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Bucks vs. 76ers Preview: Joe Prunty takes over as Jason Kidd recovers from hip surgery

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Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight's game should have represented a return to the comfort zone for the Milwaukee Bucks. Back home with the usual starting lineup in place, against the NBA's worst team, a nice holiday break right around the corner. It was all shaping up to be a nice easy week.

A sizeable wrench got tossed into that plan Sunday when it was announced that head coach Jason Kidd would undergo hip surgery to address lingering pain. The Bucks issued an update a day later saying his surgery, performed at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, was a success but that there was no firm timetable for his return. Kidd previously said he hoped to return in about two weeks. In the meantime, assistant coach Joe Prunty will take over as interim head coach, while Sean Sweeney will continue to operate as his primary defensive assistant.

Bucks Update

The better news out of the last few days was the merciful end of Milwaukee's 12-game losing streak, snapped with a comeback 101-95 victory against the Phoenix Suns. With Giannis Antetokounmpo out nursing a mild knee injury, the Bucks got big performances out of Khris Middleton and Michael Carter-Williams, who scored 26 and 20 points, respectively.

Even against the lowly 76ers (as if a Bucks site can call another team "lowly"), the Bucks need more big games from their starters, because the bench is not providing a ton of help these days. Assuming Giannis Antetokounmpo slots back into the starting lineup on his return (he's listed as probable for tonight's game), O.J. Mayo is really the only reliable scorer in the second unit. This scarcity of offensive firepower has necessitated some unconventional (and occasionally inflammatory) lineup patterns as the coaching staff tries to keep some scoring punch on the floor at all times, but the resulting groupings can get a bit awkward.

In any case, things have been coming a bit easier for Milwaukee (even if results don't entirely bear it out) as Michael Carter-Williams enjoys the best stretch of his season. Over the last five games, MCW is averaging 19.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 5.4 assists while shooting over 52% from the floor. The problems associated with MCW's lack of shooting range remain as persistent as ever, but his scoring punch and work on the boards have at least buttressed two of Milwaukee's major weaknesses this year. The result: a significant improvement in overall team performance in the month of December, which might have earned a few extra wins had it not come against (mostly) top-tier competition.

76ers Scouting Report

Milwaukee isn't the only team dealing with an unexpected coaching shakeup. The Sixers announced late last week that Mike D'Antoni would be joining the coaching staff to replace Chad Iske, who left Philadelphia to join George Karl's bench in Sacramento. D'Antoni was hired as an associate head coach, number two to Brett Brown. Rob Patterson of Hoop76 discussed how D'Antoni meshes (or messes) with the status quo in Philly:

In many ways, D’Antoni was ahead of the game with his pace-and-space style of play. The Sixers have even crudely mimicked similar philosophies over the first two-plus years of the Brett Brown/Sam Hinkie regime, but to less-than-stellar results. They finished first and seventh in pace in the first and second years, respectively, andcurrently rank ninth in possessions per 48 minutes this season. Part of that was due to Brown wanting to not squeeze out half-court buckets from a talent-deprived team, thus birthing his oft-repeated mantras of "space and pace" and "the pass is king" in postgame pressers. Ten of 12 D’Antoni teams ran for a top-five pace, and the slowest his team has ever dipped was his ninth-fastest 2008-09 Knicks.

Those Suns not only got out and ran, but also shot the lights out. Over the four full seasons with D’Antoni at the helm, the Suns would finish atop the league in both 3-point percentage and points per 100 possessions. Phoenix’s25.8 3-pointers attempted per 100 possessions was far and away the most in the league in 2005-06, but this year, that same figure would sit just a fraction above Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons for 10th in the league.

One of those teams firing up more threes than that 10th-ranked pace is this season’s Sixers, with 26.7 attempted triples per 100 possessions. This plays well into the "Morey Ball" philosophy of threes and shots at the rim that Hinkie and Brown collaboratively agree on, but unfortunately, the team connects on an underwhelming 31.9 percent of its threes — good for 28th in the NBA.

No player is likely to be affected by D'Antoni's addition more than Jahlil Okafor, who leads the Sixers in scoring as a rookie but has seen more downs than ups this season. His -6.75 rating accoring to ESPN's Real Plus-Minus marks him the worst qualified center in the NBA by a fairly wide margin--Andrea Bargnani is next at -3.40. Basketball-Reference.com says Philadelphia is over 15 points worse per 100 possessions when Okafor is on the court. Those are worrisome numbers to be sure, but it's not like the Sixers were concerned with being a high-functioning team yet. They're still playing for the future, and evaluating how players fit together and what they're individually capable is the primary task.

