For Bucks, there are signs of life
The most ambitious team this summer so far has been the injury-prone, underachieving and eminently forgettable Milwaukee Bucks.
Which is not to say that other teams have been passive. The Knicks and Mavericks are among those to change coaches and/or management, while the Nets, Pacers, Warriors and Clippers have made a flurry of personnel moves. But none of those teams is trying to create such drastic improvement as quickly as Milwaukee. By hiring general manager John Hammond, who begot defense-first coach Scott Skiles and full-court star Richard Jefferson, the Bucks have undergone multiple defibrillations like those to a patient brought back from the dead.
The long-term prognosis is for good health. Between Jefferson and Michael Redd, the Bucks will enter next season with two of the league's top 10 scorers -- and neither one is known for putting his needs ahead of the team's. They have talent at every position, and Skiles has a track record of success at both ends of the floor.
But the rehab will be painful. "The Bucks have won 30, 40, 28 and 26 games in the last four years,'' Skiles said, listing their failures respectively. "So obviously there are some habits there that we need to change, and there's going to be some push-back initially or at some point. And we just need to deal with it how it comes.''
So how do he and Hammond undertake the conversion of a score-first team into a franchise that plays defense?
"We're starting right now,'' Skiles said. "We're in conversation with all of our guys, letting guys know what we expect -- and every guy has said, 'We don't play good enough defense. And we don't share the ball.' So I've said, 'Well, I'm glad to hear you saying that. It's going to be my job to hold you accountable to that end.' And that's where we'll start, with our accountability at the defensive end, and try to build off that.''
Hammond, the lead assistant to Pistons president Joe Dumars for seven years, recruited Detroit director of basketball operations Jeff Weltman to join him in Milwaukee as assistant GM. While they aren't trying to recreate the second coming of the Pistons, it's obvious that the core principles will prevail.
"I was brought up in the Iba system,'' said Hammond, whose career began three decades ago as an assistant coach at Nebraska with Moe Iba, son of Hall of Fame coach Hank Iba. "First and foremost, you defend with good transition defense, you defend in the half court, and on the offensive end you execute and take good shots. It's sound basketball, and the best coaches I've had a chance to be around have a similar philosophy.''
That's why, a week after his own hiring in April, Hammond recruited and signed Skiles as an available coach who lives by those values. The interesting thing is how Skiles has survived the criticisms he suffered with the Suns (1999-2002) and in the early portion of his tenure with the Bulls (who fired him last December in his fifth season) that he was too demanding of players to be an NBA head coach. The Bulls' recent collapse had less to do with Skiles' oversight than with the rumors of a roster-clearing trade for Kobe Bryant and the preseason decisions of Luol Deng and Ben Gordon to reject contract extensions, which combined to have a fragmenting effect on that young Chicago team.
Skiles will work with a Bucks roster whose starters are all younger than 30, with newly signed backup point guard Tyronn Lue serving as the oldest player in the rotation at 31. As a group they're approaching their peak, led by 29-year-old Redd and 28-year-old Jefferson.
"I now have -- like we did in Phoenix -- more of a veteran club and not so many young guys, especially in key positions,'' Skiles said. "I don't want to use the word 'freedom' here, but you can live with things a little easier because you're not -- theoretically -- trying to teach them to play the NBA game. You're just going into the concentrating on your schemes and all that stuff.''
"He's had two opportunities,'' Hammond said of Skiles' background as an NBA coach, "and he has done very well. Has either one ended exactly the way he wanted them to? No. But this is another opportunity for him, and he's going to make the very most of it to make it a long-term situation. I know he's going to get the proper support from ownership and from my standpoint, and I think Scott realizes he doesn't want to be labeled as a coach in the 'fix-it' category, that if you need someone to turn things around you hire Scott to give you a short-term fix. Scott knows that, and he's looking for a long-term opportunity.''
Jefferson obviously didn't want to move from New Jersey (he lived in New York City) to Milwaukee after learning of the draft-day trade that sent Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons to the Nets. But Skiles' no-nonsense approach should help focus Jefferson on making the most of his career regardless of the surroundings. Andrew Bogut, the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft, should also prosper under Skiles' demands.
The big question is whether a team that has rarely defended can suddenly make defense a priority. But then, isn't that how the Celtics won the championship?
"You're talking about three Hall of Fame players -- [Kevin] Garnett, [Ray] Allen and [Paul] Pierce -- and yet there were some games in the playoffs they won 92-86, or something like that,'' Skiles said. "So it's not like they just put the ball in the basket and outscored people. That's going to be one of the challenges from the beginning, to convince some of the guys that, OK, we may win a game early in the season a certain way [offensively], but if we really want to do something, we've got to build off our defensive end.
"I think we will. We need to create something really solid that guys can rely on -- knowing that Scott and John are going to be here for a while, and this is the way they want it done, and this is what Bucks basketball is now. This is how we want to play. I know this is always an uncertain business, and you never know how it's going to play out, but that's what we're trying to do.''