Scott Skiles gets fed up with or feels maxed out by a team. Skiles’ bosses agree with him that it’s time for him to go, even with games left on the schedule. Jim Boylan finishes Skiles’ business.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Five years and a few weeks ago, the Chicago Bulls went there and did that, establishing a pattern that the Milwaukee Bucks followed this week. This time, the Bucks were stagnant at 16-16, losers of four straight, when Skiles and the team’s management reached what both sides contend was a mutual decision to part ways. Boylan moved over 18 inches from lead assistant coach to the top job and, after a 2-0 start against Phoenix and Chicago, was hoping to stay unbeaten in the new role Friday with a home game against Detroit.
Back then, in December 2007, Boylan took over a 9-16 Chicago club right before Christmas and directed them to a 24-32 finish. The Bulls did just well enough … to miss the playoffs by four games and stay eligible for the 2008 lottery, in which their 1.7 percent longshot came in for the No. 1 pick. Unfortunately for Boylan, Vinny Del Negro, not he, got to coach Derrick Rose as a rookie the following season.
With this little baton-passing repeating itself, neither Boylan nor the Bucks is looking at the lottery. They were seventh in the Eastern Conference with Skiles and they’re seventh after four days under Boylan. Only this is a more-ready, less-anxious Boylan this time. Teams make midseason coaching chances in hopes that the new guy will be different from the old guy, but in this case, the new new guy is different from the old new guy.
“The last time, from a personal standpoint, I was too worried about trying to keep the job,” Boylan said of his Chicago trial. “It kind of restricted me as time went on. I made the determination when this happened [Monday] that I was going to enjoy this and do what I like to do. Get the guys to play hard and compete and let the chips fall where they may at the end.”
Heading into the game against the Pistons, Boylan –- the 12th head coach in Bucks history -– has a chance to match Chris Ford, George Karl and Terry Stotts with 3-0 starts. After that, he’ll have 47 games left to replicate a lot of Skiles’ results while differentiating himself and his methods to his bosses and the players. They’re great friends, but Boylan feels he can separate himself.
“We have a team that I believe in,” Boylan said. “We’re sitting around .500. We’re seventh in the East. … It’s pretty simple. I told them, this is their team. They will determine how far we go.”
Boylan’s come a long way already. A native of Jersey City, he helped St. Mary’s win the state title in its division as a junior. A 6-foot-2 guard, he spent two years at Assumption College on teams that went 44-15, then transferred to Marquette to play for brash New Yorker Al McGuire. He was the Warriors’ mouthy point guard when they won the 1977 NCAA championship in McGuire’s final game as coach.
A fourth-round pick by Buffalo in the 1978 NBA Draft, Boylan wound up playing overseas, then becoming a player-coach in Switzerland for several years. He coached the CBA Rochester Renegades, joined Jud Heathcote (Skiles’ college coach) on the Michigan State bench, then served as head coach at the University of New Hampshire from 1989-92.
Boylan, 57, entered the NBA with Cleveland as a video coordinator and advance scout, moving up to the bench under Lenny Wilkens and Mike Fratello. Later, he was an assistant in Vancouver, Phoenix –- working alongside Skiles -– and Atlanta before hooking up with Skiles again in Chicago.
And if the twists and turns of an NBA coaching career didn’t bring enough perspective, there was Boylan’s successful battle with tongue cancer in 2009. “When you hear cancer, it’s a shock to your system,” he told the Chicago Tribune that fall. “You take stock of your life – where you are, what’s important, what’s not.”
Of being the legendary McGuire’s last point guard and working a sideline a few blocks from their old campus, Boylan said Wednesday at United Center: “I think more and more about Al these days and all the coaches. … I try not to be too much like Al, because he was crazy. But other than that, he was my idol.”
Some of the Bucks felt Skiles was crazy enough, thank you. The Milwaukee locker room seemed fairly divided into those happy with their minutes, those less so and those showing up to do the job regardless. Any sense that Skiles grated on his guys – the public perception is that he has flamed out three times now – seemed to pivot on their roles or histories under him.
