Analysis

The Bucks start here: Prunty gives NBA reason to #FearTheDeer

Bucks coach Joe Prunty - Milwaukee Bucks 9-2 since firing Jason Kidd

The Milwaukee Bucks are 9-2 since Joe Prunty took over as interim coach. It’s not an accident. Friday the Bucks face the Denver Nuggets and enter a rougher 10-game schedule following the break. But the numbers and video suggest, they’re for real.

“No more Kidding around”

By Nathan Smith

As Mark Wahlberg put in The Other Guys, “I’m a peacock. You gotta let me fly.”

We can probably all relate. Wahlberg plays a frustrated New York policeman struggling under the bureaucratic limitations of his captain. Employees of an organization are very prone to becoming annoyed or resentful when management restricts them in a way that limits their upside or potential. At the very least, you don’t bring out the best in them.

While these limitations usually aren’t purposely restrictive, they may be the product of at least one layer of management being stubborn or stagnant. Unfortunately, a very talented Milwaukee Bucks team was dealing with this type of situation under their former head coach.

Cutting the cord

By the end of January, the Bucks front office had unanimously agreed to terminate their relationship with Jason Kidd. Kidd — who led Milwaukee to a 139-152 record during his tenure as head coach. A former NBA all-star point guard, Kidd’s record per se wasn’t that bad. But it was uninspiring.

More important, the Bucks, with all their talent, never seemed to “take off.” Even after the acquisition of Eric Bledsoe, the Bucks didn’t seem to turn a corner. A 4-6 stretch in January convinced the Bucks to cut ties.

Kidd was a creative passer and player who made his team better. The same can’t necessarily be said for his time as the Bucks Head Coach.

Enter Prunty

Despite the admiration and loyalty that was expressed by Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and veteran Jason Terry, it was clear to many within and outside the situation that Kidd’s coaching style was holding Milwaukee back. The reason it was time for a changing of the guard boils down to style and personality in some ways, shemes in others.

But above all, it probably boils down to one word: simplicity.

“With Coach Prunty and the rest of the staff,” GM Jon Horst told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently, “I think you’re going to see a group of guys who are going to simplify the things that we do offensively and defensively so that we can really focus on the things that our guys are good at, really try to accentuate their strengths and kind of minimize some of the weaknesses of our team.”

So far, Prunty’s focus on “doing little things every day to improve” seems to have snapped the team out of its malaise. He’s unlocked the spontaneity of great athletes. Here’s how.

Subtle changes

Kidd drew criticism about a variety of things, such as his rotation and coaching strategies and concepts. Among the differences you can see:

— According to Ryen Russillo of ESPN, Kidd had an “icy” relationship with forward Jabari Parker. Despite his injury history, the Bucks value Paker, and his recent play (small sample size) seems to justify that faith. With Kidd now out of town and Parker back in the fold, the Bucks have something to smile about.

— Kidd’s rotation management seemed mercurial and at times, random. Earlier this season when asked why guard Malcolm Brogdon hardly played in the first half, Kidd said he happened to look down to the bench and see another player, so he played him instead.

Under Prunty, the rotations have been more predictable and situation-based.

— Kidd also showed a lack of creativity and little willingness to adjust offensive and defensive schemes. In today’s NBA, teams that can’t adapt on the fly are at a significant disadvantage, especially in the playoffs. Coaching adjustments throughout the game and season are key to not only maintaining a lead but also to consistently winning.

In a narrow win over the Hawks, Prunty made a late shift in defensive assignments that helped prevent what could have been an embarrassing loss.

Great teams “play fun”

“We are just playing harder, trusting one another,” Giannis said a few games into the recent 9-2 run. “We are just having fun and playing hard.”

In fact, if we compare the Bucks through January 22 to the Bucks since, there’s reason to think the changed focus is sustainable. (See table below; right-click for larger view.)

The Bucks haven’t suddenly enjoyed a hot shooting spree that can’t last (cc: Orlando Magic, first 10 games.)

