NBA

Firing Jason Kidd the right move for stagnant Milwaukee Bucks

Jay Asser 23/01/2018
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Jason Kidd finished his Milwaukee Bucks tenure with a 139-152 record.

Jason Kidd could see impossible passing angles as a player, but as a coach he couldn’t see what was obvious to everyone else: he was holding his own team back.

The Milwaukee Bucks fired Kidd on Monday, ending his three-plus year tenure at the helm of a squad that went from being on the rise in his first season, to plateauing and underachieving by the end.

This wasn’t supposed to be the Bucks’ timeline, especially not with Giannis Antetokounmpo turning into an MVP candidate this season.

But here we are with Milwaukee just barely above .500 at 24-22, sitting seventh in the Eastern Conference and looking nowhere near a contender.

With what their roster and collection of athletes is capable of, there’s no reason why Milwaukee shouldn’t be onto bigger and better things by now.

Yet Kidd’s approach and lack of vision – again, ironic considering his mind-bending vision on the court during his Hall of Fame playing career – was limiting their growth.

It’s not as if Kidd accomplished nothing during his time there. In his first year alone, he took a Bucks side that had won just 15 games the season prior and turned them into a playoff team, notching 41 wins in an impressive turnaround.

And his greatest accomplishment has undoubtedly been developing Giannis into one of the very best players in the league already by the age of 23. Maybe the ‘Greek Freak’ would have been on this individual trajectory anyways, regardless of coach, but Kidd certainly helped maximise his game by putting the ball in his hands more and giving him the reins as a point guard.

It’s no wonder then that Antetokounmpo reportedly offered to help save Kidd’s job when word came out of his firing on Monday.

Aside from Giannis’ rookie season with Larry Drew, Kidd is the only head coach he’s ever professionally played for. The two obviously had a connection – no insignificant feat for Kidd or anyone that has to coach a superstar.

Giannis, however, has yet to experience really good coaching and while he might miss Kidd right now, the Bucks could very well end up benefitting from a change in leadership.

What needs changing immediately is the area where the team suffered from Kidd’s biggest shortcoming: defence.

Since Milwaukee finished with the second-best defensive rating in Kidd’s first season (99.3 points allowed per 100 possessions), they’ve slipped to 22nd (105.7) in 2015-16, 19th (106.4) in 2016-17 and 24th (107.5) this season.

It’s not for lack of ability or personnel as the Bucks, even discounting Giannis, have plenty of length, athleticism and versatility that should translate into one of the better defensive units.

But Kidd’s over-aggressive scheme, which centred on blitzing ball-handlers with two defenders and then zealously jumping out to disrupt passes, tried to do too much.

The thought process behind implementing that defence makes sense: try to take away everything and make it as hard as possible for opposing offences to do the simplest things, eventually wearing them down.

In theory, that defensive approach maximises the attributes of a long, versatile team, and while it may have been an effective concept when Kidd arrived in Milwaukee, it quickly became stale as opponents figured out how to attack it.

The problem with Kidd, however, wasn’t that he ran that defence – it’s that he was hell-bent on sticking with it even though it was clear it was failing them.

And that stubbornness is tied into another factor in Kidd’s downfall: his outward belief that much of the team’s struggles were due to their young age and inexperience.

The average age of Milwaukee’s current roster is 25.8, but their three best players –Giannis (23), Khris Middleton (26) and Eric Bledsoe (28) – aren’t exactly out of their depth.

No, age isn’t the reason the Bucks are in a holding pattern and have yet to take the next step, like so many have expected over the past couple seasons.

The talent is there. A generational superstar is there. It’s an attractive job for any head coach eager to mould a malleable group full of potential.

It just wasn’t going to happen with Kidd.

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NBA

Fully-fueled Houston Rockets are a problem for Golden State Warriors

Jay Asser 21/01/2018
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Chris cross: Chris Paul had 33 points in the Rockets' latest win over Golden State. Picture: Getty Images.

As the Cleveland Cavaliers continue to spiral downwards, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Golden State Warriors’ biggest challenger this season likely resides in Houston.

And based on how the teams have fared against each other, the Rockets have proven they’re up to the task of taking down the NBA’s giants if they end up meeting in the playoffs.

In the third and final regular-season clash between the Western Conference rivals, Houston looked impressive in handing the Warriors a 116-108 defeat on Saturday to snap the defending champions’ 14-game road winning streak.

James Harden hit a clutch step-back 3-pointer over Stephen Curry with more than a minute remaining before blocking Curry’s long-range attempt on the next possession, while Chris Paul finished with 33 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in the Rockets’ best victory of the season.

The win had Houston players feeling themselves and no one more so than centre Clint Capela, who claimed his side are better than Golden State.

“We’re confident because we know if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to beat them,” Capela told ESPN.

“We are better than them.”

While Capela’s words may seem nothing more than boastful, there is a semblance of truth to his bold statement.

The Warriors are coming off a title and, even after their most recent loss, have the best record in the league at 37-10, but when they’ve gone head-to-head with Houston, the Rockets have looked like a legitimate threat.

