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Bucks Head Coach Search: Temperature Check (UPDATE: Lue News)

Nearly two weeks into the search, we know some candidates

2021 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v Milwaukee Bucks

The last time Milwaukee was in this situation was five years ago, and on this day exactly in 2018, they officially announced Mike Budenholzer as their head coach after a search that lasted nineteen days, ostensibly. Recall that the 2017–18 Bucks were helmed by one Jason Kidd, fired that January, and replaced on an interim basis by Joe Prunty. Their season ended with a Game 7 loss in Boston on April 28th and in the ensuing weeks interviewed a reported eight candidates (including recently-fired Suns head coach Monty Williams). Woj tweeted that Bud got the job on May 16th, eighteen days after their season ended.

Certainly, the situation is different now. There was no actual firing after that season ended, rather an interim coach seeking to have that tag removed. Bud was already on the market at that point, having mutually agreed to part ways on April 25th. This time, the Bucks fired him on May 4th, so they’re on day thirteen without a head coach. Who knows if we’ll get an answer from the team within the next five days, but with the market starting to really pick up, maybe GM Jon Horst no longer has the luxury of “taking his time” with the process, as had been reported.

Let’s take stock of how it’s going, shall we?

Last week, I went through twenty candidates for the position, divided into three categories: recent NBA head coaches, current assistants, and non-NBA candidates. After that, I asked which of these names appealed most to our readership, and after nearly nine hundred votes, there are a few clear preferences. I’ll run the poll here again, since it’s still open for voting:


Among the names discussed, who would interest you the most as the Bucks’ next head coach?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    David Adelman
    (2 votes)
  • 7%
    Kenny Atkinson
    (96 votes)
  • 5%
    Sam Cassell
    (76 votes)
  • 0%
    Jarron Collins
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    Dan Craig
    (2 votes)
  • 1%
    Mike D’Antoni
    (26 votes)
  • 1%
    Jordi Fernández
    (21 votes)
  • 0%
    Adrian Griffin
    (3 votes)
  • 17%
    Becky Hammon
    (238 votes)
  • 5%
    Charles Lee
    (76 votes)
  • 20%
    Tyronn Lue
    (276 votes)
  • 0%
    Eric Musselman
    (8 votes)
  • 1%
    Steve Nash
    (23 votes)
  • 14%
    Nick Nurse
    (202 votes)
  • 0%
    Kevin Ollie
    (5 votes)
  • 5%
    Chris Quinn
    (76 votes)
  • 0%
    Sergio Scariolo
    (13 votes)
  • 1%
    Jerry Stackhouse
    (16 votes)
  • 1%
    Frank Vogel
    (20 votes)
  • 4%
    Jay Wright
    (57 votes)
  • 8%
    Someone else
    (114 votes)
1353 votes total Vote Now

As it stands, current Las Vegas Aces head (and former Spurs assistant) coach Becky Hammon and current Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue are in a dead heat with 20% of the vote, only separated by one vote as I write this! Recently-axed Raptors head coach Nick Nurse is a bit further back with 15%, followed by former Nets head coach and current Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson at 8%, current Bucks assistant Charles Lee at 7%, then former Bucks star and current Sixers assistant Sam Cassell with 5%. Cassell is actually exceeded by the “other” option. No other candidate has garnered more than 40 votes.

Since I ran this poll, two relevant pieces of news dropped: the Suns and Sixers both canned their head coaches. While I mentioned Doc Rivers briefly at the end of part 1 about (then) current head coaches, I didn’t discuss Monty Williams. At the time, Phoenix’s series with Denver was tied at two games apiece, and while I did talk about Mike Malone—whose job is now certainly safe—I figured that Williams would get one more shot at it with the benefit of a full season of Kevin Durant. That was before they lost a second-round series ignominiously for the second year in a row. And just like that, another opening and another coach on the market.

