MILWAUKEE — When a coaching change hits a professional locker room, each player’s reaction depends on what kind of relationship he had with the coach.
The reaction to Scott Skiles’ Tuesday departure as the Milwaukee Bucks’ coach of four-plus seasons was no different. There was shock at the timing of the move, but opinions were mixed on what Skiles leaving will mean to the team.
One view was unanimous, however: Each and every member of the roster knows it’s now on the players to make the most of the final 50 games of the season.
“I kind of had an idea and feeling that the team wasn’t really happy with the way things were going,” Bucks forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute said before Tuesday night’s game against the Suns. “Not just this year, over the last couple years with Skiles. Every time there is frustration and then (you) add the four-game losing streak we are riding right now, you never know what can happen.”
Skiles is the only coach Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings has played for. At first he was frustrated by the news, but he has moved on to focusing on the future after a night to sleep on the news.
Jennings spoke on the phone with Skiles for 15 to 20 minutes after the news began to break Monday night. He said player and coach thanked each other for different reasons, the point guard telling Skiles the coach taught him how to approach the game as a professional.
“The team didn’t tell me, Scott told me,” Jennings said. “I guess that’s why I was a little frustrated at first, just the fact that I have to hear from my own coach and not the team. Especially if I’m supposed to be the franchise player, why don’t I hear the news kind of like first?
“He’s somebody that I will be keeping in contact with. We’ve had our ups and downs and had our great times here, and I have nothing but respect for him. … He probably wasn’t the most sociable guy, but that’s what he was.”
On the other end of the spectrum is power forward Ersan Ilyasova. Signed to a five-year, $40 million contract extension following a breakout season, Ilyasova started 2012-13 in a massive slump. Skiles eventually took the Turkish forward out of the starting lineup, and his minutes were never consistent again.
Ilyasova admitted Tuesday that he was uncomfortable playing for Skiles and that he was afraid he would be pulled if he missed a shot or made a mistake.
“For me, it’s not a big deal if you start or not,” Ilyasova said. “My concern is about the minutes. When you come off the season I had last year, I didn’t expect to play less than I did last year. That didn’t motivate me well.
“It’s really hard to play the way I was playing with Skiles. Whatever I did affected my minutes when I missed a couple of my first shots.”
The first move Jim Boylan made as Skiles’ replacement was to insert Ilyasova back into the starting lineup and to commit to using him for more minutes. A behind-the-scenes decision Boylan has already made is to meet individually with each player.
Boylan hasn’t gotten to everyone quite yet, but improved communication is a welcome sign to the players.
“That’s a great start,” center Larry Sanders said. “Communication is going to be huge for us and something that we need.”
Though he admitted most midseason coaching changes don’t result in dramatic improvement, Bucks forward Mike Dunleavy has first-hand experience with such a switch working. During the 2010-11 season, Indiana fired coach Jim O’Brien after the Pacers started 17-27 and rallied to post a 20-18 record and make the playoffs under Frank Vogel.
Dunleavy believes Boylan has the experience, respect of the locker room and the knowledge of the team to pull off something similar.
“Most importantly, it’s how the players respond and how he got the players to respond in the right manner,” Dunleavy said. “That change of voice and little bit change of philosophy and coaching went into it. We had a young team and guys probably needed to hear a new voice. Maybe that’s a similar scenario here.”
In his first stint as a head coach, replacing Skiles with the Bulls in 2008, Boylan admitted he was more worried about how he could keep the job full-time instead of on the day-to-day well-being of the team.
“It kind of restricted me as time went on,” Boylan said. “I made the determination that when this happened last night that I was going to enjoy this, doing what I like to do coaching this team, being around these guys, and being around the coaching staff and organization.”
Boylan is in a tough spot because he’s signed to be the coach for the next 50 games but still realizes the importance of developing Milwaukee’s young talent. Boylan said his first goal is to take this team to the playoffs but that goal 1A is to help the young players such as Sanders, John Henson, Tobias Harris and Doron Lamb continue to grow.
“We all have to be on the same page working together,” Boylan said. “There will be bumps in the road, there will be conflicts and all that stuff. That’s going to happen, but we need to be one and move in the same direction.
“Right now we are moving down the road, but there are a lot of guys moving in different directions, so we have to get everybody back together again and go after what we are going after, making the playoffs.”
The players believe that goal is still attainable, even with a different man sitting at the front of the bench.
“Our No. 1 goal is to still get to the playoffs,” Jennings said. “That’s my main goal. Whatever happens in the summer, happens. Let’s just finish out the 50 games.”