Scott Skiles has never wavered in his firm commitment to defense on the basketball court.
Skiles reiterated his convictions as he prepared to begin his fifth season as head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks.
The 2011-12 Bucks ranked just 22nd in the National Basketball Association defensively, yielding 98.7 points per game.
The Bucks struggled to adjust defensively last season after center Andrew Bogut – their top shot-blocker, charge-taker and rebounder -- went down with a broken ankle Jan. 25. The injury sidelined Bogut for the remainder of the season and he was subsequently traded to the Golden State Warriors on March 14 along with forward Stephen Jackson in exchange for guard Monta Ellis, forward Ekpe Udoh and center Kwame Brown.
“We talked many times before we did it about the implications of moving Andrew and what that would do for us on the interior,” Skiles said. “Drew (Gooden) did a heck of a job battling guys – guys much bigger than him. But we knew coming into this summer that we had to get some more size, some more length. So we did that. Hopefully we won’t see a lot of the kind of layup drills we were giving up last year.”
Two of Milwaukee’s transactions during the offseason were a trade for one veteran center, Samuel Dalembert ,and the free-agent signing of another, Joel Przybilla. The Bucks also bolstered their interior with the addition of first-round draft pick John Henson out of the University of North Carolina.
“Ekpe and Larry (Sanders) are two of the better shot-blocks-per-minute guys in the league,” Skiles said. “Sam has always done that. John could be a good shot-blocker. Joel has always patrolled the paint at a high level. So we should be hard to score on in the interior.
“‘Bogues’ could block shots and take charges. There aren’t too many guys who can do both of those things. Hopefully we can make up for it with some other guys.”
Skiles believes the frontcourt reinforcements can help put the Bucks back among the NBA’s defensive leaders, where they were just two seasons ago.
“We want to be up in the top 10 – maybe even the top five – as a defensive team,” Skiles said. “If you’re a 55-game winning team and have home court every year and you’re knocking on the door and your goal is to win the title, I think that’s realistic.
“But we want to be in a position where we can be one of those teams that’s in a position to say that going into a season. In order to do that, we have to get better defensively, and there’s no reason we can’t do that. If we do, we had a pretty potent transition game in the back half of last season, and that can play to our strengths. We’ll be able to get out in the open floor, get the ball to Monta and let Brandon (Jennings) and Mike (Dunleavy) and Tobias (Harris) and our wing players get loose a little bit.”
A thorough review of Skiles’ career will prove his willingness to be aggressive on the offensive end of the court as well.
There’s a telling illustration of these Skiles tenets that is over 25 years old, yet still floating around cyberspace on a YouTube video.
The clip dates back to March 16, 1986, when Skiles, wearing jersey No. 4 for Michigan State University, orchestrated the Spartans to an 80-68 triumph over Georgetown in the second round of the NCAA Midwest Regional at Dayton, Ohio. The clip features Skiles leading a fast break and delivering a no-look, behind-the-back-pass to teammate Larry Polec for a layup.
Skiles scored 24 points -- 18 in the second half -- for the 18th-ranked Spartans. He also handed out five assists and made 10 of 11 free throws that helped bring down the 13th-ranked Hoyas, who had appeared in the previous two NCAA championship games, defeating Houston in 1984 before being upended by Villanova in 1985.
Skiles and his teammates, unlike many teams of that era, did not slow the tempo to a snail’s pace, milk the clock and pass up open shots trying to get better ones against Georgetown. They ran and they attacked.
For further evidence of Skiles’ willingness to break down defenses rather than play keep-away from them, fast-forward to Dec. 30, 1990, when he passed off for a NBA single-game record of 30 assists while playing point guard for the Orlando Magic against the Denver Nuggets. With Skiles at the controls of their offense, the Magic racked up 155 points that night.
Twenty two years later, with Skiles again at the controls, the Bucks, who had finished last in the NBA in scoring at 91.9 points per game in 2010-11, skyrocketed to fifth in the league at 99 ppg in 2011-12.
The Bucks ranked third in the league in assists with 23.48 per outing – their highest average in 18 seasons. They scored 100-or more points 33 times and won 25 of those contests. They sank 10 or more 3-pointers in 12 contests and won 11 of them.
Skiles wants his players to continue to create opportunities to score and seize them.
“I played a fairly wide-open offensive game myself, so I like to give guys a lot of freedom offensively and let them use their talents and express themselves,” Skiles said. “We want to execute late in games and put a priority on that, but I don’t want guys feeling encumbered by too many offensive demands.
“However, on the other hand, we’ve got a standard. We want to set a high bar and rise up and meet that standard.”
How Skiles utilizes his upgraded core of bigs – and complements it with the rest of his roster – will be intriguing to monitor this season.
“It’s something we talk to them about,” Skiles said. “It’s going to be a challenge. But we’ve got to come in, look at the guys, see what we think they can do and how they fit. We’re not going to be in a position where guys are looking over their shoulder every night and wondering if they’re going to play. But the reality is we’ve got to keep the lines of communication open.
“There are going to be nights where there are going to be three guys who deserved to play in the game, but didn’t get to play at all, or didn’t get the minutes they wanted. We’ve got to stay with that, stay with those guys and keep them part of it. Chemistry’s going to be big for us. That’s one area right there we’ve really got to be mindful of and pay attention to.”