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Nate McMillan, Kelvin Sampson to interview with Bucks soon, Hammond wants be thorough

The Bucks are set to interview a pair of intriguing head coaching candidates this week. One coach has ties to the organization, while the other is more established in the NBA.

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Harry How

Okay Milwaukee Bucks fans, here we go. John Hammond and the Bucks will interview head coaching candidates Nate McMillan and Kelvin Sampson this week, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. We've already heard suggestions that Stan Van Gundy would interview for the position and that he is Hammond's top target, though that still seems like a longshot. Still, it's generally a good sign that the team has been able to line up some quality candidates to compete for the job. However, Milwaukee's GM says the team will not rush to a decision on hiring a new coach (via Charles F. Gardner of JS-Online):

"We're not going to limit ourselves. We're not going to say we're going to have a coach hired by the first of June. We're not going to have to have a coach hired by the draft. We just want to make sure as we go through the process that the most important thing is to get it right."

Hammond may intend to work methodically, but the Bucks aren't the only suitors for some of their top targets. McMillan met with Detroit Pistons GM Joe Dumars for an informal discussion two weeks ago, and last Tuesday he went through his official interview. The Bobcats have requested permission to interview Sampson, and now that the Rockets have been eliminated from the NBA Playoffs you can expect a date to be set soon.

More on McMillan

The 48-year-old former NBA guard has coached in the league for 12 seasons and compiled a career record of 478-452 (.514). After five seasons coaching the SuperSonics and a trip to the Western Conference Semifinals in 2004-05, McMillan moved on to Portland. He led to the Trail Blazers to a 266-269 (.497) record over seven seasons as head coach before he was fired in 2012. He has been to the NBA Playoffs as a coach five times, and has only advanced past the first round one time ('04-05). McMillan recently served as an assistant coach for team USA Basketball in the 2012 London Olympics.

I vaguely liked the veteran head man as an option for the Bucks, but a closer look exposed a few of the warts on his resume. Aside from the lack of playoff success (in an admittedly loaded Western Conference), his defenses weren't really as good -- or even as respectable -- as I had remembered them.

It's hard to check one box on Hammond's wish list. McMillan is not a defensive-minded head coach, at least according to the numbers. Dan Feldman of PistonPowered did a bit of digging on McMillan and discovered that the 2012-13 Milwaukee Bucks (gulp) ranked as a better defense, using points per possession allowed, than any team McMillan has ever coached. To summarize both ends, based on points per possession stats, 10 of his 12 teams have ranked in the bottom-half of the NBA on defense, compared to a top-10 finish for six of his 12 offenses.

Dave Deckard of Blazer's Edge provided a detailed scouting report on the former Portland coach for SB Nation's Pistons blog, and here's a bit of what caught my eye. Think slow pace and rigid style:

The Blazers switched all screens when defending outside, retreating to prevent drives and post moves in the paint at all costs. On offense the pecking order ran Roy, Aldridge, Everyone Else. Iso matchups were Portland's bread and butter because their two stars could succeed that way. Everybody else had to pick up scraps and lump it. Flair was fine if you could score consistently but McMillan would rather see a good, basic shot after 15 seconds of hard work than a pretty but lower percentage shot otherwise. Rebounding hard was a must as well.


McMillan's hard-nosed style seems to have allowed truly talented players to rise to the top while the lesser lights sunk. He didn't save anybody from drowning but he didn't waste his time with unproductive guys either. You earned your spot or you didn't get it. If Nate had to play a hard-working journeyman with no upside in front of you to prove that point, so be it.

In the end, I've transitioned from a slow nod to a slightly frightened shrug when it comes to assessing McMillan's candidacy. I'd love to see some offensive improvement in Milwaukee, but the Bucks don't have Brandon Roy or LaMarcus Aldridge. When McMillan arrived in Portland in 2005-06, before the team drafted either of those players, the Blazers finished with a 21-61 record, the No. 30 offense and the No. 28 defense in the league.

More on Sampson

The former Bucks assistant doesn't have a coaching record to evaluate, so a direct comparison to McMillan is impossible. There are several still things that work in Sampon's favor. He has already worked under Hammond in the past and the relationship functioned well enough that John wants to interview Sampson for the head job in Milwaukee. He understand how the organization works and it's fairly safe to assume he could easily transition into working with the scouting staff et al. He has already worked with Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings.

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.

We don't know much about the coaching style or NBA system that Sampson would implement in Milwaukee. For Sampson, it may come down to a bet on the unknown.