The Bucks fired head coach Jason Kidd last Monday, and they are already seeing positive results. Under interim head coach Joe Prunty, they have won four straight contests, three of them by double digits. In the last week, the Bucks have taken down the Suns, Nets, Bulls, and Sixers. Is this short burst of success the immediate payoff of firing a problematic coach, or is it just the luck of the schedule, with most of the wins coming against below-average teams?
Wild rumors and speculation swirled around the league in the aftermath of Kidd’s firing. Reports suggested that an incident that took place during morning shootaround provoked the ultimate decision. Kidd’s firing may have already been in the works if the Bucks had failed to live up to preseason expectations, but a few expletive-laced arguments that morning may have caused the perfect storm for general manager Jon Horst to pull the trigger.
Add the previous calamity to the fact that the players were allegedly informed of the decision before Kidd himself learned of the news at a local pizza restaurant, and the story gets even more bizarre. Reports surfaced that Giannis Antetokounmpo frantically texted Kidd asking if there was anything he could do to save his job, to which Kidd replied, “There’s nothing you can do. All you can do is tell the truth. That’s it.”
These quotes should be taken with a grain of salt, as by process of elimination, Kidd was the one who leaked the text conversations to the media. He has been known to burn bridges on his way out of jobs. After getting pushed out of his first coaching position in Brooklyn, he harshly criticized the organization’s management for, in his words, failing to give him a chance.
Regardless of whether it was the right move for the team, the way Kidd was let go was quite controversial on behalf of the team’s ownership. Nobody who has paid attention to the Bucks for more than a few years should be surprised though, as the ownership group has proven that they operate on a cutthroat basis. This was evident right away when they brought in Kidd as head coach without even formally firing his predecessor Larry Drew. The owners also had disagreements over the open GM position in the wake of John Hammond’s departure to Orlando.
If Kidd’s coaching abilities were putting his job in jeopardy long before he was let go, it was easy to see why. Prior to firing him, the Bucks sported a defense in the bottom five of the NBA. Under Kidd, the Bucks employed an aggressive trapping scheme that focused on forcing turnovers and extra passes. They applied quick pressure to the ball, trusting their backside defenders to make up for the coverage gaps with their length and athleticism. Sometimes, the defense worked beautifully, and the Bucks forced turnovers at a high rate while causing havoc with their ability to cover so much ground.
However, the Bucks’ defense was extremely prone to giving up open looks, and teams eventually figured out how to exploit the scheme and find easy shots. This resulted in the league’s fifth worst defense in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions, despite having willing and capable defenders up and down the roster. To make matters worse, Kidd seemed reluctant to adapt and change a system that was so clearly flawed. A new head coach can’t change a broken system overnight, but there are some areas where Prunty can make an immediate impact as the on-court decision maker.
One direct impact from the coaching change can be seen in the rotations. Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton still rank first and second in the entire league in minutes played per game. This was likely the true reason behind Antetokounmpo’s regular missed games for “knee soreness.” However, Prunty has been successful in limiting his minutes while still keeping the team competitive. Antetokounmpo has played less than his season average of 37.3 minutes in all three games played under Prunty. He is also doing more with his minutes, with scoring performances of 41, 27, and 31 in that span.
Prunty is also doing a good job of keeping key role players involved. In his first game as head coach, he gave 35 minutes to Malcolm Brogdon, who responded with a career high 32 points on 11-of-14 shooting. On the other hand, Kidd’s rotations were perplexing and sometimes random. He had started both DeAndre Liggins and Gary Payton II on occasion, two players who were eventually cut by the front office.
After a crushing loss to the Bulls on Dec. 26, Kidd was asked why Sean Kilpatrick did not play. His response was, “His name just wasn’t pulled in the lottery, that’s all.” He also sat Brogdon for the majority of the first half in a crucial game against the Timberwolves on Dec. 28. When asked why he decided on Sterling Brown instead of Brogdon as the first substitution he replied, “Sterling was the first person I saw, so he was going in.”
Another area where Prunty could potentially improve the team is in late-game situations. Kidd made some questionable decisions down the stretch in several games this year. While none of them directly resulted in losses, there were some head-scratching moments with Kidd at the helm. On two occasions, he has instructed his players to miss free throws that would have put the Bucks up by 4 points with only a few seconds remaining.
In the final possession of regulation against the Suns on Nov. 22, he neglected to call for an intentional foul, and the Bucks subsequently allowed Devin Booker to splash a three that sent the game to overtime. However, he did call for an intentional foul up 4 points against the Pistons a few weeks later, and sent Reggie Jackson, a career 86% free throw shooter to the line.
The Bucks are already seeing success under their new head coach, having won all four games in the new era. Jabari Parker is coming back on Friday against the Knicks, meaning the Bucks will have four legitimate scoring threats on the active roster. Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Parker, and Eric Bledsoe have all once averaged at least 20 points per game in a season.
It will be exciting to see how the four play together in their first glimpse of action together on Friday. In fact, Antetokounmpo, Parker, and Middleton haven’t even shared the floor since the 2015-16 season, because Parker got injured the same night Middleton returned from his long-term injury. Of the Bucks’ eight remaining games before the All-Star break, five of them are against sub-.500 teams.