Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond moved quickly to scrub Jim Boylan out of the picture for 2013-14, so now it's time to take stock of coaching candidates around the NBA and get an idea of what each hire could mean for the Bucks. The painful 22-32 finish to the season shouldn't be pinned solely on Boylan. He made his share of mistakes, but it's also clear that the roster flashed some glaring flaws down the stretch.
Big decisions loom regarding Brandon Jennings, J.J. Redick and (maybe) Monta Ellis. It seems unlikely that any easy answers will emerge for Hammond in the process. The Bucks have plenty of space under the NBA salary cap, but under the new CBA, teams will need to spend at least 90 percent of the cap in 2013-14. In other words, the Bucks will be forced to navigate a dangerous free agent landscape, which is a tough situation for a small market franchise that can't attract superstar players soaking in surplus value.
Hammond is reportedly looking for a defensive-minded coach who will be able to control the locker room. That general description makes it seem like Scott Skiles would be a good fit (obviously not happening), so we need to drill down a bit and talk about the specific coaches that have been linked to the Bucks in the rumor mill. Before we start, I want to emphasize that the talent on the court has been a bigger issue than the coaching over the past few seasons. Hopefully the Boylan experience helped everyone come to that understanding.
Michael Levin (my guy!) of Sixers blog Liberty Ballers is covering Philadelphia's coaching search, and he certainly knows that eighth-seed teams can't pin their hopes on some "magic coach" solution:
We can identify the tangible strengths and weaknesses of players on the court, but coaches, for the most part, are translucent reflections of their team's talent playing one way or the other.
With so many moving parts on the roster, the direction of the coaching search for the Bucks could help determine the profile of the next core group of players. I see two distinct paths for the franchise.
Path 1: Veteran Coach + High-Priced Veteran Free Agents + ???? = PROFIT
The team will interview Stan Van Gundy, and he "has long been a favorite of Bucks GM John Hammond," according to a report from Ken Berger of CBS Sports. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports claims Van Gundy "has emerged as the franchise's top target." If you didn't like Skiles, you won't like Van Gundy. Evan Dunlap of Orlando Pinstriped Post discussed Stan Van with Matt Watson of Detroit Bad Boys several weeks ago, and parts of his scouting report caught my eye:
if a guy blows a defensive assignment, Van Gundy will take him out. Guys can't skate by on talent alone: Van Gundy attempts to divest them of their bad habits, and only after they've done that will they earn a spot in his rotation.
He's a defensive-minded coach who can control a locker room. He checks both boxes on Hammond's wish list, but what would it take to convince a guy like Van Gundy -- who has already been to the NBA Finals once and the conference finals twice -- to Milwaukee?
A good friend of Stan Van Gundy's said he'd be "very surprised' if Van Gundy wound up in Milwaukee. "It's not what he's looking for."— Gery Woelfel (@GeryWoelfel) May 2, 2013
In my estimation, it would take a lot of silly spending in the off-season. Van Gundy can sit around and wait for the perfect situation with the proper pieces in place, and at the moment the Bucks aren't that team. But if they revealed a plan to sign former Van Gundy favorite J.J. Redick (28 years old), convince Monta Ellis (27) to opt in for 2013-14 and toss big money at free agent forward Josh Smith (27), suddenly they'd be built on a core of veteran players looking to make a push into the top half of the Eastern Conference. That's the type of team that makes sense for a coach like Van Gundy. He isn't going to sign on for a long-term rebuilding project.
The same rules apply to former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, who Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal Times tossed into the mix during a recent interview on WSSP 1250 AM:
"I talked to a couple of friends of Jerry Sloan's within the past couple of days, he definitely wants to return to coaching, and the other interesting facet is that he wants to coach in the small markets, one similar to Utah, so I think Milwaukee qualifies as that kind of environment."
This path would lead to stability and respectability for the next two-to-three seasons, but it could get ugly later down the line. Remember what happened in the wake of the Fear The Deer season with John Salmons, Drew Gooden and the trade for Corey Maggette?
