When the Milwaukee Bucks take the court to face the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night, they'll do so without Scott Skiles on the bench for the first time in four-plus seasons. The notoriously hard-nosed defensive coach and the team he's led since 2008 reached a mutual agreement to part ways late Monday, as first reported by USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick, leaving a Bucks team that currently sits seventh in the Eastern Conference and just three games out of the Central Division lead facing an uncertain future.
The Bucks made Skiles' exit official in a statement released Tuesday morning:
“Scott and I met yesterday after practice and after some honest discussion, we both came to the conclusion that it was best to part ways,” [general manager John] Hammond said. “It is never an easy decision to make, but in the end a decision we felt was best for both parties. I want to thank Scott for his hard work, dedication and the imprint he leaves on our team and our entire organization. We all wish him and his family well.” [...]
“John and I met and mutually agreed that a coaching change would be in the best interest of both parties,” Skiles said. “The Senator, the people of Wisconsin, and especially those in the Bucks organization have been very kind to me, my wife, and family. I am truly grateful for our time here. We are leaving with many fond memories.
“I believe this team can and will have success in the next 50 games and postseason. I want to thank the players for all of their hard work. I wish them all the best.”
Skiles becomes the third head coach to leave his team this season, although he's the first to do so as part of a mutual agreement. Former Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike Brown and Brooklyn Nets coach Avery Johnson didn't have a say in the matter.
He exits Milwaukee having compiled a 162-182 record in Milwaukee, including one playoff appearance, and a 443-433 record over the course of a coaching career that has spanned parts of 12 seasons with the Bucks, Chicago Bulls and Phoenix Suns. Assistant coach Jim Boylan will assume interim head coaching duties in Skiles' stead, as he did after Skiles was fired by the Bulls during the 2007-08 season.
The separation followed a Monday morning report by NBA.com's David Aldridge that, barring "something dramatic" taking place in Wisconsin, Skiles would not return to the Bucks' bench next season:
Multiple league sources say that Skiles, who is in the final year of the five-year contract he signed in 2008, has informed the Bucks that he does not want a contract extension, and is resigned to the fact that he will be elsewhere next season.
The Bucks, sources say, have told Skiles to keep an open mind, and in case he has a change of heart, they would be willing to talk about another deal. Usually, teams that really want someone back -- a player, a coach, whomever -- figure out a way to make it happen. But the Bucks have done nothing substantive toward offering Skiles a new deal. Both sides appear willing to play out the season, and there is no animosity either way, sources said; Skiles is fond of owner Herb Kohl, and vice versa.
According to Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski, however, Skiles wasn't quite so fond of the roster he'd been handed by Bucks general manager John Hammond:
Close coaching friend of ex-Bucks coach Scott Skiles tells Y! Sports: "Scott hated his team."
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) January 8, 2013
The difference in philosophy in roster construction and application manifested itself in Skiles' rotations and minute allotments this season, as NBA.com's Steve Aschburner noted Tuesday:
For example, the Bucks’ lack of size last season sparked personnel moves that significantly beefed up the frontcourt: Hammond traded for center Samuel Dalembert, drafted power forward John Henson, retained free-agent forward Ersan Ilyasova and signed free-agent center Joel Przybilla. Yet with that logjam and the emergence of third-year big man Larry Sanders, Skiles used Dalembert and Henson sporadically and rarely activated Drew Gooden, who logged most of Milwaukee’s minutes at center last season.
Meanwhile, he grappled with a thin backcourt, with only Beno Udrih as a reliable backup to scorers/starters Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis.
With his own contract situation up in the air, the Bucks' next chapter heavily dependent on what happens with an undersized/offense-first/defense-sometimes backcourt composed of one player (Jennings) who hits restricted free agency this summer and another (Ellis) who can opt out of his $11 million contract after this season, and questions remaning over who exactly will make those roster and contract decisions — Hammond's deal is up after this season, too — it's not surprising that Skiles didn't see a particularly bright future in Milwaukee, or that he didn't finish out the season.
If anything, the surprising part is that he didn't leave having burned his way through everybody wearing red, white and green. During his dozen years as an NBA head coach, Skiles has earned a reputation as a smart strategist and sharp defensive mind who can improve teams (especially young ones) in a hurry, but whose hard-nosed, top-down management style tends to lead to player burnout, tune-out and turn-off faster than some other bench bosses.