The biggest noticeable improvement has been a better job at team defensive rebounding (cc: Brad Stevens).

Three defensive rebounds might not seem like a not, but accounts for much of the 8-pont swing in Bucks point differential since the change.

Milwaukee Bucks Prunty coach improvement since Jason Kidd

Prunty’s tweak to Kidd’s defensive schemes

The optimal way for a coach to arrange their defense obviously varies depending on the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent. However, Jason Kidd generally featured the same defensive setup, game after game.

The basic idea of creating turnovers is good in and of itself. But it comes at a cost if it is detrimental to things such as team rebounding. During the 2016-2017 season, the Bucks were often vulnerable on the glass, giving up rebounds in bunches. The Bucks gave up so many rebounds that it negated the extra possessions they got via forcing turnovers.

Jason Kidd was a big fan of trapping schemes. From a micro perspective, this strategy seemed like it worked, as Milwaukee finished 9th in the NBA in turnovers forced. From a macro perspective, though, this was at times counterproductive.

Trapping guards far out on the perimeter necessitates bringing more defenders away from the basket. This leaves the paint unprotected far too often. It also left Milwaukee very vulnerable on the opposite wing. Teams burned them there with the three point shot because of the Bucks inability to quickly rotate after trapping and playing help defense so far out.

“It’s a trap”

By necessitating too many helps and clinging to the trap, Kidd was essentially creating a weakness. Milwaukee’s organizational philosophy includes drafting lengthy and athletic players who can wreack havoc on the perimeter.

So into other words, Kidd was actually robbing Milwaukee’s defenders of what was possibly their best strength. With such a stale and outdated defensive scheme, clever coaches were able to make adjustments and eventually expose Kidd and the Bucks.

And Kidd’s own players, relentlessly focused on carrying out the scheme, at times couldn’t take advantage of their athleticism and creativity. Great teams, as Red Auerbach put it, “play fun.” Ironically, a Bucks roster built on length and speed wound up playing spontaneous-less basketball.

Here we see how the design can work — but how it can be exploited by an intellignt opposing coach (in this case, Brad Stevens):

Because of the aforementioned talent and athleticism that Milwaukee possesses, the Bucks were still very capable of harassing other teams and defending well. But again, it was very clear exactly how some of the better teams and coaches were able to expose Kidd’s defensive scheme.

Kidd would’ve been well served to make significant adjustments during last off-season. He didn’t. Instead, the Bucks came into this season looking more predictable than ever. They appeared to be very mediocre during the first half, meandering around the .500 mark.

Kidd Versus Prunty

Taking a look at Kidd’s last full month coaching — December — the Bucks grade out just as one would’ve thought. While Milwaukee was once again top ten in steals, they were also once again getting crushed on the glass.

With a bottom-five league ranking in rebounds per game, it was clear that Jason Kidd’s vanilla schemes and stubborn ways were holding the team back. Worse, they weren’t going to change any time soon.

In a limited eleven game sample size, new Head Coach Joe Prunty has kept the Bucks in the top ten in steals, without punting when it comes to rebounding. Milwaukee ranks 16th in rebounds per game during Prunty’s interim stint, suggesting that they have been playing in a way that is much more balanced, much less predictable, and much smarter.

While being in the middle of the pack in rebounding isn’t overly impressive, this indicates that the subtle changes and tweaks made by Prunty have paid dividends.

MILWAUKEE#s Under Kidd (Dec. 2017)#s Under Kidd (Nov. 2017)#s Under Prunty (Jan. 22 2018–Now)
Team Rebounding30.6 per game (27th)30.8 (26th)33.8 per game (16th)
Team Steals8.3 per game (6th)8.8 per game (7th)8.4 per game (6th)
Team +/- RatingPlus 0.5 (15th)Minus 0.5 (16th)Plus 6.6 (4th)
Team W-L Record8 Wins, 6 Losses7 Wins, 6 Losses9 Wins, 2 Losses

This is the type of tweak that head coaches such as Utah’s Quin Snyder and Boston’s Brad Stevens make often.

