The disconnect between what the Milwaukee Bucks were and what they needed to be – the fatal flaw that led to coach Jason Kidd’s firing Monday -- was at its most glaring on Dec. 26.
Milwaukee, a team with aspirations of a top-4 seed in the Eastern Conference when the 2017-18 season began, lost at home for the second time in 11 days to their I-94 rival Chicago Bulls. The Bulls were 10-22 heading into that post-Christmas game, still committed to backing their way to the most draft lottery balls possible.
Chicago roughed up the Bucks on the boards (15 offensive rebounds) and outscored them 93-75 over the final three quarters at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Afterward, Kidd handled the disappointment by trying to tell the world that up was down, north was south and don’t believe your lying eyes.
"At the end of the day we’re a young team,” Kidd said, “and this is going to be a team that’s going to go up and down and understand the growing pains of losing to a team like Chicago.”
The Bulls were flexing a bit with Nikola Mirotic on board, after what had been a 3-20 start. But two defeats in less than two weeks? On the Bucks’ home floor?
Kidd continued: "You guys can write that we’re a super team and that we’re really good and we’ve got the ‘Big 3’... We’re a young team that’s learning how to play the game at a high level with expectations that are a little bit too high.”
Those words were an abject denial of his and his team’s reality. Kidd was in is fourth full season as Milwaukee’s coach, leading a team that began 2017-18 with more roster continuity than anyone else in the league.
The Bucks already had taken their baby steps under Kidd, getting introduced to the playoffs in 2015 in a feisty first-round elimination by Chicago. They backslid to 33-49 the next season, then peeked above .500 at 42-40 last year before losing to Toronto in six games.
With Giannis Antetokounmpo thrusting himself into the KIA MVP spotlight in this season’s early weeks – the Greek Freak is averaging 28.2 points, 10.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 9.4 free throw attempts, while shooting 54.6 percent – the Bucks’ order of business seemed clear: snag a top seed, win a playoff series and take another stride as a contender poised for LeBron James’ and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ eventual decline.
Yet there was Kidd, seemingly spitting out the bit, disavowing those fairly modest goals in spite of talent (Antetokounmpo, shooter Khris Middleton, freshly acquired playmaker Eric Bledsoe), in spite of much-ballyhooed defensive length and reach, in spite of optimism over forward Jabari Parker’s anticipated return from his second ACL knee surgery in three years.
Coaches who get fired in the NBA and other pro sports typically have a “last straw” moment that triggers the move. In Kidd’s case, a miserable “South Beach disadvantage” matinee loss at Miami on Jan. 14 and/or the team’s 116-94 spanking in Philadelphia Saturday might have provided that. It’s even possible that there was a disagreement, an incident or some other relationship hiccup behind closed doors to precipitate the firing today.
But it was Kidd’s odd and unexpected reach for the reset button after the second Bulls defeat, as if trying to redefine the season’s mission and buy himself or someone else time, that put him sideways with the job he no longer holds.
There was plenty of smoke before the firing, of course. The Bucks were 4-7 in January heading into their game against Phoenix Monday. They were playing slower than their players’ youth and skills needed, ranking 23rd in pace (97.8) in a marginal tick up from last season (26th, 96.7).
Offensively, they have been only slightly better (107.0 rating vs. 106.9, year over year), while defensively they’ve been noticeably worse (107.5 vs. 106.4). Kidd’s penchant for dialing up his defenders’ aggressiveness in trapping and swarming has backfired as opponents have devised ways to thwart the tactics. That vaunted length – less in play with Bledsoe rather than Antetokounmpo at point guard – doesn’t have the Bucks near the league’s leaders in blocking or contesting shots (25th in opposing field goal percentage overall, 28th in 3-point defense).
Milwaukee’s bench was thinned for weeks by a variety of injuries and ailments, and Parker – despite upbeat reports from his workouts and practices – is being held to a return date sometime around the All-Star break. For all the growth in Antetokounmpo’s game, he still hasn’t added reliable shooting range but the Bucks haven’t rounded up or coached up deep threats around him, ranking near the bottom in all 3-point categories.
From the start of the Kidd era, the Bucks’ lineups and rotations could change unpredictably from week to week, night to night, in head-scratching fashion. For a soon-to-be Hall of Famer considered the consummate point guard, Kidd flipped through at least six regulars at that position in 3.5 seasons: Jerryd Bayless, Brandon Knight, Michael Carter-Williams, Antetokounmpo, Malcolm Brogdon and Bledsoe.
Kidd’s communication skills might be better with his players than they seemed to the world, but there were many instances of individual Bucks left guessing about a DNP or a cut in minutes. On the other hand, the 23-year-old Antetokounmpo leads the NBA in minutes per game (37.4) but had to sit out Saturday against the Sixers and was out again Monday to manage soreness in his right knee that has flared up the past two seasons.
Then there was Kidd’s close relationship with Marc Lasry, one of the team’s tri-owners, dating back to Lasry’s pre-NBA incarnation as a billionaire hedge fund manager. The other two Bucks owners, Wes Edens and Jamie Dinan, also are “masters of the universe” money guys, in a three-cornered dynamic that at various points has suggested more tension than consensus.
Kidd reportedly craved formal personnel authority from the moment he got to Milwaukee. Former Bucks general manager John Hammond – who drafted Antetokounmpo, signed Greg Monroe (since traded) as the franchise’s biggest free-agent get and plucked last season’s Rookie of the Year, Brogdon, out of the second round – had Kidd, his ownership “in” and occasional rumors peering over his shoulder before jumping to Orlando last May.
Kidd to GM or Kidd to POBO never happened. Quite the opposite, as it turned out. Assistant Joe Prunty was tabbed to work the sideline against the Suns and is expected to serve as interim for the rest of this season. Beyond that, with Antetokounmpo as their cornerstone, a state-of-the-art practice facility and a magnificent new arena opening next fall, GM Jon Horst and the owners should have their pick of coaching candidates eager to work in Milwaukee.
Some wondered about the timing of Kidd’s firing. Now vs. the end of the season? Game day vs. off day? But the most interesting aspect of the timing might be that it came on the organization’s 50th “birthday,” that is, the anniversary of the date in 1968 when Milwaukee (and coincidentally Phoenix) was awarded an expansion franchise.
Things got real for those Bucks 14 months later when the Suns called heads, the coin came up tails and Milwaukee won the right to draft a certain lanky UCLA product with something that would be dubbed “the sky hook.”
Things got real for the 2017-18 Bucks and for Jason Kidd Monday, when Kidd’s bosses blew out his candle.
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