“I don’t think he wore us out. Maybe we wore him out,” forward Mike Dunleavy said. “I don’t think [we needed a change]. Maybe the organization and Scott did. On the surface, guys not playing hard, guys not responding, those are the classic signs of needing a change. I didn’t see that.”
Ten days earlier, the Bucks were 16-12 and fresh off a victory over Miami. Then they dropped their next four and clear skies turned cloudy. Point guard Brandon Jennings valued Skiles and was a little rattled, especially bothered that he learned of Skiles’ exit in a call from the coach rather than the team. But Samuel Dalembert, the veteran center acquired to fill Andrew Bogut‘s void, shrugged and said Skiles never called him at all.
In fact, Dalembert felt he was in Skiles’ “doghouse.” After starting 13 of Milwaukee’s first 14 games, he appeared just three times in December and was held out of 13 straight games until Boylan used him for 2:24 against the Bulls.
“There was no communication,” the big man said of Skiles. “We had one talk” – after Dalembert arrived later to the locker room than the Bucks’ 90-minute rule – “and after that it was just dead. There was no guidance or talk of something I could just focus on so I could get out there. It was difficult. I was very surprised by myself that I was able to keep my composure that long.”
Other players weren’t happy. Drew Gooden, the team’s primary center last season, was healthy but rarely active. Young forward Tobias Harris‘ playing time dried up. Ersan Ilyasova, a re-signing priority last summer, played poorly early and got moved to the bench. Ilyasova has been visibly looser since Skiles’ departure, and started in Boylan’s first two games.
“There was a lot of tension,” Dalembert said. “In this business sometimes, a change is needed. For the cleansing of the spirit and a new beginning. From the general manager’s understanding, it was something that needed to be done, and it got done.”
Skiles, in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said: “There’s always the normal coach-player friction that goes on. Guys at this level are great players. As NBA teams go, this is a good group of guys.”
Big man Larry Sanders, a two-year disappointment, has blossomed this season, crowding out Dalembert and others up front. The team’s imbalanced roster has is crowded up front but lean in the backcourt; Jennings, Monta Ellis and Beno Udrih haven’t lacked for minutes.
“We built a little relationship – I mean, he hated me as a rookie,” Sanders said of Skiles, laughing. “When he told me he was leaving, he said he was proud of me and said he’d never seen a player progress this much. That was a great compliment.”
Boylan used players in shorter stints against the Suns and the Bulls. He also had that “good cop” thing working for him from his days as an assistant.
“Jim’s more vocal with me,” Jennings said. “When I’m down, he comes and talks to me. He says, ‘Keep going, keep going.’ With coaches like that you get all the confidence in the world. Everybody’s just feeling free, everybody’s more relaxed. Did we need a change? I’ll be able to answer that probably by All-Star weekend.”
Said Dunleavy: “Truthfully, we’ve been up and down all year, win four, lose four. As far as changes, we’re still doing most of the same stuff. We know Jim. He’s been a voice for us and spoke for us in meetings and practices. There’s really not anything new.
“We’ve got a lot of season left. We’ll see if anything changes.”
Certainly, the decision by Bucks owner Herb Kohl not to extend Skiles’ contract after last season – leading to his lame-duck status for 2012-13 – strained loyalties on both sides. Skiles denied a Twitter report that he “hated” his team, but he clearly disliked his uncertain job security. Without a commitment from the Bucks, he wasn’t willing to commit back, as NBA.com’s David Aldridge reported less than 24 hours before Skiles’ exit. Maybe not coincidentally, the Indiana Pacers agreed that day to an extension for their coach, Frank Vogel.
As something of a last word – until he surfaces in another coaching job, anyway – Skiles had talked last week about a player’s recent struggles. He might already have been contemplating his own fate.
“I know everybody’s always looking for a reason,” Skiles said on Jan. 2 before a game against San Antonio, “and I learned as a very young player that usually the reason was a direct result of somebody staring back at me from the mirror, something ‘he’ did. I think that’s a pretty good philosophy to live by.”