Interim coach Joe Prunty tackles task of guiding Milwaukee Bucks' path
Assistant-turned-coach aims to get Bucks flying right as in post-Jason Kidd era
It’s an oldie but an NBA goodie, the description that the late Hall of Famer Chuck Daly came up with to describe what he and the league’s other coaches do for a living.
“Coaching is like flying an airplane,” said Daly, a two-time NBA champion with the Detroit Pistons and coach of the original “Dream Team” in the 1992 Olympics. “There is going to be a lot of turbulence, but your job is to land the plane safely.”
For the someone thrust into that role in mid-flight the way Milwaukee Bucks interim coach Joe Prunty was last week when the Bucks fired Jason Kidd, this isn’t simply a co-pilot sliding over one seat to replace the captain. Once that “interim” light flashes on, with the plane still 35,000 feet up but adrift, a team might as well be plucking its pilot “Airplane!”-style from the main cabin.
The change is that abrupt. The challenges, that great.
“Generally speaking, your job is to get through the year,” said P.J. Carlesimo, longtime coach and broadcaster who has been both “interim” and “interimed” in his career. “And usually it’s not a good team. Your good teams don’t usually make these changes.
“The trick is having good players. Knowing Joe and the way he is, I’m sure he’ll tell you the same thing.”
The Bucks were 23-22 on Jan. 22 when management fired Kidd, the soon-to-be Hall of Fame point guard who had coached the team since 2014. Kidd met the early expectations of new franchise ownership by steering the Bucks to the playoffs in two of his first three seasons. But his overall record was 139-152, and 2017-18 was playing out fitfully, with no momentum, no traction.
When Kidd tried to tamp down expectations after a dreary post-Christmas performance against Chicago, this season no longer just seemed like — it sounded like — a lost opportunity.
“It just felt like we were standing still when we should be climbing,” Milwaukee’s first-year general manager, Jon Horst, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “This is an important year.”
No kidding. Milwaukee is a franchise aiming at big things. A massive new arena to replace the BMO Harris Bradley Center needs to be filled come fall. The team’s tri-owners — Marc Lasry, Wes Edens and Jamie Dinan, all private-equity movers and shakers — rejected from the start former Bucks steward Herb Kohl’s smaller-market mission of simply keeping the team competitive from year to year. The new guys want championships.
With Joe, he’s a lot more relaxed, much more of a pick-a-guy-up type of guy and you kind of see that with the guys out here.”
Bucks guard Khris Middleton, on Joe Prunty
This season was targeted as a step toward that, with Milwaukee seeking a top-four playoff seed and advancement to the conference semifinals. Those were important goals for external and internal reasons.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, 23, the team’s most talented player, is on the cusp of NBA superstardom and is under contract only through the 2020-21 season. Jabari Parker, if he comes back successfully from his second knee surgery in three seasons (he’s set to play 15 minutes against New York Friday), will be a restricted free agent this summer. And keeping a young, talented core together is tough enough, never mind adding pieces in a city not considered much of a free-agent destination.
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Prunty’s new job is far more focused than that and, so far, so good: the Bucks were 4-0 through his first eight days as Kidd’s replacement, with back-to-back games at Minnesota tonight (8 ET, NBA League Pass) and Friday vs. New York (8 ET, NBA League Pass).
At that pace, they’d run the table, finish with a tidy 60-22 mark, be sitting right where they want to be in the standings and have the rest of the East scared to death.
Now in his 22nd NBA season, Prunty, 48, isn’t going anywhere near that sort of nonsense. He’s fine as a plugger, thank you, with a strict see-the-game, play-the-game approach. If he comes up with any Dalyesque analogies, it will be by accident — or he’ll be quoting someone he’s worked with, like San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, former Mavs and Nets coach Avery Johnson, former Cleveland Cavaliers coach Byron Scott or Indiana Pacers coach Nate McMillan (Prunty was on his staff in Portland) or Kidd.
“The teams that win in this league are the teams that win in this league,” said Prunty, a native Californian who coached Lakers coach Luke Walton and former Chicago Cubs pitcher Mark Prior in high school. “You will have success based on what everybody does to contribute to that. … It is about getting better day over day. It always sounds boring and like a cliché, but it is the truth.”
“Interim” is a tricky position. Too much old or too much new could be bad. Whatever the previous guy was doing, that got him fired, so don’t do that. But if you try to change too many things on the fly, that could create problems where they don’t exist.
Players who have come to know you as an advocate for the fired guy’s system will wonder you really embrace. The “good cop” role many assistants play will require some “bad cop” decisions now. Meanwhile, there’s job security in play.
Prunty has the position for the rest of Milwaukee’s season, but immediately upon Kidd’s firing, national pundits were calling the job “one of the most sought-after” in the NBA.
“You don’t want to mess it up,” Carlesimo said. “It’s a tremendous advantage being on the inside. You know all the players, they know you. You can change the rotations, you can change whatever you want. But the vast majority of the plays, the playbook, stays the same.”
Through the first week of the Prunty era, Milwaukee has demonstrated more tweaks than overhaul. Hidden within the team’s overall offensive (107.7, 8th overall) and defensive (106.7, 20th overall) ratings are these monsters: the Bucks’ offensive rating is 116.6 and their defensive rating is 95.1 during this 4-0 run — numbers that would rank No. 1 in both categories.
It helps immensely to have faced the Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls (without Kris Dunn) and Philadelphia 76ers (without All-Star Joel Embiid) in those games. But the Bucks have noticed X & O adjustments, while talking about a change in atmosphere as well.
“Right now, you can tell guys are a little bit looser,” guard Khris Middleton said. “With Joe, he preaches confidence. His plays are designed for us to move the ball side to side more. And just, not necessarily just playing off one matchup, but just trying to use the matchup as a decoy to get other guys shots.”
Antetokounmpo claimed to see no tactical differences, citing Prunty’s influence even before Kidd’s dismissal. But he did say that “guys are playing harder.”
“Teams usually take on the personality of the coach,” Middleton added. “With Joe, he’s a lot more relaxed, much more of a pick-a-guy-up type of guy and you kind of see that with the guys out here.”
Said Carlesimo: “Obviously the players there have responded. It usually goes one way or the other — players play well or they pack it in. The lame excuses aren’t there anymore, so it’s ‘Hey, step up! If you or your agent or the media was implying there was something wrong with the coaching, here’s your chance to show it.’ ”
Carlesimo went through this five years ago in Brooklyn, when Johnson was fired after a 14-14 start in 2012-13. He moved over the proverbial 18 inches on the Nets bench and led them to a 35-19 mark the rest of the way.
Things soured for that team — built around Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez — only when it lost in the first round (dropping Game 7 at Barclay Center) to a Chicago club using journeyman Nate Robinson in injured Derrick Rose’s role.
That summer, Brooklyn cleaned house and hired Kidd, who hired Prunty. And so it goes.
“ ‘Interim’ clearly is an audition,” Carlesimo said. “There have been guys who were interim and got the job full-time. But that’s usually not the way it goes. Management ends up going outside to change direction.
“It’s really going to come down to what the Bucks owners and Jon Horst think. It’s Joe’s job to land the plane.”
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