Houston have claimed two of the three regular-season meetings, with their lone lose coming in a game that didn’t feature Harden or Kevin Durant as the two stars sat out with injuries.

With both Harden and Paul on the court, the Rockets won the two games against full-strength Warriors teams.

What’s more, when Harden, Paul and Capela have all been healthy and in the lineup, Houston are a perfect 17-0.

A deeper look at the head-to-head stats in the Rockets’ wins over Golden State reveals these aren’t exactly aberration victories.

The Warriors actually outshot Houston in those two games, connecting on 51.2 per cent of their field goals and 50.0 per cent of their 3-pointers, compared to 47.8 and 37.2, respectively, for the Rockets.

It’s not as if Golden State have suffered from dry spells as one of their major strengths has let them down. And it’s not like Houston are hitting everything they throw up.

Instead, the difference between the teams has been on the margins.

The Rockets have capitalised on the Warriors’ propensity to be loose with the ball and force careless passes, leading to quick scores on the other end. Houston like to play fast anyways, but by attacking Golden State before they get a chance to set their half-court defence, the Rockets have picked up easy points.

Then there’s the rebounding edge, which Houston held by an average of 44.5 to 32.0 in the wins. That’s a trend that should be here to stay with the Rockets having the best defensive rebounding efficiency in the league at 81.5 per cent, while the Warriors rank 26th at 76.2 per cent.

And while Golden State’s sheer talent can’t be matched, Houston have multiple stars in Harden and Paul, along with players like Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Ryan Anderson, Gerald Green and Nene who add depth and form a supporting cast that could very well make this a dogfight of a series in the Western Conference Finals.

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NBA

Mock-drafting the NBA All-Star Game for maximum entertainment

Jay Asser 19/01/2018
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Friends to foes: Kyrie Irving and LeBron James could potentially play together again in the All-Star Game. Picture: Getty Images.

There’s a chance we’ll actually get a somewhat competitive and compelling All-Star Game this season.

Whether we do or not – the past two editions have seen the Western Conference score nearly 200 points each time and win comfortably – is largely up to the players and specifically the captains.

LeBron James and Stephen Curry will be the two captains responsible for picking their teams after leading their respective conferences in voting.

The NBA also announced the All-Star starters on Thursday, determined by a combination of fan, player and media voting.

With the league implementing a new format, this is how the teams will be constructed: James and Curry will pick one after another from the pool of eight starters and 14 reserves – chosen by NBA head coaches and revealed on January 23 – until all players have been selected, regardless of conference.

Because LeBron was the overall vote leader, he’ll get the first pick before Curry.

While results of the draft and team rosters will be revealed in a one-hour special of TNT NBA Tip-Off on January 25, the actual draft won’t be televised.

As a quick aside, it’s a shame the league decided to not air the draft, which would be must-see TV as LeBron and Curry pick between their peers and in the process reveal how they feel about certain players.

Alas, we won’t get that. But what we could still get are rosters that group adversaries together or against each other, resulting in some popcorn-worthy situations.

Would it be more fun to see LeBron and Kyrie Irving together again, or on opposite sides? The caveat is that LeBron will have a say in which scenario plays out.

The same goes with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – who’s not a starter but will definitely be named a reserve.

Just for fun, let’s do a mock draft for LeBron and Curry and try to pick the most fun and narrative-driven teams. We don’t know who the reserves are yet, so let’s just stick to the starters.

With the first pick, LeBron selects… Kevin Durant. After watching the Warriors add the former MVP to cripple his chances of winning another title, don’t you think LeBron wants to break that core up, even if it is for one exhibition game? Plus, Durant is the best player on the board, making it an easy decision.

With the second pick, Curry takes Giannis Antetokounmpo. Few players are more entertaining or awe-inspiring than the ‘Greek Freak’ and Curry will have a ball tossing him alley-oops. And Curry needs Giannis to guard one of LeBron or Durant.

Now we’re within Kyrie range for LeBron. He’s not necessarily the best player left, but he’s perfect for the All-Star Game environment. But all LeBron needs is any excuse to pass on him and with Anthony Davis still available, he’ll opt for one of the two New Orleans Pelicans stars. That way, LeBron gets a big so he doesn’t have to protect the paint, while also assuring he has the ball in his hands more.

Curry has a tough decision between Irving and James Harden now, right? Wrong. Curry and Harden are rivals – team-wise and individually in MVP races – who’ve had a bit of a spicy relationship, while Irving offers Steph the opportunity to stick it to LeBron. This is a good pick to get petty.

That leaves LeBron with Harden, while Curry finally adds some needed size with Joel Embiid – yes, over Cousins, who’s not exactly a first-choice team-mate.

LeBron, being the basketball mind he is, will take DeMar DeRozan to have more of a versatile small-ball lineup, leaving Curry with Cousins anyways.

This draft is not only ideal from a fan standpoint, it’s also incredibly realistic.

And if the players decide to try, we could end up with one of the better All-Star Games in recent memory.

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