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Roundtable: Bucks Head Coach Finalists

The gang hires a basketball coach

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NBA: Detroit Pistons at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to yet another year of the Brew Hoop Round Table, where we ask that everybody use coasters and please don’t feed the aging pugs from the table, thanks. The search for the Bucks’ seventeenth head coach appears headed towards a conclusion, perhaps as soon as this week according to some sources. Before we find out a name, let’s see how the staff feels about the finalists, if they don’t expand beyond the three reported candidates.

Firstly, rank your preferences among Kenny Atkinson, Adrian Griffin, and Nick Nurse.

Van: Atkinson, Nurse, Griffin.

Michael: Nurse, Atkinson, Griffin.

Gabe: Atkinson, Nurse, Griffin.

Alex: Nicholas, Kenneth, Adrian.

Kyle: Atkinson, Nurse, Griffin

Now let’s go one by one, in alphabetical order. Thoughts on Atkinson?

Van: I like the combination of high-level assistant experience he brings from his recent playoff runs on the Clippers and Warriors staffs, plus his strong reputation in player development. Those Nets teams lacked high draft choices thanks to the awful trades of their (first) superteam era, so Atkinson should get a lot of credit for molding late first- and early second-round picks and/or castoffs like Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, and D’Angelo Russell into quality NBA players. He was a Bud assistant many moons ago, but since then his coaching has undoubtedly been shaped by others, and you’d hope some of the Golden State movement offense and off-ball action rubbed off. Of course, it helps that he worked several seasons as a head coach too. Now that he isn’t coaching Kyrie Irving and has a more well-developed roster than his only playoff run in Brooklyn, I’m curious to see how he’d do with a true contender, which seems to be his biggest question mark. Still, of the three, he strikes me as the best bet to end up being a better coach than Bud... but not a good one. Bud is a very good NBA head coach, and I have real doubts an improvement can be made.

Michael: Atkinson is an exciting candidate. He’s only had one stint as a head coach, but his four seasons in Brooklyn were something to be proud of considering what he had to work with. Judging how Brooklyn fared in the years after he left, I’d say he stepped away at a pretty good time. Anyways, what really intrigues me about Atkinson is his knack for being a part of teams that overachieve. Along with the Nets stint that I mentioned earlier, he was also an assistant on the 2014–15 Hawks, who went 60-22 without a 20-point-per-game scorer on the roster. Most recently, he was a part of the Warriors staff that brought home the 2021–22 title and rewrote the legacy of Andrew Wiggins. Does any of this guarantee that Atkinson would be a good coach in Milwaukee? Not necessarily, but I would be excited to see the Bucks bring in someone with a history of overachieving.

Gabe: I always felt bad for Kenny because he was ousted in Brooklyn. I thought he did a solid job getting that team to compete, then ran into the wall of superstars not seeing eye-to-eye with him. He was still able to conjure up some shining moments with that squad before Steve Nash into town. Additionally, his player development during his time there always captured my eye. I think that’s going to be an imperative piece of this Bucks squad as they move on from their Big Three era.

Alex: The Bucks haven’t been the greatest at developing young players and draft picks for... a while now. While that isn’t the most pressing issue for a veteran-laden roster built to win now with one of the best basketball players of all time, it would still be a welcome addition to the Milwaukee bench with an Atkinson hire. He made the most of a group of role players during his head coaching stint in Brooklyn, and the Bucks could easily push for another title with improvements on the margins, so a bet on hiring Atkinson could pay dividends if his track record were to hold up. (The less said about the two-track development system he has co-piloted with Steve Kerr for Golden State the better.)

Kyle: Atkinson did really well with what he was given in Brooklyn. Had the Nets’ ownership not made him feel like he had to leave, there’s a strong possibility he wins them a title. This would be a big benefit to MarJon in terms of development, given an opportunity to be a part of the rotation next year. There’s hope he picked up on something to work on with Milwaukee’s half-court offense while being over in Golden State.

