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An Early Look At Bucks Head Coaching Candidates, Part 1: Recent NBA Head Coaches

A move that will shape the offseason and seasons ahead, is an NBA retread the right choice for a title contender?

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NBA: Toronto Raptors at Charlotte Hornets Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

It’s that time again. After firing head coach Mike Budenholzer after five successful seasons, the Bucks are looking for the seventeenth coach in franchise history.

The only other openings are with the rebuilding Pistons and the middling Raptors, which means that just like it was in 2018, the Bucks’ vacancy is the most attractive open position. Since that team was an up-and-comer led by a young All-Star looking to make a run deeper than the first round for the first time since 2001, and this team is led by a two-time MVP regarded as the best player on earth, won a title two years ago, and is hungry for another, the gig is even more attractive than it was in 2018.

Unlike when Bud took over for Jason Kidd after years of shortcomings, the next Bucks head coach will have a tough act to follow. However, Bud’s successor will come into a situation with a strong organizational culture already in place, something that didn’t really exist in Milwaukee prior to Bud coming in and building one.

Two things are for sure, though: the pressure on whoever gets the job will be immense, and after getting it right in 2018 by hiring Bud, it’s even more imperative the Bucks get it right again.

In the coming days, I’ll look at a whole slew of names who GM Jon Horst may consider. As of writing, we’ve yet to even hear who the Bucks are interviewing or even considering, these are the candidates garnering the most speculation and discussion among fans, oddsmakers, and analysts. We’ll be sure to update you if any of these or other candidates land interviews with the club in the coming weeks.

Today, we’re looking at coaches who led NBA teams in recent seasons, starting with perhaps the most rumored candidate of them all.

Nick Nurse (age 55), former Raptors head coach (2018–23)

Bucks fans are very familiar with Nurse, who like Bud, was hired before the 2018–19 season and also lost his job recently. Unlike Bud, this came after a string of disappointing seasons since winning a ring in his first year as head coach, after being promoted to replace Dwane Casey, his former boss of five years. The 2020 NBA Coach of the Year has won just one playoff series since Kawhi Leonard left town, right before losing to the Celtics in 2020’s second round. Toronto completely fell apart the following year having to play all their home games in Tampa, but rebounded nicely to snag the five seed in 2022 with Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes. They got bounced by Philly in six, then took a step back this year and finished .500. The Raptors lost immediately in the play-in a few weeks ago to the Bulls, and Nurse was out after five up-and-down seasons.

Already a divisive name among Bucks fans, it seems like the league-wide opinion on Nurse has really dipped since that 2019 chip. Yes, he certainly employed some great defensive tactics—remember the famous box-and-one?—and made quick adjustments that allowed him to take four straight from the Bucks after falling behind 0-2, then besting the M*A*S*H unit Warriors the next round. Since then, though, his still-talented rosters haven’t really shown much. Despite the annoying brand of defense the Raptors often employed, generating tons of deflections and steals, they’ve been more of an average unit the past three seasons in terms of points per 100 possessions.

They’ve also never finished higher than 11th in offensive rating since Leonard bolted for LA, so I really question the lofty reputation some fans seem to grant him. I don’t think he’s any sort of offensive mastermind—the Raptors' halfcourt offense has been lacking ever since Leonard was burying midrange Js in 2019, and like the Bucks of recent years, they scored most of their points in transition. They just didn’t score as many as Milwaukee. This makes his fit seem dubious.

Importantly, there were also reports of player frustrations with Nurse in Toronto this past year, and that he wasn’t holding players accountable as much as he should have. That sounds pretty typical for an underachieving team, but Nurse was criticized for not developing—or even using—younger players, mainly because of the most infamous aspect of his coaching: his starters’ minutes.

Under Nurse, Toronto’s starters played heavy, postseason-like minutes throughout the regular season: in each of the past four seasons, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam have been top eleven—top five the past two seasons—in minutes per game, both topping the league in 2021–22. OG Anunoby, Gary Trent, and Scottie Barnes (who didn’t really take a step forward as a sophomore) all weren’t far behind, each in the top twenty in one of the past two seasons. This taxing load combined with an aggressive defensive play style created problems elsewhere, per reports.

