Wojnarowski: Kelvin Sampson, Steve Clifford and Larry Drew emerge as finalists for Bucks' coaching gig

Scott Halleran

Having been spurned by Jerry Sloan and Stan Van Gundy, the Bucks have refocused their efforts on a trio of now-familiar names.

Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the Bucks are expected to bring Rockets assistant Kelvin Sampson, Lakers assistant Steve Clifford and Hawks head coach Larry Drew back for a second round of interviews this week, suggesting that Milwaukee's month-long search for a head coach may be nearing its end. Woj writes:

Bucks general manager John Hammond has a stronger history with Sampson – who spent two years on the Milwaukee staff under Scott Skiles – but has been increasingly impressed with the possibilities with Clifford, sources said. Clifford has come strongly recommended by three former coaching colleagues that Hammond respects – Chicago's Tom Thibodeau and Stan and Jeff Van Gundy.

The Bucks have also interviewed former Blazers and Sonics coach Nate McMillan, Rockets assistant J.B. Bickerstaff and visited with former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, who opted not to pursue the Bucks' advances. Gery Woelfel previously reported that the Bucks were also interested in Memphis' free agent-to-be Lionel Hollins (seems like a long shot), and yesterday Woelfel wrote that John Hammond and company also met with former Bucks player and Pistons coach Michael Curry at the draft combine. Meanwhile, there's been no mention of the Bucks pursuing top assistants Brian Shaw (Pacers) or Mike Budenholzer (Spurs), both of whom remain somewhat preoccupied with that "playoffs" thing.

Sampson and Clifford are among the league's most widely-respected assistant coaches, with both having interviewed for the head job in Charlotte and Sampson also drawing interest from Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Drew is technically still the head coach in Atlanta until July 1, but with no extension on the table from Danny Ferry he seems all but certain to be headed elsewhere. With three playoff trips and a .538 winning percentage in three seasons with the Hawks, Drew's time in Atlanta suggests he's capable of taking a solid roster and getting solid results. Which is basically what Scott Skiles couldn't do in his last two-plus seasons in Milwaukee, but don't look for Bucks fans to be hankering for Atlanta's castaway head coach either.

Not that Sampson and Clifford have proven anything as NBA head coaches either, but in this case that uncertainty might not be the worst thing in the world. Because after years of thrashing around the middle of the Eastern conference, the Bucks need something else. Anything else, really. Drew might be the safe choice, but safe isn't going to turn the Bucks around. So if Sampson or Clifford turn out to be the next Frank Vogel or Tom Thibodeau, that's great. And if they flop horrendously...well, to be honest that's probably better than more of the aforementioned middle-thrashing.

So what do Clifford and Sampson bring to the table? Well, very different things it would seem. Clifford came recommended by Stan Van Gundy after the former Heat and Magic coach decided against pursuing the Bucks' job, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest a defensive-oriented coach like Clifford represents the Bucks' best hopes of building a superstar-less winner. An L.A. Times' profile from last fall has more:

Clifford models himself after Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau and considers both the Van Gundy brothers as mentors. While Clifford was an assistant the past four years, the Magic finished in the top 10 defensively each season.

That should come in handy with the Lakers for two reasons. Clifford's attention to defense matches [Mike] Brown's coaching expertise. Clifford also already has experience working with Dwight Howard. Clifford was often viewed in his assistant coaching roles as both a mentor and teacher.

Sampson is of course the more familiar of the two, having spent two seasons with Milwaukee and forming a close relationship with Brandon Jennings in the process. In that sense the Bucks' coaching decision might also be viewed as something of a referendum on Jennings' future with the club. While there's nothing to suggest Jennings couldn't play for Clifford or Drew, hiring the Jennings-friendly Sampson would certainly seem like a reaffirmation of the Bucks' interest in retaining their mercurial 23-year-old point guard. Jennings has not surprisingly already thrown his support behind Sampson, using his Instagram feed to declare of Sampson, "This my guy for Life. He needs to be a Head Coach in the NBA."

Warm cuddly feelings with Jennings aside, what else might Sampson bring to the sidelines? Steve covered that topic a few weeks ago, noting that Sampson's time in Houston suggest an analytically forward-thinking, free-flowing approach would be likely. Here's Steve:

The primary source of intrigue with Sampson is his experience working for the sabermetrically-savvy Houston Rockets. As it turns out, he's a believer in Houston's efficiency model on the court. Here's the money quote from Zach Lowe's Grantland piece from February:

[The Rockets] have reinvented themselves around a superstar and an offensive system that represent the on-court actualization of NBA advanced stats - all 3s, free throws, and shots at the rim, accomplished at a hyper pace that makes Houston perhaps the league's most entertaining watch. "I've become a believer," says Kelvin Sampson, Houston's lead assistant. "It's fun to watch, and it's fun to coach."

It all sounds great in theory, but Sampson won't be able to bring James Harden with him if he comes to Milwaukee. And Harden is absolutely essential to Houston's success. Here's the scary part of the double-edged sword from Lowe's story:

Learning the playbook is not an issue, because Houston doesn't really have a playbook. "We don't have to stop practice and say, 'OK, now let's go over our plays,'" Sampson says. "We don't have any plays. During the flow of the game, very rarely do we run an actual play."

The first option for Houston is always the fast break. If they can't manage that, the Rockets essentially just shift into pick-and-roll mode.

Harden is an otherworldly pick-and-roll talent who makes it easy for everyone else to spread the floor along the arc. The Bucks don't have anyone in the same stratosphere, and it's not easy at all to find someone who can replicate Harden's production.

So take your pick. If you want a safe, "proven" commodity who has shown he can bring a reasonably talented team modest playoff success, Larry Drew is your guy. If you want a defensive guru who might bring some of that sweet Thibodeau/Vogel/Van Gundy mojo, Clifford is your homeboy. And if you want the analytically progressive players' coach who might just be able to get the most out of Brandon Jennings, Sampson looks damn appealing.

Choose your own adventure, friends.

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