January 5, 2012; Sacramento, CA, USA; Milwaukee Bucks head coach Scott Skiles (left) instructs guard Brandon Jennings (3) during the first quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Power Balance Pavilion. The Kings defeated the Bucks 103-100. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Divorce of Scott Skiles and the Milwaukee Bucks

There was smoke and then there was fire.  Or, if you like, a firing.

Of course, this is the Bucks, so it wasn’t the normal type of firing.  Nope. This time the coach fired the team.

Scott Skiles let the Bucks know that he wouldn’t be returning next year.  As a result, the two sides agreed to part ways.  It’s hard to blame Skiles.  He never really wanted to be here — at least not for 2013 — in the first place.

Lame-duck coaches are a rare breed in the NBA.  Teams don’t usually make their head coaches operate on the final year of their contract — and for good reason.  Coaching an NBA team is a tough job in some respects.  They are asked to lead players/subordinates who may makes multiple times what they themselves earn.  Their most important motivational carrot, playing time, directly impacts the future earning potential of those players, and those players are hypersensitive to any changes regarding it.  A coach’s goals and his players’ goals don’t always match up.

It gets worse.  The NBA’s dirty little secret? 70% of teams start a season with literally no shot at the profession’s ultimate prize: a championship.  Most coaches are tasked with attaining a goal they have no business attaining.

Scott Skiles was one of those men. He knew it, and he acted on it.

It took a while for him to get his way too.  Cleaning off his desk after last season only to find out after a multiple-hour interview with Herb Kohl that he still had his job.  A year’s worth of conducting pre- and post-game interviews with the grimaced monotone of a P.O.W.  A lifetime supply of in-game facepalms with only the rarest of smiles.

One could say that Skiles was this way during his entire tenure in Milwaukee, or even that he carried himself the same way in Phoenix or Chicago.  But it was worse lately, and it had gotten to a point where he evidently confided to a friend that he ‘hated‘ coaching the Bucks.

As rare as it is to hear general manager John Hammond say anything bad about the team, it was equally as rare to hear Scott Skiles say anything good about it (excepting any praise that he doled out for single-game performances).  When the general manager and head coach were that far apart, one of them was bound to go.

In less than a year, they may both be gone.

The problem with having lame-duck coaches and general managers is that they have no vested interest in the long-term future of the franchise.  Do what it takes to win this year. Whether or not the team is equipped to win two years from now is some other guy’s problem.

Sure, Skiles had Tobias Harris as a starter to begin the year and has started using John Henson more despite the fact that neither had grasped the nuances (or perhaps even the basics) of NBA defense.  One could make a case that Skiles and Hammond have both taken the franchise’s long-term interests to heart.  The problem is that it was too easy to switch into ‘win now’ mode — and back out of it — on a weekly basis.

Scott Skiles is a good coach who made positive changes in Milwaukee who will likely go on to do a fine job in another NBA city.  Brandon Jennings learned from him.  Larry Sanders learned from him.  He knows basketball inside and out.  That was never really the question.

He may end up being the (pre-Detroit) version of Larry Brown: the coach who can take multiple stalled franchises back to the playoffs without sticking with any of them for the long haul.  Maybe he wins a title with one.  Maybe he doesn’t.  But he probably has a longish future in the NBA ahead of him.

The Bucks have interesting and talented role players.  See Sanders, for instance.  But those players mean little in a star-driven NBA without elite players and a plan.  They (and rest of the 70%) still need to figure that part out.

Owner Herb Kohl and Milwaukee entered this season with four personnel decisions:  Scott Skiles, Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings, and John Hammond.  The first two are easier — Skiles didn’t want to be here, and Ellis, for all his watchability, is destined to be the best player on a lot of bad teams.

The latter two are tougher. Until then, keep calm and carry on.


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