Even in this era of load management, this is very much at odds with the Bucks’ philosophy of keeping their stars’ minutes low in recent seasons, only stretching them come playoff time. That’s a strategy that started to work in 2021 after Giannis et al simply didn’t play enough in the 2020 postseason. Some Bucks fans have termed Nurse’s system “gulag ball,” and my colleague Kyle Carr calls him a “war criminal.” If the Geneva Conventions extended to basketball, you can bet The Hague would get a call from The Six.

Still, I think he’s a good enough coach overall and you could convince me that he’d be the right person to lead this Bucks squad. Maybe with a bench that includes established NBA role players instead of people like Malachi Flynn and Dalano Banton, he won’t run his starters into the ground as much as he did previously. However, I have a harder time seeing it than fans who hold the 2019 victory over Milwaukee at the front of their minds.

Tyronn Lue (age 46), current Clippers head coach (2020– )

Let’s be very clear from the start: Lue has publicly stated he has no plans on leaving, so this is a bit of a pipe dream right now.

We know of his success in Cleveland, taking over midway through LeBron’s second year of his second stint with the Cavs and guiding them to the franchise’s first title, then following it up with two more Finals appearances before getting fired six games into the post-LeBron era. Lue has fared ok in LA through lengthy injuries to their stars, leading them to the West Finals in 2021, but missed the postseason completely last year before being gentlemanly-swept by Phoenix a couple weeks ago.

With all the unavailability he’s had to deal with from Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, who tore his meniscus in that series, is he happy where he is? Knowing he’ll have to deal with more load management for each star next year once—or is it if?—they get healthy, some speculate he might seek a change of scenery.

I find it pretty unlikely he’ll do so, but if I was Horst, I’d try to poach Lue anyway by at least asking the Clippers to interview him. Players speak very highly of him both as a coach and tactician; while I’ve never watched his teams closely enough to discern whether they’ve succeeded because of his play calls or because they employ LeBron freaking James, I still think Lue is one of the top six or seven coaches in the league. Fun fact: he did play 30 games for the Bucks in the last season of his career too.

Frank Vogel (age 49), former Lakers head coach (2019–22)

Vogel finally got himself a championship in the 2020 bubble with LeBron and AD, the Lakers being his third stop as a head coach after a long career as an assistant. He’s best known for helming some great Pacers teams from 2011–16, losing to the Big Three-era Heat in three consecutive postseasons, twice in the East Finals by pushing that all-time Miami squad to seven and six games in 2013 and 2014, respectively. After two terrible seasons with terrible rosters in Orlando, he was hired in Los Angeles as something of a fallback candidate: the Lakers inexplicably couldn’t agree to terms with Lue—LeBron’s preferred candidate—and he barely fended off Kidd, who ended up as his lead assistant.

Certainly, Vogel is a good NBA coach. Sure, his Mickey Mouse title came under the bizarre circumstances of the bubble and he had the benefit of two Top 75 players all-time, but he pulled all the right strings and helped establish the careers of high-level role players like Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Kyle Kuzma. The Lakers’ lack of success the following two years was primarily due to injuries and bad roster construction, chiefly the awful fit of Russell Westbrook. Right or wrong, Vogel took the fall, not too dissimilar from Bud last week.

His squads have always been known for defense, especially those Indiana teams with PG and Roy Hibbert, so he’d probably fit in well with this roster, should their trio of All-Defense honorees remain intact. Schematically, those units were more similar to the 2022–23 Bucks in terms of opponent three-point volume, as the Lakers often ranked among the league’s better teams defending the arc under Vogel. That 2020 defense was sensational in the bubble running a pretty adaptable scheme, though he’s preferred drop coverage throughout his coaching career.

However, despite having LeBron James healthy for at least half each season, they only finished above-league offensive rating once (and barely, only ranking 11th), cratering into the twenties during Vogel’s last two seasons. For as troubled as the Bucks’ halfcourt offense has been in recent postseasons, I don’t see Vogel upgrading things. He seems like a lateral move from Bud at best, and I’ll be surprised if he meaningfully improves the team should he be hired.

Kenny Atkinson (age 55), former Nets head coach (2016–20)

Best known for his tenure in Brooklyn, Atkinson is also a former Bud assistant, coming over from Mike D’Antoni’s Knicks staff when Bud took the job in Atlanta. Since being fired by Kyrie Irving and KD stepping down from the Nets just prior to the 2020 COVID shutdown, he was an assistant under Lue for one season and for Steve Kerr in Golden State since 2021.

