Midseason coaching switches can be a complex issue to decode. Often the result of panic or collapse, there’s a perception that a change of scenery—be it a new face or new philosophy—is likely to bring stability in the short-term as a team figures out its long-term strategy.
Three head coaches—Earl Watson (Suns), David Fizdale (Grizzlies) and Jason Kidd (Bucks)—have been shown the door by their respective franchises this season. While the Suns and Grizzlies appear to be locks to hit the NBA lottery, the Bucks are on the opposite end of that spectrum, fighting for playoff positioning in the East. Since parting with Kidd, the Bucks have gone 10-4 under interim coach Joe Prunty, inching their way up the standings and into the conference's No. 6 seed heading into Tuesday's action.
It’s surprising to see a team that was once headed on a downward spiral into the NBA abyss (dropping nine of 15 before Kidd's firing), get somewhat of a boost from a coaching change while battling for playoff positioning. For the time being, it appears Milwaukee's midseason move has steadied the ship.
Have the Bucks found a formula to sustain their new winning ways? Or is this streak of good fortune a temporary bandage over a leaking wound? Those are the questions the Bucks have yet to answer. Over the last 14 games, Milwaukee is second in the league in defensive rating, having previously ranked in the middle of the pack this season. In that same time frame, the Bucks are fourth in steals, fifth in blocks and are third in points off opponent turnovers.
Milwaukee should be able to breathe a collective sigh of relief over the improved defensive efforts. Although early inconsistencies plagued the Bucks, the team is exhibiting the defensive acumen that was on display during the 2014-15 season. Still, it would be remiss to ignore other variables contributing to the Bucks’ turnaround.
Milwaukee’s last 14 games have come against teams with a combined record of 324-396 (.451). Of those teams, only six (76ers, Wolves, Heat, Pelicans, Nuggets and Raptors) have winning records, and the Bucks are just 2–4 in those matchups. Other victories have come against teams with their sights already set on next season, whether due to injuries or first-half struggles.
While part of the Bucks' success can obviously be chalked up to a favorable turn in the schedule, there are others signs to point to better Bucks play. Eric Bledsoe (19.7 PPG, 6.3 APG, 4.4 RPG) is having his best month as a Buck, Jabari Parker has returned to provide scoring punch off the bench and the team is getting contributions from up and down the roster despite the injuries to Matthew Dellavedova and Malcolm Brogdon. The strong play has led to the Bucks' best start to a season 59 games (33–26) in since 2001-02.
Part of the frustrations with Milwaukee during the Kidd era was the team's tendency to play down to competition. Despite franchise cornerstone GiannisAntetokounmpo vaulting into superstardom, the team hovered around the .500 mark and failed to take off after the acquisition of Bledsoe. In the eyes of many, that level of backward progress made keeping Kidd a questionable move. Yet not all of Milwaukee's shortcomings have gone away under Prunty. The Bucks are still being outrebounded (605-599), outscored in the paint (694-606) and have given up more assists than they've dished out (334-319) over that period.
Though it may be premature to crown the Bucks contenders as they figure out an identity, one thing can be certain, Milwaukee is playing on par with preseason expectations lately. Defeating teams they were better than consistently avoided them. Under Prunty, the focus is wired, effort has increased and they've yet to lose to a lottery team since Kidd's firing. Favorable schedule or not, the Bucks responded to outside noise with their play on the court.
Milwaukee might not have overhauled its approach when making its head-coaching changes, and the wins might not jump off the page, but it's hard to argue with the results Prunty and the Bucks have been getting. Canning Kidd has proved to be a step in the right direction and hopefully a sign that the young Bucks are establishing themselves as playoff tenants in the East.