The Toronto series

An excellent example of this occurred last year when the Bucks faced the Raptors in the playoffs — the famous “Bucks in 6” series. Milwaukee jumped out to series leads of 1-0 and 2-1, before the Raptors won three straight games to advance to the next round.

It was readily apparent that Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey out-coached Kidd and won the battle of adjustments. Toronto was able to overcome the frequent on-ball pressure and trapping of stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

The takeaway here was just as much about Kidd’s lack of adjustments as it was about Casey’s ability to adjust. Toronto continued to adapt and innovate throughout the series, while Milwaukee did the exact opposite.

Across the Eastern Conference, Celtics Head Coach Brad Stevens was busy making adjustments of his own. Boston opened up the first round of the playoffs with a 2-0 deficit to the eighth seeded Chicago Bulls. While an injury to Chicago spark plug Rajon Rondo helped, ultimately it was the tweaks to the game plan implemented by Stevens that allowed Boston to win four straight to close out the series 4-2.

Milwaukee Versus Boston

Milwaukee’s current hot streak has reminded the rest of the NBA that they’re a force to be reckoned with. While the Bucks are a long shot to win the Eastern Conference, they will be much more of a tough out in the playoffs now that they are coached by Joe Prunty.

For much of the first half of the season, the Boston Celtics appeared to be leading the pack as favorites to emerge from the east. Boston has since hit a bit of a wall. Cleveland, Toronto, and Milwaukee have all improved. However, there’s a good chance that the Celtics and Bucks matchup in the playoffs. And oh boy, what an interesting series that would be. With Jason Kidd’s restrictive coaching now gone, the Celtics could very well be facing the evolved and unleashed version of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Because of the Bucks’ improved rebounding and adjusted defensive scheme under Prunty, they now pose a very significant threat to the Celtics. Boston isn’t used to facing many teams that can offer the amount of versatility at the guard and wing positions that Milwaukee can. It will be very intriguing to see Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum go head to head with the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, Khris Middleton, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Jabari Parker and big man John Henson will look to take advantage of Boston in the post, which is the only glaring weakness for the C’s.

This possible advantage for the Bucks is countered quite nicely by Boston, who features Bucks killer Kyrie Irving. The all-star point guard has dominated the Celtics this year, showcasing his all-world handles in the process. Kyrie’s numbers against the Bucks don’t do justice to how well he has performed, but he still averages an impressive 24.3 points per game against them, along with nearly 4 assists and 4 rebounds. Watching him break down Milwaukee’s defense over and over, while playing on their old school Mecca court was quite a pleasure to see.

Celtics vs. Bucks

This suddenly improved Bukcs aim to make a deep playoff run under Prunty’s leadership, in part to coaching adjustments he has made. Because of the constant spotlight that shines on Cleveland, Boston, and Toronto, Milwaukee will ride towards the playoffs as a very under the radar Eastern Conference contender.

While all the talk around the Celtics usually involves playing the Cavaliers, Boston would be wise to devote some attention to an unleashed Milwaukee squad that has yet to reach it’s full potential. (As well as the improved team rebounding the Bucks have achieved without a major roster move).

The Celtics — under the leadership of Brad Stevens — will be collected, ready, and prepared. While Joe Prunty is no Brad Stevens, the Bucks are steadily improving under the Prunty’s guidance and look to be a formidable foe. But hey—you never know, the Celtics might have a little trick up their sleeve.

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Nathan Smith
Nate Smith covers the Lakers and Thunder for HashtagBasketball.com, and is a periodic contributor to Celtics247.com. We recommend his recent pieces on: What The Thunder, Rockets, and Celtics Have In Common, (at the trade deadline), 10 February 2018. Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum Duke It Out in LA, 23 January 2018.
Nathan Smith

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  1. Pingback: Brad Stevens - Celtics injuries, roster - testing lineups, players, schemes - NBA Coach of the Year

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