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Scott Skiles: More Than a Tough Guy

Scott Skiles has been called a hot head and a tough guy.

He is one of the more intriguing NBA personalities to me. Some consider him among the very best coaches in the league.

Now he is in the conversation for Coach of the Year.

The observation by many has been that he can really coach…but there’s a shelf life, due to his style.

Coaching styles, personalities and results always intrigue me. So, when I had the chance to interview him (and some of his players) at the last regular season game, I decided to avail myself of the opportunity to delve into the mind of the Bucks' head coach and his team.

Some responses from the coach and the players won’t surprise you. Some may.

Setting the Picture

His Milwaukee Buck team ‘overachieved’ (more on that later) to the tune of 46 wins in a season that most prognosticators had them around the 30 win mark.

It is the most wins for this recently down trodden franchise since the 2000-01,George Karl, 52 win team. They were packing Ray Allen, Glen Robinson, Sam Cassell, Tim Thomas, and Lindsay Hunter. The Bucks haven’t been over .500 for the previous 7 years.

After a disastrous misadventure with Larry Krystowiak, order needed to be restored. Skiles, though coming off a crash in Chicago, fired on Christmas Eve 2007, looked like a good choice.

The team added 8 wins last year and 12 more this season. Andrew Bogut has played better than he ever has and is now a true impact big man. Brandon Jennings, a talented but skinny 20 year old rookie is developing into a top NBA point guard who also plays defense.

In fact, this Bucks team is built around defense. They are 6th in the league in points allowed and 2nd in the NBA in defensive rating by points allowed per 100 possessions. They are 4th in points allowed in the paint. The Celtics are 5th.

The Celtics have Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace. The Bucks had Andrew Bogut, Mbah A Moute, and Kurt Thomas. I can understand the Celtics being up there. Who would have thought those three would be among the leaders?

Skiles’ image to me was this: tough guy coach. A characture. Simplified and exaggerated.

What I discovered…

Scott Skiles: Not Doc Rivers

Skiles, unlike Doc Rivers, does not seek any previous coaches he had for advice or mentorship.

Unlike Doc Rivers, he’s not a great quote. Thoughtful and patient (which may surprise some), many of his answers to questions are what you would expect. He is similar in that, he tries to give you an honest answer.

He runs his locker room and team more like a Democrat than a Republican.

So my main questions about Skiles are:
1) What makes him so successful?
2) How do his players view him?
3) What is his shelf life?

Skiles The Player Becomes Skiles The Coach

He holds one NBA record, tussled with Shaq as a player, and had a 10 year playing career driven more by heart and toughness than by athletic ability. The Shaq thing alone should earn him some kind of award. Men many times Skiles’ size wouldn’t think of doing that.

The style of his career and that incident help reveal who Scott Skiles the NBA coach is.

As a player, his 30 assists for the Orlando Magic (before they had Shaq) in a single game on 12/30 1990 is still an NBA record. He was the league’s Most Improved Player for 1990-91. He otherwise had a rather mixed NBA career. Maybe that isn’t so great for the Hall of Fame. But it can be very valuable, say…if you decide to go into coaching.

Skiles, "I kind of did everything. I was on the inactive list, I was a bench player, I was a starter."

He has been an NBA head coach for 10 years. For some reason, his first three years coaching in Phoenix haven’t figured into my equation of understanding who Scott Skiles is. Scott Skiles the coach is most remembered for his rise and fall in Chicago. But it shouldn’t be that way.

Scott was Danny Ainge’s assistant coach in Phoenix and replaced Ainge when he stepped down after 20 games in the 1999-00 season. Skiles led them to a 40-22 record the rest of the way. Scott was 35 at the time.

The Phoenix time was quite successful for 2 years before he was let go after going 25-26 in his 3rd season. It was rumored that one of Scott’s mistakes there was that he didn’t build relationships with his players.

His replacement, Frank Johnson, inspired the Suns to go 11-20 the rest of the way that season.
I wanted to find out more about the guy known for his feistiness that some called ‘hotheaded’ and his ability to get teams to play hard and some might say…over their heads.

I had the chance in the Celtics final game of the season. The Bucks were a potential first round opponent for the Celtics before the game. When the night ended, the Heat couldn’t play worst than the Nets (though it appeared they tried to) and the Celtics rested 4 of their starters and the Bucks won.

So no match up with the Bucks. If the interview and article hold less interest because of that I understand.