Signing players in their prime is a solid idea for a pseudo-contending team looking for the final pieces in a championship puzzle, but spending that type of cash just to get where those pseudo-contenders are trying to move up from is one hell of a gamble. Hammond did a decent (?) job covering up for those post-Fear The Deer mistakes, but the failure should still be fresh in our mind. Drew Gooden is still sitting on the end of the bench, after all.
If everything were to go right and everyone were to stay healthy, this model of the Bucks could grab the pseudo-contender baton from the Atlanta Hawks and sprint toward a potential sale of the franchise to a local owner. However, if anything were to go wrong as these older, expensive players reach the back end of their careers (their 30s), it could get very ugly, very fast. Again, think Salmons and Maggette.
I call this path win-now on steroids. An injection of high-priced veterans and proven coaching talent could make the franchise stronger over the next few years, but quick fixes often have dangerous side effects.
Path 2: First-Time Coach + Younger Prospects + ????? = PROFIT
Former Bucks assistant Kelvin Sampson is the other hot name name in Milwaukee's search, and he's a different type of coaching candidate: a hot name that exactly can't pick-and-choose his landing spot. Top teams aren't looking for a first-time head coach, so in this case the Bucks are up against the bottom-feeders. Young coaches have to learn on the job, so it wouldn't make sense for the Bucks to assemble the pseudo-contender described on Path 1. This would become a more developmental roster aimed at collecting and nurturing prospects and picks.
With Sampson, the Bucks have obvious connections and a mutual familiarity. He spent three seasons with the franchise as an assistant under Skiles, and they now have promising young players like Larry Sanders, John Henson and (maybe) Brandon Jennings to bring along.
So far, the Bobcats and Pistons have poked around on Sampson. The Bobcats have asked for permission to interview him. Detroit's interest has been reported by Marc Stein of ESPN and Ken Berger of CBS Sports, but team beat reporter Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press has reported twice that Sampson "doesn't appear to be part of the Pistons' plans." Milwaukee can certainly compete with the likes of Charlotte and Detroit without mortgaging the future or buying pricey vets.
Malone interests me. The Sixers will interview him next week, and he's a hidden gem that may just be the brains behind the Golden State operation. Consider what Nate Parham of Golden State of Mind recently told Liberty Ballers in his scouting report on Malone:
You do not have my permission to poach Mike Malone. Period. Run along now.
But just to entertain your question, he's the perfect complement to Mark Jackson and I honestly think he's a major part of the Warriors' success this year: he's the more experienced x's and o's tactical guy to Jackson's charismatic former player leadership. I don't think you can easily quantify the value of an assistant coach, but given Jackson's lack of experience (this being his first full season) I'd have to think that Malone is a huge part of the team's success and not easily replaceable.
He has been the NBA's highest-paid assistant coach for the last two years, for what it's worth.
If the Bucks aim for one of these first-time NBA head coaches, they can maintain more flexibility and shed pricey veterans headed for the wrong side of 30. The core hasn't been good enough to compete with top teams, and maybe (maybe) (no seriously...maybe) Hammond realizes that it doesn't make sense to double-down on guys like Ellis and Redick. I wouldn't be opposed to keeping Dunleavy on a short-term deal, or signing some risky 25(ish) guy to an expensive short-term deal, but it'd be hard to justify any long-term commitments to bigger free agent fish. Keep things flexible and wait for a better opportunity to come along via trade or a later year of free agency.
Path 2 would be a chance to lock up Larry Sanders, play John Henson 25+ minutes per game and perhaps make another bet on Brandon Jennings. The Bucks let Sampson take a lead role in working with Jennings early in his career, and the they developed a good relationship, so this would be the most sensible scenario to spend more time and money on BJ. Despite my reservations about Milwaukee's point guard, I wouldn't be opposed to such a move. He's only 23 years old, and his prime is far enough away that it would fit with a new five-year plan to build a contender on this path.
If Hammond decided to keep the books clean for 2013-14 (aside from deals for Sanders and Jennings), the team could...uh....intentionally struggle through the year and land a high lottery pick. THEN they could spend some money and add to the core for a push into the upper-tier of the Eastern Conference at a later date.
I call this the upside down path. The Bucks can finally trace the tank treads with their tiptoes and move closer to landing a premium draft pick. If you want to move up, sometimes you have to drop down first.