Reports emerged since Bud’s ouster that the Bucks would indeed look at coaches currently employed by teams and wait to see what names might become available following the second round. That got some excited about the possibility of Lue, but as of today, there’s been no buzz about him in connection with any opening outside of Milwaukee’s. To be fair, that’s only been Yahoo’s Jake Fischer saying that he’s “on their radar,” which isn’t much.

If teams are calling the Clippers for permission to interview Lue, they’re being understandably rebuffed. I find it unlikely owner Steve Ballmer and GM Lawrence Frank would let Lue go willingly—even if compensated in return—simply because he’s one of the league’s best handful of coaches. It really comes down to what Lue wants. Both he and the team publicly stated after their first-round defeat that they wanted to continue the relationship, but that hasn’t stopped speculation about one or both sides considering a split. If Lue decides to quit, he’ll likely have his choice of the three available openings in Milwaukee, Phoenix, and Philadelphia. Before the recent firings of the latter two, the Bucks’ looked like the plum gig. Now I’m not so sure, and I lean towards the Suns’. What say you?


Which current head coaching opportunity is the most attractive?

This poll is closed

  • 74%
    The Bucks’
    (316 votes)
  • 7%
    The Sixers’
    (32 votes)
  • 17%
    The Suns’
    (74 votes)
422 votes total Vote Now

I can’t blame any fans for a sense of ennui from the names linked to the Bucks in the last week or so. That’s likely to be the case when you replace a very good NBA head coach like Bud—there just aren’t many names out there who are clear upgrades. While we don’t know for a fact whether any of these eight names have been interviewed yet, reputable sources say they at least will:

  • Kenny Atkinson
  • James Borrego
  • Scott Brooks
  • Adrian Griffin
  • Mark Jackson
  • Charles Lee
  • Chris Quinn
  • Kevin Young

As of today, we’ve only seen rumors that Milwaukee is interested in Lue and Williams rather than actual reports of interviews, but that would make ten reported candidates should they receive a call about the job. In 2018, the Bucks reportedly interviewed eight candidates before reducing it to two finalists; Bud and former Spurs assistant Ettore Messina. So Horst is already casting a wider net.

Is it wide enough, though? I discussed half of those eight names (Atkinson, Griffin, Lee, and Quinn) in my posts last week, and I think they’re all worthy candidates. Quinn really intrigues me, but it’s worth questioning why despite Erik Spoelstra’s sterling reputation as an NBA head coach (and this applies to Dan Craig as well), only one of his assistants has been promoted to that role elsewhere—David Fizdale—and it didn’t work out (Juwon Howard got a head coaching job, but in the college ranks with Michigan). Lee probably is the best choice from a cultural perspective, and would maintain continuity, but is the latter a good thing? Griffin has been an assistant a long time and was a small part of Toronto’s recent slide. Are those points worth questioning? Atkinson has a great background in player development and elevating teams from the league’s cellar to a playoff spot, but that’s not at all like maintaining title contention. Might his years in Golden State might have taught him a thing or two about that? If so, he could end up being a great fit for Milwaukee’s next era.

The other four? Mixed opinions and that’s putting it nicely. Kevin Young is an assistant I hadn’t considered. He’s been an assistant since 2017, first on Brett Brown’s staff in Philly and then on Williams’ in Phoenix. Before that, he coached a few G League teams without any notable success. Like all assistants, he’s a bit of an unknown commodity. James Borrego—the NBA’s first Latino head coach—comes from the Popovich tree as Bud did, and got his first non-interim gig with the Hornets back in 2018. He only helmed Charlotte to one season above .500—by just two games—resulting in his firing after last season. He reportedly planned to interview with the Bucks in 2018, but may not actually have. Those Charlotte rosters were mediocre at best, and while he managed to construct a top-ten offense last year, he perhaps should have gotten more out of them.

