It’s hard to believe the NBA season is just about halfway through – until you look at the thermometer and realize, yes, it’s mid-January in Wisconsin. Forty games in, and the wind chill feels like 40-below.
These things are predictable – as is the Bucks’ 22-18 record the fact they’ve hovered around .500 all season – but the path Milwaukee has taken to this point has been anything but expected.
The goal from Day 1 was simple: Make the playoffs. It had to be done, and at the halfway point Milwaukee is comfortably sitting in the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference with six games separating it from the ninth spot but only 3.5 from the second spot. This is what we thought it was: a playoff team.
But there was no way of forecasting that it would take Scott Skiles being replaced by Jim Boylan 32 games into the season to get to this point. A midseason coaching change usually signals a lost cause, but in this case it’s been just part of the crazy path Milwaukee has taken.
The Bucks started the season 6-2, but a devastating loss to a bad Bobcats team began a stretch in which Milwaukee lost seven of nine to drop under .500. At a crossroads, the Bucks bounced back by winning eight of 11 – including a 19-point rout of Miami – to move to 16-12.
Just as the league began to take notice and start talking about the Bucks as a surprise contender in the East, Milwaukee lost to Detroit the next night. As it turned out, Skiles’ last win was the blowout of the Heat. The loss to the Pistons started a four-game losing streak in which the Bucks played their worst basketball of the season.
Just past midnight on Jan. 8, the news broke: Skiles and the Bucks both wanted out of their marriage.
This relationship was headed for a divorce at some point – only hanging on because of the kids. With the players’ frustration growing and Skiles uncommitted to a future with the team beyond this season, the Bucks had to make the move because despite all the tumult there were plenty of games left to turn things around and get that playoff spot.
The change, though, wasn’t embraced in all corners of the city or even the team. Skiles wasn’t ever going to win a popularity contest in Milwaukee, but he’s a well-respected NBA coach and replacing him at midseason seemed like a high-risk move. Midseason coaching changes historically just don’t work. Mike Dunleavy – as smart and knowledgeable about the game of basketball as any current player – sat at his locker and could come up with only one example of a team changing coaches and making the playoffs. Though more teams undoubtedly have done so, it’s rare.
But early on under Boylan, the Bucks are thriving, having won six of eight games. There’s always a natural honeymoon period with a new coach. An added bit of energy for a short period of time can lead to a few wins before reality sets back in. But this is starting to seem like the new normal coming off the team’s best road trip in years.
The negativity is out of the locker room, and the players are confident, smiling and having fun. The Bucks are just playing basketball, not worrying about how a tiny mistake might cause them to be yanked from a game or lose playing time.
That doesn’t mean Skiles isn’t an excellent good coach and a professional in every sense of the word, but it was time for a change in the locker room and time for a better communicator to take the reins.
Boylan’s Bucks haven’t faced adversity yet. We’ll see how his team responds the first time that hits, because it always does in an 82-game season, and half of those games are left. The first of those, though, is Friday against Cleveland, and winning it would give the Bucks their best record at the halfway point since the 2001-02 season.
But ignore the record for a moment. The raw numbers prove Milwaukee is one of the eight best teams in the conference. The Bucks are fourth in the East in points per game, fifth in rebounding, third in offensive rebounding, second in steals and first in blocked shots.
Those numbers and a quick look around a lackluster Eastern Conference give you the idea the Bucks are going to be a playoff team if healthy. But if this team has taught us anything through 40 games, it’s to expect many twists and turns along the path.