Thoughts on Griffin?

Van: It’s hard to know much about any assistant who would be a first-timer, even one who’s been on various teams’ benches—including Milwaukee’s—since 2008. His graduate work might be a plus, but the domestic violence claims of his ex-wife, and Toronto’s lack of an investigation into them raise my eyebrow, to put it mildly. I would hope the Bucks dig deeper into those allegations than it seems the Trail Blazers did upon hiring Chauncey Billups two years ago. Either way, I think there’s too much at stake here for this franchise to go with a rookie head coach at this time, regardless of how much he reportedly impressed in interviews.

Michael: Like Van said, the domestic violence allegations from 2020 and the lack of investigation from the Raptors are both concerning. Unless more information comes to the surface regarding that situation (which seems unlikely), I would have a difficult time being as excited about this hire as the other two candidates on morals alone. He is also the only coach of the three that has never held a head coaching position before. However, he has built a strong reputation during his five stops as an assistant coach and his time with Team USA in the 2014 FIBA World Cup. He seems to be the riskiest hire of the three options, but I can talk myself into it if the Bucks think he’s their guy.

Gabe: The first thing that captures my eye is the domestic violence allegations. That doesn’t seem like something that’d fly on the Bucks and fit in their team culture, nor is it somebody I want leading the team. Additionally, the inexperience is concerning to me. This is a decision that the Bucks can’t mess up, and it seems like there’s more risk than reward.

Alex: I believe in Masai Ujiri and the Raptors’ development of coaches more than I do most franchises’. (Shout out to 42-game Bucks legend Jerry Stackhouse for leading Raptors 905 to a D-League title in 2017 and earning a D-League Coach of the Year.) Nick Nurse’s tenure speaks for itself, despite an unceremonious exit. That said, Griffin’s lack of head coaching experience wouldn’t inspire immediate confidence in me, and that’s only the second-most concerning point on his resume behind his ex-wife’s domestic violence allegations. While his X’s-and-O’s credentials do seem sound given his NBA and international coaching experience, it seems unlikely that a person as family-oriented as Giannis would be to co-sign Griffin’s hire—especially given how much that attitude seems to (rightly) permeate, influence, and create continuity within the roster and organizational culture.

Kyle: Griffin has been an assistant for a long time and seems like someone who is on the cusp of being ready to be a head coach. He seems to be impressive in interviews and was someone that Masai Ujiri potentially pegged as Nurse’s replacement. But the domestic violence allegations can’t be ignored and would leave me a bit uncomfortable.

Thoughts on Nurse?

Van: I could have my arm twisted into thinking Nurse is the right coach for this team, but I’d need more convincing than some fans. Tactically, he may be more flexible and creative than Bud ever was, but it never showed in the results after Kawhi Leonard left. Certainly not in the Raptors’ half-court offensive rankings, and not as much as you’d think defensively given the team’s very handsy reputation. He was thought of as somewhat of an offensive mastermind on Dwane Casey’s staff, supposedly a big part of the plays they designed for DeMar DeRozan. Maybe Middleton could benefit from that. My optimistic take on the oft-discussed problem of him playing his starters so dang much is that with a deeper team than Toronto has rostered in recent years, he’ll take it easier on Giannis, Middleton, et al than he did on Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, et al. There are some legit questions about the kind of cultural devolution he presided over during that time too, but I’d hope that with an already-strong one installed in Milwaukee thanks to Bud.

Michael: From purely an NBA resume standpoint, Nurse is far and away the most accomplished candidate of the three, boasting the 2019 championship and 2020 Coach of the Year awards from his tenure as head coach in Toronto. That being said, the Canadian well seemed to dry up after his improbable Finals run. While there have been several factors contributing to the Raptors’ recent stagnation, there seems to be a sentiment within the front office that coaching was a main component. In a report from the Toronto Star, Raptors president Masai Ujuri alluded to several incidents that indicated there was both general dysfunction and a clear lack of energy from the squad last year. That doesn’t sound good, but it’s fair to say that Nurse has not always been dealt a winning hand. He had some solid regular season finishes, but he only truly had a championship roster in his year with Kawhi as the centerpiece. All that to say: I think Nurse is an intriguing option to lead the Bucks through the latter half of Giannis’ prime. The Bucks need a coach that is ready to win now, and Nurse gives me the most confidence of these finalists.