And to be fair, some of Okafor's more basic numbers reflect highly on his skills. He's already soaking up a lot of possessions (27.7% usage) while keeping his turnover rate relatively low and drawing fouls at a solid rate. The concerns come primarily on defense and, perhaps even to a larger extent, off the court entirely. Moreover, the Sixers' hopes of pairing Okafor with fellow young prospect Nerlens Noel have fallen flat thus far, with Noel recently coming off the bench in the hopes of sparking some improved play from the 21-year-old former 6th overall pick. After improving markedly after the all-star break a year ago, Noel hasn't looked like the same player as a power forward next to Okafor, which is especially concerning given Joel Embiid -- assuming we see him on the court at some point next year -- is also a clear-cut center. Noel's mobility should give him the best chance of pairing with either Okafor or Embiid, but his offensive struggles -- he's shooting 44% on two-pointers and 57% from the line -- could make that rather challenging.

The D'Antoni hire, to whatever extent it changes the on-court product Philly puts on display, is naturally going to implicate Okafor's style of play. Okafor is a post-up machine, with the second-most such possessions in the league. D'Antoni's influence should cut down on those plays, as the Sixers more thoroughly commit to the pace-and-space ideals to which they pledge themselves. Just how Okafor fits into such plans remains to be seen.

Required Reading

Rob Mahoney examined how Kidd's absence might affect a Bucks season that has already faced its share of troubles:

Should Kidd’s recovery drag on, Milwaukee will at least have the benefit of playing it by ear. The Bucks don’t have another multi-game road trip on the schedule until January 16, allowing Kidd’s status to be reevaluated and revised on essentially a game-by-game basis. The Bucks need him. Kidd has been a proactive influence in what has been a fairly dismal season for Milwaukee, leveraging his capital within the organization to at times bring Jabari Parker, Michael Carter-Williams, and Giannis Antetokounmpo off the bench. The development of each of those players is valuable to the Bucks’ progress. Kidd understands, however, that their opportunities should not come unconditionally.

Want to know more about interim head coach Joe Prunty? WTMJ's Doug Russell spent an afternoon with the Bucks' offensive leader as part of a series covering Milwaukee's assistant coaches.

Daily Fantasy Tip

It's hard to trust anybody on the Sixers in DFS for two reasons. First, there's a pretty crazy degree of inconsistency on the roster, from minutes to shot attempts to sheer level of performance, it's all up and down. Second, there's a fair amount of downside for nearly anybody you might pick. Turnovers are killer, and Philly coughs up the ball like nobody's business. Players like Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor are intriguing picks: Noel can have a big night on the back of his rebounding, steal, and block numbers alone, while Okafor is always a threat for a double-double. But there are certainly higher-upside guys available.

For now, I'm totally on board the MCW hype train, purely as it relates to fantasy basketball. He's contributing in so many ways right now, the points come from all over. Against a pushover squad (again, as if I can so accuse...) like Philly, the resistance is going to be slight. At Carter-Williams' mid-range price, he's a major upside pick.

SB Nation's partner FanDuel is running a FREE money fantasy basketball league for new members tonight. Half of the league wins cash. Join now!

(Editor's Note: all the opinions expressed here are my own. FanDuel gave me some cash to play daily fantasy games)

On the 76ers: Liberty BallersHoop76

2015/2016 NBA Season
(11-18, 8-5 home)
vs.
Philadelphia 76ers.v8c67304
(1-29, 0-10 road)
December 23, 2015
BMO Harris Bradley Center | Milwaukee, WI
7:00 CT
FS Wisconsin | 620 WTMJ
Probable Starters
Michael Carter-Williams PG Kendall Marshall*
Khris Middleton SG Isaiah Canaan
Giannis Antetokounmpo SF Robert Covington
Jabari Parker PF Jerami Grant
Greg Monroe C Jahlil Okafor
2015/16 Advanced Stats
93.5 (27th) Pace 97.1 (7th)
102.0 (25th) ORtg 93.9 (30th)
108.4 (28th) DRtg 107.5 (25th)