Like many things in the Milwaukee Bucks organization right now, the head coaching situation is very much uncertain.
In the time since Jim Boylan‘s 54-game regime ended May 1, a number of names have been thrown around as potential candidates for the job. Legendary former-Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, who likely sat near the top of the Bucks’ wish list, met with the team last week, but the 71-year-old ultimately decided the middling franchise was not the right fit. Eccentric former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy is another name being tossed around, as well as current Atlanta Hawks coach Larry Drew and former Trail Blazers head man Nate McMillan.
Aside from the household names, Milwaukee will also consider a number of assistants, including Steve Clifford of the Lakers and Kelvin Sampson and J.B. Bickerstaff of the Rockets.
Hiring a new head coach signals the beginning of a new era – one that, in the mind of Bucks fans, will hopefully see the team take the next step and become a perennial contender. The franchise finds itself in an all-too-familiar spot – stuck in the perpetual cycle of mediocrity that finds them neither contending nor rebuilding.
John Hammond always seems to make enough roster moves to keep the Bucks afloat, while consequently avoiding impact lottery picks – picks that are absolutely essential in rebuilding a franchise. Take the Cleveland Cavaliers, for example: You may remember hearing something about the team losing this guy, LeBron James, to the Miami Heat in 2010. Rather than attempting to sign veterans or risky free agents to remain competitive, the team accepted its fate, drafted (extremely well) in the high lottery for a few seasons, and now, with the top 2013 pick in hand, look to be one of the best young teams in the entire league. Cleveland’s core of Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson – all acquired with top-four draft picks – are evidence that a few seasons in the cellar can pay major dividends.
Seattle/Oklahoma City experienced a similar fate after trading Ray Allen to the Celtics to form the original “Big Three” in 2007. Rather than trading for Monta Ellis or signing surefire superstar Bobby Simmons, the team swallowed its pride and landed three consecutive lottery picks that would manifest as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.
Now, of course these examples hinge largely on the teams’ abilities to draft impact players at shockingly successful rates, but finishing in eighth or ninth in the Eastern Conference each season simply does not afford a franchise the ability to land impact players. The “eighth seed at all costs” mentality Milwaukee has seemingly employed in the recent past will land you players like Brandon Jennings and Larry Sanders – solid, at-times dynamic guys – but not the type of contributors who can change the course of a franchise overnight like Durant, Westbrook or Irving.
The Bucks’ inability to decide whether they will enter “rebuilding mode” or attempt to contend makes Milwaukee a rather unattractive destination for potential coaches. Established veterans like Van Gundy or McMillan, who would likely prefer to link up with a contender, may be less inclined to enter a situation in which the franchise’s expectations are not clearly communicated.
On top of that, the team has little to market to a potential coach in terms of its roster. With the futures of Jennings, Ellis and J.J. Redick still very much in question, the Bucks’ rotation will likely look vastly different next season. Even if the team opts to match any offers Jennings may receive, the point guard developed a rocky relationship with Scott Skiles and has not shown that he is capable of efficiently running a team on a consistent basis.
But don’t let my discouraging introduction to this piece deter you – things aren’t all bad in the Cream City. Milwaukee has an intriguing group of young big men spearheaded by Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova and John Henson. Sanders was an All-Defensive team snub who was considered one of the frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year award for much of the season. Coaches love athletic, defensive-minded big men, and as of now, Sanders is the most valuable piece on Milwaukee’s roster.
The Bucks have shown they will not settle in this coaching search. Though Sloan spurned the position and Van Gundy declined an interview, simply bringing established names in exhibits the team’s stance in refusing to settle for second-rate candidates.
In the past, Milwaukee has made swift personnel moves, but it’s been over three weeks since the team announced Boylan would not return next season. Here are the top candidates, listed in no particular order:
Milwaukee interviewed the Rockets’ assistant, and son of former NBA head coach Bernie Bickerstaff, on May 10 but little information regarding the meeting has surfaced in the two weeks since. The 34-year-old Denver native began as an assistant under his father with the Bobacts in 2004 and spent time with the Timberwolves (2007-‘11) before joining the Rockets’ staff under Kevin McHale in 2011. Though he’s inexperienced, bringing in a younger coach who can relate to his players could work in the Bucks’ favor. The roster is still very young overall, and Bickerstaff helped build success from a youthful Houston roster that many thought would be a bottom-feeder in the West this season. Despite his age, Bickerstaff has grown up around the League his entire life and is well-respected in NBA circles, as evidenced by his name being mentioned for the Bobcats, Suns and Pistons jobs, in addition to the Bucks.
