Preview Sort Of Thing: Milwaukee Bucks
October 23rd, 2008

The Milwaukee Bucks and their new head coach Scott Skiles are an eclectic mix. Recent Skiles-free Bucks teams have been capable of repeated instances of really bad defence, whereas recent Skiles-led Bulls teams (last year excluded) have been one of the best defensive units in the NBA. Make no mistake about it – Scott Skiles can coach defence. He really can. He even made Michael Sweetney and Eddy Curry into decent defensive players, briefly.

In theory, therefore, a union of the two will bring the much-needed defensive improvement to an offensively strong Milwaukee line-up. Or at least, that’s one way to look at it. Alternatively, Milwaukee might have just hired a coach that them away from their strengths, further exposing the flaws in their personnel. This could go either way.

For every Skiles strength, there is a Skiles flaw. While he’s shown that he can teach help defence to those players previously written off as futile, he also has a small offensive playbook. While he can coach guards onto better things, he can’t get the same results from big men, yet seemingly insists that he can. For every young player that thrives under his guidance, one more will be alienated and underwhelming. And for every amusing sarcastic comment he makes to the press, he’ll make someone hate him.

Perhaps mercifully, the Bucks don’t have too many young players. Their identity as a veteran team looking for something to push them back into contention was cemented this summer, when they dealt the closest thing that they had to a promising youngster – Yi Jianlian – as the primary piece for an in-his-prime Richard Jefferson. In free agency, the Bucks picked up Skiles’s favourite, Malik Allen, as well as other veteran backups Tyronn Lue and Francisco Elson. Trading away Mo Williams saw the Bucks get little of immediate use back on the court, but they did receive Adrian Griffin, Skiles’s other favourite, and another old veteran with no potential. These moves combined to send out a rather clear signal – they’d quite like to make the playoffs next year, please.

It’s probably true to say that the core of Bucks players would be good enough to compete for the East if you significantly improved their defence. They have weapons, after all. Along with one of the league’s best shooters in Michael Redd, the Bucks boast the vastly-improved Andrew Bogut playing exclusively in the posts. They also now offer 20-point scoring small forward Richard Jefferson and 48-point scoring power forward Charlie Vllanueva, who both offer something of an inside/outside game. And while the point guard duo of Luke Ridnour and Ramon Sessions offer inconsistent outside shooting, they’re willing and able to pass, which should help.

But it’s not as easy as just adding a defensive coach. Scott Skiles has clearly defined strengths, thereby separating him from many NBA coaches, but he also has his flaws. Even in the early going, these flaws are showing through. The Sessions/Griffin/Fresh Prince/Allen/Elson line-up has already reared its ugly head on more than once occasion in preseason, and if you want to excuse its presence as being injury- or preseason-induced, then you need to start bracing yourself, because Scott Skiles is VERY willing and able to use Malik Allen as a go-to guy. You have been warned. (Note: this threat is doubly true, given that Allen represents the Bucks’ best pick-and-pop option. Skiles likes those. Expect Andrew Bogut to be involved in dozens of them, irrespective of his lack of a jump shot.)

That line-up represents the Bucks’ closest replication of what Skiles loves more than anything as a coach: players who don’t make mistakes, talent be damned. If that unit – or any unit – can’t get a shot off in 24 seconds, or even get the ball over halfcourt, then no matter, just as long as they rotate on defence and don’t get all unnecessarily talented. This is why thinly-veiled threats to start Allen (or Mbah a Moute) over Villanueva have already been made. Villanueva’s talent level makes him a better option at starting power forward than any possible Bucks alternative, yet precisely because of the nature of his flaws, he may lose playing time. As a coaching philosophy, this mistake-free, defence-first-and-only style gets your players and your team to a certain level of production and success. And then it will keep you there.

Of course, I’m biased. I’ve watched all bar about seven games of Skiles’s tenure, and while I used to defend him vigorously, those days passed once his flaws became more evident. I’ve witnessed Kirk Hinrich become temporarily brilliant, and yet I’ve witnessed Tyson Chandler emerge into an elite rebounder and useful offensive presence….for someone else. I’ve seen Chris Duhon play 8,000 minutes, and yet I’ve seen Thabo Sefolosha become damaged irreparably. I’ve seen a Bulls roster overhauled, gain an identity, assume a certain style of play, overachieve, tune out their coach, and fall apart. And it’s affected my bias somewhat.

Scott Skiles is a coach, whose CV screams “short-term improvements”. He has been united with a disjointed team, one now primarily focused on finding “short-term improvements”. That team’s weaknesses fit in perfectly with Skiles’s strengths. The fit is so perfect that it shouldn’t be allowed.

And yet, I’m not entirely convinced. Because I’ve been there.

Short term future: They’ll be better than under Krystkowiak. Scott Skiles knows what he’s doing, and half the team will benefit from it. The other half will be moved.

Long term future: See the above Bulls cycle. I’d like to be wrong.

Posted by at 6:29 AM