When Skiles was tapped to replace Danny Ainge with the 1999-00 Phoenix Suns, the team was 13-7; under Skiles, they clamped down on defense, ripped off a 40-22 finish to the season and bounced the San Antonio Spurs in the first round before falling to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers. After going 91-53 and making the playoffs in his first two years in Phoenix before winding up with the short end of the Jason Kidd-for-Stephon Marbury stick after year 2, Skiles wore out his welcome and was fired after sputtering to a 25-26 start in 2001-02.
He took over a super-young Chicago Bulls team 16 games into the 2003-04 season, suffered through a 19-47 finish and, thanks in part to a sterling rookie class headlined by Ben Gordon and Luol Deng, led a 24-game turnaround in his first full season that began a string of three straight playoff berths. Again, though, by year five, Skiles had worn out his welcome in the Bulls locker room, and he was let go following a 9-16 start to the '07-'08 season.
After a year away, Skiles was hired to take the reins of a Bucks team that had performed poorly under coaches Terry Stotts and Larry Krystowiak over the previous two seasons, and again, sparked a notable improvement, dragging the team from the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency to the middle of the NBA pack and coaxing out an eight-game jump in the standings despite losing emerging star center Andrew Bogut for more than half the season. The following year, with Bogut back to man the middle and rookie point guard Jennings at the controls, the team rose to send in points allowed per 100 possessions, finished 46-36 — 20 games better than the year before Skiles arrived — and returned to the playoffs for the first time in four years, taking the Atlanta Hawks to seven games in the first round.
The Bucks faltered over the next two seasons, though, continuing to play meat-grinder defense that made opponents sweat but consistently turning in abysmal offensive showings of their own, ranking among the league's least potent offensive units thanks to Jennings' sub-40 percent shooting, Bogut's depreciating post game and disappearing free-throw stroke after injuring his right elbow late in the 2010 season, the absence of injured past-years floor-spacer Michael Redd, and a lot of shots taken by dudes like Corey Maggette and Drew Gooden. The bottom-of-the-league O outweighed the top-of-the-league D, bringing the Bucks back under .500 and out of playoff contention.
This prompted last season's big trade that shipped Bogut and Stephen Jackson to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for Ellis, Ekpe Udoh and Kwame Brown, a deal aimed at kickstarting the team's offense. It worked, but also resulted in a defensive drop-off whenever Ellis and Jennings shared the floor, and Milwaukee went 12-9 after the deal to miss the playoffs for the second straight season. The 2012-13 season started off better, with the Bucks opening up 6-2 through the season's first two weeks while both scoring and defending like one of the league's dozen best teams. Their fortunes soon turned, though, as the Bucks went 2-7 over their next nine games, six of which were on the road, to fall back to earth.
More damningly, as SB Nation's Tom Ziller notes, while the Ellis/Jennings backcourt is putting up nice volume stats, combining for 37.2 points and 11.4 assists per game, their dual shot-jacking (34.5 field-goal attempts per game total, with both shooting exactly 40 percent) has scuttled any hope of an efficient offense, making Milwaukee a feast-or-famine, fits-and-starts team for much of the season dependent on ramped-up D to compete. The result — after the team's current four-game slide, capped by a 15-point loss to the division rival Indiana Pacers on Saturday in Skiles' final game on the Bucks bench — is a 16-16 record, the league's ninth-best defense and its fourth-worst offense. In other words, ostensibly more of the same, despite some different faces in different places.
The endpoint of Skiles' malaise in Milwaukee was captured well on Tuesday morning by Jeremy Schmidt at Bucksketball:
Less than a month ago, I asked Skiles if he could do anything other than hope his best players would start making shots when they were having a bad game. He asked if I had any suggestions and then simply said no. Does that sound like a team you’d want to coach? Or a coach that seems like he’s going to be able to get something more out of his two best players?
No, it really doesn't. For Bucks fans' sake, here's hoping that Jim Boylan's able to come up with a couple of answers over the next 50 games; if he can't, Milwaukee could find itself moving from the fringes of postseason contention to the outside looking in once again.