The Milwaukee Bucks face their most important offseason in years. A decision must be made on the future of restricted free agent Jabari Parker, general manager Jon Horst needs to navigate through a clogged salary cap and, most importantly, the team needs a new head coach to lead it into the brand new arena next season.
It can be tough keeping up with the latest rumors, especially when Milwaukee reportedly had as many as 10 candidates prepared for the first rounds of interviews. So we made it easier.
Here's what you should know about seven of the Bucks’ coaching candidates.
1. Mike Budenholzer
The former Atlanta Hawks coach is considered a frontrunner for the position, and that shouldn’t be a surprise. He found success in his five seasons in Atlanta, accumulating a 213-197 record, including a franchise-record, 60-win season in 2014-15. Before his stint in Atlanta, Budenholzer was a 17-year assistant with the San Antonio Spurs.
His track record of developing and optimizing talent should be a massive eye-opener for Milwaukee. He was able to maximize the potential of players like Jeff Teague, DeMarre Carroll, and Kyle Korver, so there’s reason to be optimistic that he could unlock the likes of Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker.
There’s been a relatively agreed-upon motto between Bucks fans and pundits for this search: Milwaukee doesn’t have to hit a home run with this coaching selection, but they absolutely cannot strike out. Given Budenholzer’s resume, motion-based offense and adaptable defensive schemes, he could be the safest pick – and even the favorite – to land the gig.
2. David Blatt
The former Cleveland Cavaliers head coach is still remembered by most as the guy that LeBron James essentially ran out of town just a year and a half into his tenure. Despite his short and turbulent time in Cleveland, Blatt still managed to do what he did best: win.
Besides his 83-40 record with the Cavs, Blatt has impressive overseas coaching qualifications to boast. He was a 2014 EuroLeague champion, 2018 EuroCup champion and won at least one coach of the year award in EuroLeague, the Israeli Super League and the Russian Super League.
Despite what the New York Times called a "mean-spirited" portrayal of Blatt in a book titled "Return of the King: Lebron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the greatest comeback in NBA history," the former Cavs coach is certainly not lacking any motivation or hunger. (Via Haaretz.com’s Irad Tsafrir:)
"I was in the NBA Finals. I even have a [championship] ring, even though I wasn't there in real time. I'm not lacking anything. What I am lacking is just personal satisfaction, realizing my potential and that of my players to the fullest. I want to try to return to the NBA because I feel like I hadn't realized my potential there. But even if it doesn't happen, I will return to help my teams realize their potential, even if it's the EuroLeague."
Bucks fans should take the Blatt/James saga with a grain of salt, because they could use his winning pedigree.
3. Monty Williams
Similar to Blatt, Williams has been out of the NBA coaching spotlight for a few years. He was last a head coach in 2015, finishing a five-year stretch with the New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans with a 173-221 record. Williams brings two attributes Milwaukee would love to have: a knack for defense and impeccable character.
In the 2009-10 season, the year before Williams arrived, New Orleans ranked 22nd in the league in defensive rating at 107.3. The next season, Williams’ first with the team, the Hornets skyrocketed to 9th with a 102.5 rating. If that’s not intriguing enough to a Bucks team that couldn’t get a defensive scheme to work last season, the Hornets finished Williams’ first season 2nd in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage and 10th in total rebounding percentage. That should be music to Bucks’ fans ears since Milwaukee finished 29th in defensive rebounding percentage and 28th in total rebounding percentage last season.
While Williams’ schemes on the court would fit well with Milwaukee’s needs, his character and reputation of being the ultimate player’s coach are also appealing. Jason Kidd’s tenure brought reports of not being on speaking terms with Jabari Parker, losing the locker room because he"drove the team a bit hard" and constant "we’re too young" excuses, all of which eventually helped him get fired. Known for being close with and well-liked by his players Williams would bring a level of leadership, accountability and personal connection back to Milwaukee’s head coaching position – something the team has lacked the past three and a half years.
Williams has been out of coaching the last couple of years partly because of a family tragedy. In February 2016, his wife Ingrid died from injuries suffered in a car crash; last year, he won the NBA’s Sager Strong Award. He most recently has served as the Spurs’ vice president of basketball operations.
4. Nick Nurse
While there have been no official reports of the current Toronto Raptors assistant meeting with the Bucks to fill the vacant head coach position, the fit is there. Nurse has experience, coaching in the British Basketball League for 12 years and the NBA D-League before joining the Toronto staff in 2013. He is credited with the offensive overhaul the Raptors went through this season, earning them the best record in the Eastern Conference and him a reputation as an offensive guru.
