The Milwaukee Bucks organization and head coach Jim Boylan undoubtedly share the dream of contending for an NBA championship, but if that scenario ever comes to pass they won't share the experience. Let's call it what it is: Boylan is an interim coach. Sure, general manager John Hammond confidently declared that Skiles' lead assistant is not an interim coach and that he will coach the team for the balance of the 2012-13 NBA season, but isn't that the basic definition of an interim coach?
An assistant promoted in the wake of a messy breakup is almost always a temporary solution; a fleeting remnant of the previous regime that sticks with the organization to provide some baseline level of continuity while the front office prepares to clean up the situation at a later date. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- I think Boylan deserves his chance as long as the Bucks aren't ready to sign anyone to a long-term deal -- but the way things ended with Skiles it's pretty clear that the Bucks were looking for (a) the coach who already understood the limitations of the roster and (b) someone not named Scott Skiles.
I can confidently say that Jim Boylan is not named Scott Skiles, which satisfies one requirement, but after almost eight seasons as the lead assistant for Skiles it remains to be seen how different he will be in the actual practice of coaching the team.
I don't expect much to change for the players, but in a way this will be a test for the surly fans who consistently offered up criticisms of Skiles. Here's your chance to prove you meant what you said. To me, the hyper-criticisms of Skiles mostly express misdirected anger of discontented fans.
A better mix of top-end talent and more consistent performers would have solved many of the rotational issues noted by Bucks faithful, but it's hard to root for better players and easier to root against a coach. If Skiles has stubbornly stunted the development of a budding contender, I've never heard that stated directly. Most people generally accept that .500 talent gets you a .500 team, and nobody has been bold enough to argue (at least using a consistent logical approach) that Skiles had cost the Bucks games in the aggregrate. In any case, now is the time for every Skiles detractor to prove that they meant what they said.
Let's explore the four major issues that people liked to pick on when Skiles was the head coach:
Criticism No. 1: SKILES' OFFENSE SUCKS!!!!!!!!!!
Think fast: name the best offensive player Scott Skiles ever worked with in Milwaukee. Frustratingly ineffiecient point guard Brandon Jennings? Luke Ridnour? Mike Dunleavy? If you briefly considered uttering the name John Salmons, I'm sure you get the point. The personnel won't drastically change under Boylan's direction (barring a major trade), so feel free to hold the interim coach to the same standard.
Well, maybe you didn't like the system Skiles employed. Maybe handoffs and wing pick-and-rolls make you mad, or the carefully designed sets for Mike Dunleavy didn't tickle your fancy. Fine. But guess what, Boylan runs the same stuff.
If the eight years working under Skiles isn't enough to convince you, consider the input of Joakim Noah, who played under Skiles and Boylan in Chicago (via CSN-Chicago):
"They [Skiles and Boylan] run pretty similar things. I was always a big Boylan fan because he gave me my first opportunity to play, so I wish him nothing but the best, except against us."
We will get to the second part of Noah's reaction later, but let's focus on that first line for now. If Boylan runs the same stuff, are you still going to be as upset?
My guess is that any residual anger will relate to the frustrating mix of offensive players on the roster. Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau was asked about the coaching change in Milwaukee, and I think he provided the best answer I've seen (via CSN-Chicago):
"The strengths and weaknesses of the team aren't going to change and in one day, you're not going to change your philosophy. You may tweak something, how to play, change maybe one scheme defensively, if that. But Jim Boylan's a terrific coach. He's been part of Scott's staff for a long time, so I don't see dramatic changes and as I said, the tendencies of the players are not going to change," Thibodeau explained.
To take it even further, what if (gasp!) Skiles' offense was actually a well-designed system that worked to maximize the production of his inefficient gunners and less-than-dead-eye shooters? Zach Lowe of Grantland came to the defense of Skiles -- as many smart NBA scribes have done in recent days -- in his recent column:
"Skiles is pigeonholed as a conservative defense-first type, and while he prizes tough defense above all else, he has proven a smart tactician capable of adapting to wildly different rosters. When the Bucks replaced an elite big-man defender with an undersize chucker who could run the pick-and-roll, Skiles retooled his offense into a fast-paced, assist-happy fun-time machine. Milwaukee ran when it could, and within the half-court, Skiles scrapped the post game and predictable pick-and-rolls (up high for Jennings, and on the wing for Salmons back in 2010) in favor a whirling circular system of high-speed dribble hand-offs that turned into impromptu pick-and-rolls at the elbow area. Jennings and Ellis would sprint down one side, turn and run the baseline, pop up for a handoff near the opposite elbow, and grab the ball at full running speed. From there, they could either penetrate the lane, pitch to their partner at the top in a similar action, or (gulp) launch a difficult mid-range jumper. The system didn't always lead to efficient shots - no Ellis-dominated system could - but it worked as an antidote to en vogue defensive systems designed to force all pick-and-rolls away from the middle. By getting Ellis and Jennings the ball at high speed, and while running the center of the court, Milwaukee could manufacture the kind of penetration defenses were trying to deny."
Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to remain intelletcually consistent and hold Boylan responsible for the same issues you pinned on Skiles. Then again, maybe it's time for everyone to take a step back and get an objective look at the problems the Bucks are still facing. It's up to you, Skiles haters.