Atkinson developed the Nets roster very nicely over a few seasons, culminating in a playoff appearance in 2019. After an infamous trade in 2013 that sent two first-round picks out—which became Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum—Brooklyn couldn’t build through the top of the draft despite finishing in the league’s basement, and couldn’t attract free agents. So Atkinson built a group of castoffs from other franchises, late first-round picks, and undrafted players into a plucky 42-40 squad that took one game from the Sixers in the first round. They rewarded that group by shipping many of them out in order to land Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.

Atkinson would soon follow, as reports emerged that Brooklyn’s stars—one of whom wasn’t even playing—had doubts about his ability to lead a title contender. Fair or unfair, Atkinson has a great reputation developing younger, unproven players—definitely the best on this list. He also seems to wring the most out of his roster. Milwaukee might not need much of the former right now, and Bud was also great at the latter. I’ll give him a pass for that last season in Brooklyn on account of Irving’s general idiocy, but the fact remains that he’s had only one playoff appearance.

Thankfully, he went to the Dubs and was part of a staff that won a ring a year ago, so perhaps he’s up to the task of leading a title contender like the Bucks armed with that experience.

Mike D’Antoni (age 71), former Rockets head coach (2016–20)

The Pringles Man hasn’t coached in the association since 2021 when he spent one season as an assistant to his former star point guard Steve Nash in Brooklyn. That followed a long and decorated coaching career in Europe and the US, where he’s led five NBA teams, most notably his successful tenures in Phoenix and Houston. His sojourns with the Knicks and Lakers were a lot rougher, but with the benefit of James Harden and Chris Paul (for three of those seasons), he continued the legacy of those famous “Seven Seconds Or Less” Nash-era Suns of the mid-2000s.

D’Antoni is the oldest name on this list and though he never made an NBA Finals, he might be content in his current role as a coaching advisor in New Orleans. Besides, how long could he be expected to stick with a team at this stage? Perhaps one of the best offensive minds in NBA history, whose innovations with the Suns were revolutionary (and that’s not an understatement), his teams have nearly always lacked on the other end. He probably makes more sense as an assistant at this stage to a coach with good defensive acumen, but would he take such a role at this point? The only time he did, it was to a former player, namely...

Steve Nash (age 49), former Nets head coach (2020–22)

One of the greatest point guards of all time, Nash reportedly got the job in Brooklyn back in 2020 based on his relationship with Kevin Durant, which developed while Nash was a consultant in Golden State for five years. Alas, that relationship seemed to sour by last offseason, as KD reportedly wanted Nash fired or otherwise to be traded from the Nets. KD got his wish when a 2-5 start to the season amid Kyrie Irving’s bout with antisemitism resulted in something of a mutual separation between the team and coach. He seemingly hasn’t been heard from since, but that hasn’t stopped him from coming up in the Bucks’ search.

I’m willing to give him somewhat of a pass because of the constant drama surrounding those failed Nets teams, but in many of those games, I saw next to nothing from him that led me to believe he was even an above-average NBA head coach. I won’t be surprised if he gets another opportunity somewhere, especially to lead a roster with fewer headaches like Milwaukee’s, but Nash could be the biggest downgrade from Bud on this list.

Of course, there are scores of other former NBA head coaches out there, but I would be surprised if the Bucks are looking at older candidates. D’Antoni seems pretty unlikely to get interviewed by anyone at this point.

It’s also possible that names like Michael Malone and Doc Rivers become available if their teams exit the playoffs in the next week or so. Woj opined on Friday that the Bucks can afford to be patient with their search and called their opening “incredibly attractive,” going on to say “is there a coach or two who either becomes free with the team they’re at or there’s a conversation to be had with a team about a potential coach?” So we might hear more buzz after some teams start packing for Cancun in the coming weeks, and perhaps they’ll indeed ask for permission to interview other current head coaches in an attempt to poach, just like they did with Kidd in 2014. I think I speak for all Bucks fans saying that I’d be entirely uninterested in Rivers, but very interested in Malone. However, I wouldn’t be shocked that even if Denver and Philly both lose two of their next three, their coaches remain.

Anyone else you think should be considered? Let me know in the comments.