You’ve played for a number of coaches over your career. Which ones have influenced your own coaching?

Skiles: "Anybody who is coaching probably has a piece of every coach they played for somewhere.

Sometimes…if you had aspirations to become a coach, you are paying attention to your coaches.

Sometimes you look and say ‘hey I like that.’ If I was coach that is what I would do. And sometimes it’s the exact opposite. You say I would never do that, I don’t agree with that so…

There’s always pieces of all your coaches in there somewhere."

Doc Rivers has a few former coaches he can call when he runs into situations where he wants another perspective. Are there coaches that you would call for advice?

"No I really haven’t done that. There are some of the coaches that I’m closer to than others and we talk on the telephone. But not to give advice, we just talk about the league or whatever. I generally talk to guys on my own staff. Those are the guys I’m talking to."

Scott follows his own path and keeps it inside the house. Perhaps that isn’t so surprising...when you look at his coaches.

Except for Don Nelson and Jack Ramsay, early in your career, you haven’t really played for what could be called very successful coaches (Matt Goukas, Brian Hill, Jim Lynam, John Lucas).

"Well you touched on something there… when I got to Milwaukee in my rookie year, that team had it pretty much stuck on automatic and if not for the Celtics, we may have a couple of conference titles.

That was a 50 plus win team every year. Moncrief, Pressey it was certainly it was incredible to see the professionalism and Nellie and Del Harris and Rick Majerus were on the staff and they the way they conducted that.

Then I went to Indiana the very next year and that was a younger sort of rebuilding type team and like you said, Jack was a very good and respected coach, but the players didn’t have the level of professionalism there and everything at that point. So I saw both sides of the league in my first two years. That was very valuable."

(Ramsay was let go after starting 0-7 the following season, and the Pacers finished 28-54.)

With you’re success with this team, obviously, you’re in the conversation for Coach of the Year. You had another team you were very successful with and then it kind of crashed.

Larry Bird, at one time coached for three years and then left. He said that after three years ‘they stop listening to you’. I was wondering what your response would be to that?

"I don’t necessarily believe that. I think…there’s no question that people could get tired in any walk, any business, getting tired of hearing the same voice. But I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think there’s a question that owners or general managers or whatever, presidents of teams need to answer, if they think that’s the case…and that would be…why? If that is the case, why did that happen?

Is it the coach’s fault? Is it the players’ fault? Do they share responsibility? …those kind of things.
I know that’s been written…ummm…where I’ve been (at fault). But I haven’t felt that way. I still have relationships with the players in Chicago. And I didn’t feel like that happened. It just didn’t work for us."

That was an interesting response in light of what was written at the time. It was said that Skiles ‘lost’ the players. He was quoted as saying the team might need ‘a new voice’. Shortly after, he was fired.

Skiles’ Bulls teams won 19, 47, 41 games before cresting at 49 wins and sweeping Miami before losing to the Pistons in the playoffs in 2006-07.

A 9-16 start the next season and what some say ‘rumors of trades’ had the team in a funk and no longer playing ‘Skiles style’ basketball. They were booed by the home crowd in his last home game as coach and the team was called ‘underachieving’ by one ESPN writer– not a description you would normally hear for a team coached by Skiles.   

When you want to get more honest responses some times it’s better to go to a veteran player. Someone like Jerry Stackhouse, who was added to the Bucks in January this season, playing 42 games on a one year veteran’s minimum contract.

Stackhouse doesn’t believe that Skiles gets players to overachieve. He thinks Skiles has had talent wherever he’s been, including in Milwaukee.

Stackhouse: "I think that’s all baloney. I think it’s…you’re not in the NBA if you don’t have talent. I think, he has a way of… his teams play hard. So, it seems like you’re getting more out of them than what you are. But it’s talented groups wherever he’s been.

There’s talented players here. Maybe they hadn’t been able to put it all together to get noticed like they have this year…or Chicago. When you look at the players he’s had in Chicago, they (are) still good players."

That is true.

"It is…like I said…his approach and how he brings it to the game…the team...defend and play hard…are his well known opinions about things."

This team’s defense is rated 2nd second in the league by one rating system.

"Yeah well, obviously…(changes thought)… we got different schemes that I hadn’t really seen in 15 years of playing, playing for different coaches. We’ve got a scheme, some defensive schemes that I hadn’t seen…that works."

