By Rob Mahoney
Scott Skiles has a way of bludgeoning his teams into his stylistic likeness through a cycle of cold criticism and uncompromising expectation. It takes some rosters longer than others to fall in line, but this year's Bucks team had been positively Skiles-ian: from its better-than-anticipated defense to its ultimately doomed offense, complete with its overall lack of talent and veritable wealth of pluck. The roster itself may be confusing and flawed, but Skiles -- as he has done at every coaching stop -- made it oddly true to his weird type.
Yet hiring Skiles comes with the understanding that he won't be around forever -- a notion that came to fruition for Milwaukee literally overnight. According to Sam Amick of USA Today, Skiles and the Bucks mutually agreed to part ways immediately, fulfilling a wish that Skiles had reportedly expressed since the offseason. As Jeremy Schmidt noted at Bucksketball, Skiles was a coach beaten back by his own frustrations, one visibly taxed by the task of keeping last season's roster within his rigid mold. He returned to coach this season as his contract demanded, but this kind of separation had long been brewing; David Aldridge reported for NBA.com on Monday that Skiles had no interest in a contract extension, and a brief, tweeted report from Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports leaves Skiles' feelings about this roster in no uncertain terms:
If that characterization is indeed fair, then Skiles only hated what Bucks GM John Hammond gave him. Skiles is a rebooting head coach, brought in to quickly correct course, establish a defensive baseline and instill accountability. But even coaches in that kind of transitional mold demand some kind of consistency in terms of vision if not personnel; it's natural for any franchise to experience turnover, but the Bucks have been so fickle in their aims that their roster was left mangled by indecision. From Aldridge's report:
But Skiles, according to sources, has wondered about the team's overall plan going forward, and whether it would be willing to either completely rebuild the roster through high draft picks like [Brandon] Jennings, or make a trade for a dynamic, superstar-caliber player that the existing core could complement.
Instead, in the summer of 2010, the Bucks gave big contract extensions to veterans Drew Gooden (five years, $32 million) and John Salmons (five years, $39 million). Gooden took over at center last season after [Andrew] Bogut was traded, but has barely played this season with [Larry] Sanders' emergence. The Bucks sent Salmons, along with their first-round draft pick (10th overall), to Sacramento on draft night 2011 in a three-team deal with Charlotte that also sent Corey Maggette to the Bobcats, bringing back [Beno] Udrih from the Kings and [Stephen] Jackson and Shaun Livingston from Charlotte.
Further muddying the waters was the Bucks' decision to deal center Andrew Bogut last March. The trade, which sent Bogut to the Warriors for Monta Ellis, suggested that the Bucks were a rebuilding team that didn't yet know it -- or perhaps one that simply rejected the very premise of their own situation. Trading an injured star won't reap equivalent rewards in terms of talent, and yet the Bucks dealt Bogut for Ellis -- who can become a free agent after this season -- rather than a piece with more long-term viability. Months later, they signed Ersan Ilyasova to a five-year, $40 million contract that his play in 2011-12 warranted, but that hardly made sense for a team that should have been looking for a fresh start. Milwaukee's salary-cap picture is clearing up despite that commitment to Ilyasova, but Skiles was right to worry whether Hammond -- or his successor -- would continue this string of moves that keeps the Bucks spinning sideways.
Among those possibilities is the danger, as suggested by Hammond himself in Aldridge's report, that the Bucks might actually re-sign Ellis should he opt out this summer. Given the Bucks' telegraphed intentions to match most any offer sheet for impending restricted free agent Brandon Jennings, such a move with Ellis would essentially set Milwaukee's backcourt in stone for the foreseeable future. It's hard to overstate how big of a mistake that would ultimately be. Although the pairing of Jennings and Ellis hasn't been a complete disaster, there's just no reason to think that both players are capable of efficient offense while working within the confines of Milwaukee's offense. A new head coach (one beyond this season; interim coach Jim Boylan will undoubtedly keep much of Skiles' offense intact) may be able to tweak the offense enough to provide for either Jennings or Ellis, but the notion of both thriving enough to carry an offense and justify their assumed salaries is exceedingly improbable.
One can only hope that Hammond was expressing obligatory interest in a player who is currently on his roster, lest Milwaukee commit to an extension that would be both foolhardy and untenable. This roster, while good enough to make the playoffs, ultimately does not work at a level sufficient for long-term investment. There are no gems of superstar promise hidden beneath the surface, nor any reason whatsoever for Milwaukee to simply continue on. Something's gotta give, and though Skiles' patience gave out before Hammond's knotted plan or Bucks owner Herb Kohl's passivity, this move only underscores the franchise's compelling need for change. With that in mind, this separation makes as much sense for the Bucks as it does for their frustrated former coach. This is a team in need of redefinition, and Skiles is not one to adapt. That makes his exodus an opening for internal examination, even as Boylan carries out Skiles' general mission with the exact same roster that left him so discontent. Milwaukee will have a lot to decide in the coming months regarding the fates of Jennings, Ellis, Hammond and a newly created coaching vacancy, but that in itself is a grand opportunity. A team that has long avoided change will now be forced to confront it, and though there's no guarantee that the Bucks will evolve, the coming offseason will at the very least demand that Milwaukee come to terms with the idling franchise it's become.