were on his roster and which had been called up to Toronto. He’s open about having his sights set on an NBA coaching gig. Quin Snyder used to cut his teeth in the D-League too, and he’s turned out just fine.
For now, all we have are unanswered questions. The biggest one likely won’t be answered until the season’s over. There are plenty of qualified options sitting out there, ready to bridge the team’s exciting future and dazzling present. The ball’s in Jon Horst’s court now.