Given his reputation as a defensive-minded coach, Clifford seems like a natural fit for Milwaukee. He interviewed with the team on May 13 and is also considered a candidate for the Detroit and Charlotte jobs. Clifford has held a variety of collegiate and NBA assistant coaching jobs, most recently serving as an assistant under Stan Van Gundy in Orlando (2007-’12) and with the Lakers this season. While defense may win championships, it did not win enough games for fellow defensive-focused coach Skiles to make it out of the first round with the Bucks. For that reason, Hammond may be hesitant to bring in a coach with similar philosophies.
The former Bucks assistant from 2008-’11 was one of the first candidates interviewed for the vacancy. He is more of a players’ coach than Boylan or Skiles and would provide some familiarity, as many of the current Bucks were on the roster during his days as an assistant. Sampson has experience dealing with young players, having been a college coach for several seasons before NCAA sanctions derailed his career. However, the 57-year-old has reemerged as a premier assistant in the NBA, where he can text and call players as many times as he likes. Sampson may not be Milwaukee’s first choice, but if they decide to extend him an offer, they may have to do so quickly, as the Bobcats, Pistons and 76ers are reportedly interested in his services.
McMillan was fired near the end of last season after seven years as the Trail Blazers’ head coach. In 12 seasons with the Sonics and Blazers, he compiled a 478-452 record (.514). In my mind, he has to be option number one for Milwaukee. He maintains the defensive-minded ideals Hammond has stressed in his tenure as GM, while at the same time effectively managing players. Plus, McMillan brings what most of the other candidates do not: experience. He’s led Seattle and Portland to three 50-win seasons, and has the respect of NBA coaches and players alike, serving as an assistant under Coach K with the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams.
Yes, Drew is technically still the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, but typically interviewing for other jobs while still under contract is a fairly clear indication that he won’t be back next season. Drew led Atlanta to the sixth seed in the East this season but never appeared to be on the same page with GM Danny Ferry.
John Hammond has stressed that Milwaukee is seeking a coach who can “maintain discipline in the locker room” and Drew certainly carries that presence. He dealt with a few enigmatic personalities in the Hawks’ locker room (Josh Smith, Ivan Johnson), and likely would not back down from the challenge of taming Brandon Jennings or (at times) Larry Sanders.
There may a better chance Gustavo Ayonserves as player-coach next season than Lionel Hollins bolting Memphis for Milwaukee, but we can discuss it nonetheless. Hollins’ contract with the Grizzlies is up at season’s end and, given the team’s impressive postseason run, they’ll likely do everything in their power to retain him. However, Hollins publicly voiced his displeasure with management’s deadline trade of Rudy Gay, and the franchise would have no trouble recruiting another established coach should he opt to walk away.
In that unlikely scenario, the Clippers (who are rumored to be pursuing him regardless) and Nets would undoubtedly be more enticing options. But, Milwaukee has shown in the past that it is not afraid to throw major money at coaches (see: George Karl, Mike Dunleavy, Sr.), and the Bucks’ present roster seems to be a solid fit for Hollins’ “grit ‘n’ grind” style. Of course, Hollins will not make any decisions regarding his future until the Grizzlies’ season is over.
Shaw has been mentioned for a number of high-profile jobs over the past couple of seasons. His name has not surfaced much in relation to Milwaukee, but he’s believed to be among the frontrunners for the Nets’ and Clippers’ vacancies. Currently an assistant for the Pacers, he likely will not address the situation until the end of the playoffs. Should he be passed over for the more appealing jobs, Shaw could quickly become the Bucks’ top target.
The extra-terrestrial/former Bucks’ guard is currently an assistant for the Wizards. There is absolutely no evidence that he is a candidate for the position, but it’s fun to imagine seeing that face on the sidelines each game.