Milwaukee Bucks: Reflecting on the false dawn under Joe Prunty

CLEVELAND, OH - MARCH 19: (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - MARCH 19: (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

After Jason Kidd was fired, the Milwaukee Bucks went on a win streak and everything seemed to look up. Until it didn’t once again, and it became clear that Joe Prunty wasn’t the savior.

For the first week after Jason Kidd was fired, the Milwaukee Bucks had the third best offensive rating in the entire NBA and the fourth best defensive rating. That’s a lesson in sample size.

This short stint covered a four-game winning streak, which included a win against a Joel Embiid-less Sixers team. That winning streak is tied for the longest of the season. Unsurprisingly that week-long stretch saw many Bucks fans, both casual and die-hard, start singing a different song. Something to the tune of “Joe Prunty is our Lord and Savior.” (I don’t think anybody actually said this, for what it’s worth.)

The next day, the Bucks returned to earth and lost to the Timberwolves 108-89 and their offensive rating followed them, dropping to ninth. The Bucks finished the season ninth in offensive Rating and 19th in Defensive Rating, parallel to the perception that the Bucks are a fairly middle-of-the-road team.

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In the beginning of the Prunty-era, the team often looked a great deal better than it had prior. The biggest improvement following the change, to me, was the bench. And stats back this idea up: The Bucks’ bench jumped from 10th to first in three-point percentage in that first week or so.

Prunty’s rotations were also significantly more reliable, consistent, and fair than Kidd’s had been in the past. Kidd was known for erratic rotations where bench players often didn’t know with certainty whether they were going to play on any given night. That changed when Prunty took over, and that subtle change was a breath of fresh air for Bucks fans and the team as well.

The former Brooklyn Nets assistant made a few other, seemingly subtle but valuable changes over the course of the season.

With all of that being said, there was definitely reason to be skeptical. The most obvious being the quality of opponents the Bucks faced after the change. They faced the Suns, Nets, and Bulls, all lottery teams, and then the aforementioned 76ers.

Still, winning games the team was supposed to win was a change of events in itself. Under Kidd the Bucks dropped six games to non-playoff teams, including a 32-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks and an 0-2 start to the I-94 rivalry against the Chicago Bulls.

Soon after the four-game winning streak, Prunty seemingly reverted everything back to the old ways. He often had Kidd-esque rotations, including one loss to Indiana where he had a 40-year-old Jason Terry play 36 minutes (to be fair, the team didn’t have all that many guards at its disposal; Delly and Brogdon were both out). Sterling Brown played just 12 minutes in that game.

Prior to Kidd’s firing, the Bucks were notorious for a blitz-heavy defense where the defenders would aggressively double-team opposing players, leaving the Bucks vulnerable to ball movement.

This concept wasn’t totally misguided, due to Milwaukee’s numerous lengthy defenders that could potentially cause teams to make a lot of mistakes. The Bucks ranked ninth in turnovers forced per game last season, and second this year.

Unfortunately for them, steals aren’t the only part of defense and consistent execution proved to be a problem. This overly-aggressive defense had one giant flaw: Help defense. Milwaukee often found themselves scrambling around the floor in an attempt to recover after their opponent beat the double-team, usually with some form of a side pick-and-roll, or with a simple skip pass.

Too many times would the opponent find an open shooter in the corner, or a cutter that slipped past a defender on the weak side. Bucks’ opponents shot just over 40 percent on shots 20-24 feet from the basket, and 38 percent on shots 25-29 feet away against the Kidd-led Bucks this season. Those marks were good for fifth worst and second worst in the league, respectively.

Once Joe Prunty took over, things seemed monumentally better. Bucks’ opponents shot just 28 percent, second best in the league, and 23 percent, a league best, on the very same shots. Kidd’s assistant realized he needed to dial back dramatically on the infamous blitzing defense. They improved tremendously on the defensive end, bouncing from 24th to eighth in steals per game, and 16th to fourth in blocks per game. Lo and behold the Bucks posted the league’s fourth best defensive rating, as I stated earlier, over the short winning streak.

All of this sounds great, right? What’s not to love about reliable rotations and no more over-helping?

Well…not quite. After the winning streak, it appeared that everything went back to the way it was before. The defense was still not as aggressive as it had been before, but the team could be found, again, giving up quite a few open looks from three as a result of trapping. The Bucks dropped from fourth to 18th in Defensive Rating and allowed opponents to shoot nearly 38 percent on threes, good for seventh worst in the league.

The rotation also looked like it had fallen apart. Though still better than Kidd’s rotations, fans were often left wondering why a certain player didn’t touch the floor on a certain night, or why another player was on the court rather than someone else. Sterling Brown, who seemed to be a huge beneficiary of the coaching change, saw sporadic spurts of floor time in almost random situations.

So how did the Bucks run out of the Prunty magic that was oh-so-apparent during the short but sweet four-game win streak? It’s simple: There never was any to begin with.

Of the four games, three of them were against lottery teams, they were games they were expected to win. Perhaps it was intentional, but Kidd just happened to be fired at a perfect time when whoever took over as head coach would likely be thrown into a relatively easy situation.

The changes Prunty made in the beginning of his tenure were not drastic changes, nor were they very difficult adjustments to make. Any basketball fan could tell you the defense wasn’t working in the Bucks’ favor. And soon after the easy riding, Prunty and the coaching staff turned back into the same old Bucks.

Perhaps that means the problems are more deep-rooted among the players, or that it was never truly going to be possible for any coach to overhaul Milwaukee’s style of play in the middle of the season.

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As a result, the early promise the Bucks showed under Prunty can only be looked back on now as a false dawn. Which is a pity, because the Bucks could really use it to return to help turnaround their first round series with the Boston Celtics.