But what should really get Bucks fans intrigued about Nurse is how he got Toronto’s role players ready for their new offense. (Via ESPN’s Zach Lowe:)
Nurse started with the young guys – Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet – at informal workouts in Los Angeles, and then in Las Vegas for summer league. As James Herbert of CBS Sports detailed, they played pickup with new rules: Corner 3s earned four points, and any shot between the paint and the 3-point arc counted as minus-1. Nurse strongly encouraged anyone who grabbed an offensive rebound to dunk or kick the ball out to a 3-point shooter, though he did not mandate it as he had during his time in Houston's D-League lab. (Back then, he banned midrange shots in practice.)
Players passed up good shots for great ones. They stretched their playmaking skills, and that was the point: When opponents keyed on DeRozan and Lowry, these guys -- these unknown kiddos -- would have to do something. So would Ibaka and Valanciunas, behemoth screen-setters who froze outside the paint. Touching it more might invigorate other parts of their games, and inspire more focused effort on defense.
The Bucks were coached to do literally the opposite of Nurse’s offense, as noted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. While the advice may have provided some short-term confidence for Thon Maker, the math behind mid-range jumpers being more efficient than threes or close-to-the-basket shots is just not there. Toronto’s new-and-improved offense found it leading the league in left corner three attempts (4.8) and seventh in above the break threes (24.3). Milwaukee ranked 19th (3.0) and 29th (17.8), respectively. A more modern and efficient offense could do wonders for the Bucks.
5. Ettore Messina
If Budenholzer was first in a poll about who fans would like to see as Bucks head coach, Spurs top assistant Messina might be second. Similar to Blatt, Messina is a highly decorated European coach. So much so that many consider him to be one of the best European coaches of all time. He’s a four-time EuroLeague champ, two-time EuroLeague coach of the year and was named one of the 50 greatest EuroLeague contributors.
Messina is known for fluid, movement-heavy offenses on the court, and being a hard-nosed, business-first Gregg Popovich clone on the bench. Regardless of his persona, Messina has a supreme basketball mind that is frequently featured at various international basketball clinics, as evidenced by several FIBA YouTube videos of Ettore discussing basketball fundamentals like "Spacing & Timing" and "Attacking the Switch."
Messina’s wealth of basketball knowledge and extremely impressive resume may be enough for the Bucks’ front office to take a chance on this eventual NBA head coach.
6. Steve Clifford
Clifford coached the Charlotte Bobcats and Hornets for five seasons, from 2013 to 2018. And while those teams didn’t have much to boast about results-wise, what Clifford did with the players he had was impressive. Charlotte’s best season during his tenure was in 2015-16 when it finished 48-34, got the sixth seed in the East and pushed the Miami Heat to seven games in the first round of the playoffs before eventually losing. That year Charlotte had a core of Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Jeremy Lin, Cody Zeller, Al Jefferson, and Frank Kaminsky. We’d all like to think Milwaukee currently has more talent than that.
What made Clifford successful with that roster was what made Williams successful: defense. From the 2013-14 season to the 2015-16 season, Charlotte ranked sixth, ninth and ninth, respectively, in defensive rating.
Moreover, in the five seasons Clifford was in charge, the Hornets ranked first, first, first, second and first in the league in defensive rebounding percentage. You better believe Milwaukee’s front office is going to be looking at that after the horrific performances on the boards we saw this season.
7. Becky Hammon
There’s no question that this Spurs assistant coach is the most polarizing candidate. Hammon became the first woman to interview for an NBA head coaching position after reports came out that the Bucks were interested. This wasn’t the first time Milwaukee had shown interest in the former WNBA All-Star either, as ESPN revealed that the Bucks reached out to her about their general manager vacancy last despite Hammon having no front-office experience.
The recent interest in the San Antonio assistant is well-deserved and comes as no surprise to anyone who follows the sport. Hammon became the first female assistant coach in NBA history when Popovich hired her in 2014, and she coached the Spurs’ summer league team to a championship in 2015. What did Popovich see in one of the best WNBA players of all time? (Via The New Yorker:)
Popovich was most struck by her prowess as a court general: she had an uncanny ability to direct her teammates around the floor. "I’d watch the game, and the only thing I could see—it’s an exaggeration, I mean, but—was Becky’s aura, her leadership, her effect on teammates, her effect on the crowd, the way she handled herself," Popovich told me. "She was, like, the ultimate leader. Energy, juice, vitality. At the same time, she was doing intelligent things on the court, making decisions that mattered."
For Hammon to be hired as a head coach, Popovich said, "it’s going to take somebody who has some guts, some imagination, and is not driven by old standards and old forms." He went on, "If somebody is smart, it’s actually a pretty good marketing deal—but it’s not about that. It’s got to be that she’s competent, that she’s ready."
There’s no doubt that Hammon’s allure will grow around the league as time goes on. It’s not a matter of if she’ll get hired, it’s a matter of when. Will that time be now, and will that team be the Bucks?