Criticism No. 2: DALEMBERT DESERVES TO PLAY MORE MINUTES!!!!!
Yeah, let's see how people handle this one. For reference, Dalembert got slapped with a DNP- Coach's Decision in Boylan's debut and he only played two minutes on Wednesday night, but suddenly nobody seemed to care.
Criticism No. 3: CLEAN UP THE FRONTCOURT ROTATION AND GIVE [INSERT YOUR FAVORITE GUY] MORE MINUTES!!!!!
Ersan Ilyasova was moved back into the starting lineup under Boylan's direction, and the Bucks have still started slowly in both games. Maybe it makes Ersan feel better to start, but he basically played the same amount of minutes under Boylan as he'd played under Skiles. Boylan could be the Ersan whisperer that Skiles was not, but isn't it a bad sign if your premier hustle player needs a whisperer?
Okay, let's look at Henson. In the three games prior to the coaching change, John Henson played 23, 27 and 26 minutes. In Boylan's debut he logged 19 minutes, and then 18 against the Bulls, but people seemed happier about his usage. The power of perception, eh?
Skiles did use Henson sparingly at the outset of the year (strength training, anyone?), but the rookie PF had still averaged 12.2 MPG over 23 games, so it wasn't like he was glued to the bench. More Henson would be a beautiful thing, but it will only happen if he proves to be a better option than Ekpe Udoh, Ersan Ilyasova, Larry Sanders, Luc Mbah a Moute and Samuel Dalembert. Therein lies the rub.
Criticism No. 4: DEVELOP THE YOUNG PLAYERS!!!!!
Let's put aside the fact that Tobias Harris has not played a single minute under Jim Boylan for a second, and think back to the opportunities Skiles provided to Harris, Lamb and Henson this season. Harris got the chance to start and play extended minutes at the outset of the year, but he didn't stand out on offense in the starting unit and struggled to play anything resembling NBA-caliber team defense. Henson and Lamb also both got opportunities along the way, but strong play for other veterans -- and positional minute crunches -- put them on the periphery.
More importantly, Skiles' lasting legacy with the Bucks should include a conversation about the development of Larry Sanders. The lanky big man made a lot of mistakes over his first two NBA seasons, and he didn't look much like a long-term centerpiece, but Skiles was able to send a message to him with minutes. Sanders clearly got the message, too. He worked hard on his deficiencies during the offseason, came back a completely different player and now he's building a great reputation around the league as a defensive specialist and aggressive rebounder. Skiles deserves some love for the emergence of Sanders.
But not every player responds to the same type message. Some guys need to grow on the court. Maybe that's why Skiles handed the starting job to Brandon Jennings in his rookie season...
Boylan did help Joakim Noah get playing time when Skiles was dismissed in Chicago -- something Noah appreciates to this day -- but maybe Skiles was right that the young big man wasn't ready. After Boylan assumed head coaching duties on Dec. 26, 2007, Noah averaged 7.4 points and 6.5 minutes per game and shot less than 50 percent from the field over 23.7 minutes per game.
More importantly, Noah got into trouble and exposed himself as an unprofessional rookie. He was suspended for one game early in January after a verbal confrontation with assistant coach Ron Adams, and then had an altercation with Ben Wallace on Jan. 18 that earned him another suspension that was eventually extended by way of a team vote. Boylan then used these words to describe Noah:
"To me, he's just like a puppy. You get your puppy, you pet him, you play with him, he's fun. And you wake up the next day and he ate your best pair of shoes and you have to deal with that. After you deal with that, he's still your puppy, you love him and that's the way he is."
Nobody has stepped out of line with the Bucks yet, but winning typically makes everyone get along. I could look up quotes from the Fear the Deer run and describe a fun clubhouse under Skiles, but nobody should need it. I tend to believe winning makes things fun, but I can't easily accept the notion that fun directly leads to more winning -- not in a cut-throat league filled with closers like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and now LeBron James. Ask LeBron how the reverse-engineered fun thing worked in Cleveland. Ask Dwight Howard how it's working in LA right now. The Bucks will stumble at some point during the season, and that will be the true test for Boylan.
Scott Skiles is a good NBA coach, and it's important to remember that fact. Familarity can breed contempt. It's clear he had worn out his welcome in Milwaukee on a personal level, but I firmly believe he effectively coached the team during his tenure with the Bucks.
Jim Boylan is here now. Plenty of people are excited that he's not Scott Skiles, but he's also not a wild departure from the previous regime. Hell, he was a principal component of the previous regime that everyone turned on this season. The Bucks haven't really gone anywhere. They are still 'here': same players, same system, same issues. It's convenient and comforting to cast Jim Boylan as a bridge to the mythical 'there' we all hope for -- a legitimate contending team in the East -- but the Bucks aren't any closer to that now than they were five days ago.
The phrase "neither here nor there" is an idiom commonly used to point out an immaterial event or situation, and I think it should be used to direct some of the conversation surrounding the recent coaching change in Milwaukee. Feel free to celebrate any and all successes the Bucks enjoy for the rest of the season, but know this: as long as Jim Boylan coaches the team, Scott Skiles' fingerprints will be all over this squad. That's a fact that everyone needs to recognize, and the rest of the pre-fabricated narrative that comes with a coaching change is neither here nor there.