Gabe: Nurse is my second hope. He has a title—there’s no denying that. He knows the grueling stretches of postseason basketball, which is always something you want in your coach. It seemed as if there was some drama in the locker room late in his Toronto tenure, which raises some eyebrows for me. His lack of winning after Kawhi Leonard’s departure also worries me with him. I’d be content if they hired him, but would definitely think Milwaukee could’ve done better.

Alex: He’s inherited a team with star players and immediately won an NBA title. That’s a 20 percent championship success rate over five seasons as a head coach. If he managed to do the same thing with the Bucks in the same amount of time, that would still be a net plus, right? Even if it was another relatively short-term hire if that is going to be the new normal in the Association. Realistically, though, that would still be a disappointing way to ride out Giannis’ prime, leaving a lot left to be desired from what the fan base, media. and organization all believe could and should be dynastic. And there’s reason to believe Nurse could help the Bucks realize at least a portion of that hope. He led the Raptors to more than 40 wins in each season at the head of their bunch except for the misguided 2020–2021 campaign they spent in Tampa Bay. Nurse also seems to have no qualms experimenting and making adjustments, plus he has experience running an offense with multiple initiators across positions sharing the court, with any combination of Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, and Pascal Siakam. That experience, plus his emphasis on ball movement, could benefit the Bucks as currently constructed, especially if threes start falling more consistently than they have over the past two seasons.


Whoever the Bucks hire, what do you most hope they’ll improve?

Van: It has to be the half-court offense, particularly in the postseason. In concert with Giannis, the Bucks’ next head coach needs to develop new ways to score in those situations beyond Giannis drive-and-kicks to motionless shooters, even when such plays originate in the pick-and-roll. More off-ball movement and less isolation in playcalling would do the offense wonders; that sounds a lot like what the Warriors have done under Kerr, hence Atkinson. Defensively, I don’t think too much needs to be changed schematically unless big roster shifts are ahead, so mainly I hope the new guy just doesn’t mess it up.

Michael: The little things. It’s a blanket statement, but I believe the small and preventable mental lapses that especially haunted the Bucks during the Miami series ultimately nailed the coffin of the Budenholzer era. Based on that theory, the worst thing that could happen next season is for Milwaukee to bring in a new face and still see consistent errors in crunch time. The questionable substitutions, defensive collapses and refusals to use timeouts in crucial moments cannot continue at the same rate. I’m not asking for perfection, but the staff needs to be buttoned up consistently if they expect to compete with the Kerrs and the Spoelstras of the world.

Gabe: I could say something else, but I’m also going to go with the half-court offense. Giannis is a superstar, but at times, can stall on offense. They need to have him take that next step with his game, and that piece is improvements in the half-court. If a coach can harness and extrapolate that within him, watch out.

Alex: Let Jevon cook! Or at least take advantage of Giannis’ vision and run more actions that turn into opportunities for Carter to shoot from deep. So, really, that means improving the half-court offense. Beyond that, though, it would be nice to see a defined role for MarJon Beauchamp that allows him to get more regular season reps so that he can play at least some meaningful playoff minutes in his sophomore season.

Kyle: As my friend Riley always said, the Bucks half-court offense was a Mickey Mouse clubhouse clown show so having someone that can put a few sets together would be great. Also, the next coach HAS to be capable and willing to make adjustments during the game as well.

Now it’s your turn. Let us know in the comments how you feel about each of the three candidates, your ranking, and what your main hopes for the next head coach are.