The Bucks had high hopes entering the season, but a series of setbacks has put Milwaukee in jeopardy of missing the playoffs.
The Milwaukee Bucks needed another complication to their season like they needed another gap in their problematic defense or another non-shooter in their growing collection. Yet on Sunday it was announced that head coach Jason Kidd would be undergoing hip surgery and would be out indefinitely. The surgery will address a chronic pain that has lasted long enough for Kidd’s body to develop a tolerance to cortisone shots.
“I’ve taken enough of the cortisone shots that they don’t work,” Kidd said (via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). “We put it off as long as we could."
According to Kidd’s initial projections, he hopes to return to his duties as head coach in two weeks. Assistant Joe Prunty, who has worked under Kidd since he became a coach in 2013, will take over those responsibilities in the interim. If Kidd does indeed make his return in two weeks, he would miss only six games: home bouts against Philadelphia and Toronto followed by a four-game road trip through Dallas, Oklahoma City, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis. Even with a Sixers’ win assumed, that’s far from an easy trip; the worst team of the remaining five has still played consistently better basketball than the Bucks.
Should Kidd’s recovery drag on, Milwaukee will at least have the benefit of playing it by ear. The Bucks don’t have another multi-game road trip on the schedule until January 16, allowing Kidd’s status to be reevaluated and revised on essentially a game-by-game basis. The Bucks need him. Kidd has been a proactive influence in what has been a fairly dismal season for Milwaukee, leveraging his capital within the organization to at times bring Jabari Parker, Michael Carter-Williams, and Giannis Antetokounmpo off the bench. The development of each of those players is valuable to the Bucks’ progress. Kidd understands, however, that their opportunities should not come unconditionally.
None of Kidd’s maneuvers thus far have been sufficient to pull the Bucks from the East’s doldrums. Milwaukee is one of the few teams in the conference to be excluded from the deep ranks of relative parity. The top 11 teams in the East are separated by just 5.5 games in the standings to date. The Bucks come in two spots lower, trailing the 12th-place Wizards by four games in the loss column with an 11-18 record. A playoff berth, while not yet mathematically impossible, looks to be a stretch.
This is in part because a team with Milwaukee’s construction can only push so far. Kidd told ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe earlier this season that his team’s most talented lineup—Antetokounmpo, Parker, Carter-Williams, Greg Monroe, and Khris Middleton—doesn’t have enough shooting to be realistically playable. He’s right, at least in terms of playing those five against functional NBA defenses. That reality has sent Kidd searching for workable alternatives. A shocking many have included O.J. Mayo, who on a roster this stocked with young talent stood as an afterthought in the preseason. The fact that Mayo can space the floor and is something of a two-way player, however, has translated to one of the team’s “best” net ratings (-1.4) through 29 games.
Greg Monroe, who over the summer joined the Bucks on a three-year, $51 million deal, has played to form in providing offensive value while simultaneously creating problems within the Bucks’ defensive scheme. And it’s not as if Milwaukee has been fully functional in coverage without him; teams seem to have gotten the hang of playing against the Bucks after feeding into their traps last season and have completely negated Milwaukee’s turnover advantage in the process. The defense has improved marginally of late. On the one hand, that’s not an insignificant accomplishment considering that the Bucks have taken on the top-10 offenses of the Warriors (twice), the Clippers, the Raptors and the Blazers in their last eight games. On the other, Milwaukee has been so crummy defensively for so much of the season that marginal improvement isn’t nearly enough.
And so Milwaukee will keep searching. The team’s principal players are 20 (Parker), 21 (Antetokounmpo), 24 (Middleton, Carter-Williams), and 25 (Monroe), leaving no real need to rush. This group will have time to figure itself out, to build up its range, and to find a workable synergy. Those developments simply won’t be made in their entirety this season. Kidd and his staff (Prunty surely included) seem to understand the long game that is in the franchise’s best interests. Forget wins and losses at this point. What matters most in Milwaukee is incremental movement toward a sustainable competence. Strides need to be made on both sides of the ball. Egos need to be kept in check, even as frustrated young players push and grow desperate.
Milwaukee has the prospects. Now comes the arduous work of pulling a young team through an actual developmental build, no matter who is sitting at the head of the Bucks’ bench for the span of a few weeks.