Now for the ones that really make me turn up my nose. It’s been a long time since Brooks had real success with a team and that has me uninspired, but it’s worth pointing out that he’s the only name among the interviewees to have coached in an NBA Finals. Jackson is a problematic guy for reasons beyond basketball, and though he’s been interviewed dozens of times since leaving Golden State nearly ten years ago, no one actually seems to want to hire him. His issues with the Warriors were well publicized then, and the “Jackson-to-Kerr” trope is commonly cited for teams that need to make a coaching change to break through into true title contention, much like Bud accomplished with the Bucks. Not a great reputation to have.

What’s most notable today might be the names that haven’t yet been connected to the Bucks. While I think nearly every—perhaps all?—Bucks fans would agree that it’s good we’re not hearing speculation of a Doc Rivers return to Milwaukee (he played at Marquette back in the 80s), he only was fired yesterday, so we’re not out of those woods. Hammon did interview with the team back in 2018, but it’s possible Horst isn’t interested this time, and she’s facing some discipline in the WNBA that makes me raise an eyebrow. A few assistants I would like to see Milwaukee sniff around—Jordi Fernandez and Dan Craig—haven’t been mentioned in connection with any of the league’s openings yet.

Jackson went into depth about why he prefers Williams yesterday, and while he makes some good points, it would strike me as a lateral move. Make no mistake, Williams is a good coach... but I’m skeptical he could ever be a step above Bud. So that leaves us with one name: Nurse. Plenty of fans were banging the drum for him even before the Miami series ended, but like some other candidates, we’ve seen next to nothing about him since Toronto kicked him to the curb. There were some real issues that Raptors players, assistants, and the front office had with him over the past two seasons, ones I explored last week.

At this point, I don’t believe the Bucks are interested in him, and that’s something I’m fine with. My belief is that some key people on the team aren’t fans of his. Bud created a great culture in Milwaukee and the front office obviously wants to maintain that. I think it’s reasonable to think Nurse could put that culture in jeopardy. Plus, for the reputation he had prior to taking the Toronto job as something of an offensive genius, their half-court offense has always been worse than Milwaukee’s oft-maligned unit under Bud. In fact, it’s been worse than league average every season since Kawhi Leonard left, ranking below 25th the past two seasons (the Bucks only once finished below 7th since Bud took over, which occurred this year when they slipped to 12th).

Add in the well-known issues with overplaying his starters, and to me, there isn’t much that suggests Nurse is right for this team. However, would he be a better choice than some of the names the Bucks are interviewing? Absolutely. That doesn’t say much about him, though, and more about the quality of candidates like Jackson, Brooks, and Borrego. It’s not all bad, though; I think names like Atkinson, Lee, and Quinn (hell, maybe even Young and Griffin) could pan out in this search that Milwaukee really does need to nail.

Do they have competition for these candidates from Phoenix and Philly? Perhaps it’s good that the Bucks have more of a jump on those teams, who only fired their head coaches on Saturday and Tuesday, respectively? Woj expects that Nurse and Williams are expected to be a part of the Sixers’ search, while Yahoo’s Chris Haynes relayed that league sources think the Suns will consider Nurse and Young. Multiple other reporters attest to Phoenix’s interest in Lue, but no one seems to believe an exit from LA is particularly likely.

UPDATE: Haynes tweeted earlier today “Lue’s reps met with Clippers to discuss future” earlier this week, discussed furthermore in this article. While this might have Bucks fans dreaming of him quitting and/or the possibility of poaching away from the Clippers, Haynes connects it to Marc Stein’s report that the Suns are looking into doing just that too. Haynes also seems to think the two sides are discussing an extension or a completely new contract. My read on this is that given how the news of this meeting broke after both Phoenix’s and Philly’s jobs opened, it might suggest Lue prefers one of those openings—likely in Phoenix—if he wants out, so I’m not really any more bullish on Milwaukee’s prospects of landing him.

That’s where we’re at as of Wednesday, May 17th at high noon. How do you think the search is going? Any new names you think the Bucks should consider? Has your opinion changed on any candidates? If so, how? Let us know in the comments.