That is a bit of an eye opener to hear from a guy with 14 years in the NBA. I thought you have seen everything by then. Hey, who knows? Maybe they are working on NFL ‘stunts’ or something.

I’ll always respect Kurt Thomas, the Bucks’ current back up center, for once standing up to Marbury in the Knicks locker room. He is thrust into playing serious minutes in this year’s playoffs with Bogut out recovering from arm and wrist injuries.

His answers might be a bit more political as he has made it known he would like to be back with this team next year. But he had very high praise for Scott Skiles.

Thomas: "I rank him right up there at the top. I’ve definitely had some great coaches in my career. Pat Riley, Jeff Van Gundy, Popovich, and I definitely put Scott right up there at the top."

That is pretty impressive.

"Without a doubt. He knows what he wants out there on the floor. He holds everyone accountable. He’s an excellent coach on the offensive end and the defensive end of the floor."

One of the criticisms earlier in his career was that he wasn’t making enough effort to build relationships with his players. Has that changed?

"I don’t know nothing about earlier in his career, but he’s a solid coach. I think he gets along with everyone. He talks with all of his players.

But if anything, I think he’s definitely improved on that, because I think everyone on our team gets along with him. He talks with everyone."

What has also come out is that Skiles is a very good teacher for young players.

"Without a doubt. That’s his forte. That he’s going to teach you to play the correct way on the offensive end and definitely on the defensive end, because he’s big on what you do defensively out there on the floor."

John Salmons was a key trade for this team this season. He’s gone from scoring 12 points a game in Chicago to a career high of 20 points with the Bucks. He is the go-to guy, and one of the only guys on the team who can create his shot.

Milwaukee was 24-28 when Salmons arrived. They are 22-8 since then. Salmons has also played for some good coaches.

Obviously he also would have good things to say, but contrary to what some readers might think, he doesn’t have be quite as effusive as he is:

Salmons: "Definitely one of the best. Him and Larry Brown is probably the best I had in my career."

Why would you say that?

"Just because he teaches the game the right way. Brandon (Jennings) and Boges (Andrew Bogut) they’re lucky to have…Ersan (Ilyasova) and Luc (Mbah a Moute)…I think they’re lucky to have a coach that teaches the game the right way at the early stage of their career. It’s only going to help them down the road.

My first year, as a rookie, I had Larry Brown. He always preached ‘play the right way’. That stuck with me throughout my career. Scott is similar."

He has a reputation of being tough. Is that over rated? Or would you say that’s fair?

"I mean, he definite gets his players’ respect. But I think it’s more over rated when the people (inaudible) say it.

When you mess up, he’ll tell you about it. Try to fix it and (he will) tell you to go out there and keep playing."

When Larry Bird’s line about players stop listening to a coach after three years Salmons reaction was humorous…

"Well, I’ve never had a coach for three years (chuckle) so I wouldn’t know."

But perhaps the best response and most real when it comes to why Skiles is a hit right now in Milwaukee and players are responding so well to him comes from guard Charlie Bell.

Bell actually played on the Sun’s team when Skiles was coach there. Bell also experienced the recent bad years in Milwaukee. His answers seemed candid and revealing.

Charlie, can you talk about all the changes you’ve been through here?

Bell: "Yeah, just been through a lot of changes. You know, there was a time when…just going out and …mediocrity was accepted.

Now (with) the coaches changing, we wish to turn this into a winning franchise, We’re not just talking about making the playoffs, but trying to get home court advantage. Trying to get things moving in the right direction. We’re doing a great job with that and holding the people accountable. I think that’s something that’s been key, especially with coach Skiles coming over… is that.

You know he holds everybody accountable no matter who you are. And that’s something that you got to respect."

With Coach Skiles being known as such an aggressive coach and knowing that teams can grow tired of that, do you see that a potential issue for him at all?

"For me, it’s one of those situations where you can grow tired of stuff, but at the same time, we here, we want to win. Like I said, the coaches changing, the guys on this team are buying in to it. You know, I think sometimes guys buy into it, then get tired. I think we’re buying into it. And from what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen with Scott, guys respect him."

What would you say his strength is as a coach, if you were going to name one or two things?

"Like I said, just holding us accountable. You know, he’s tough. He has his ways and he knows how to win. He’s played the game. Like I say, a lot of guys just respect him because it’s… no matter if it’s our best player on the team makes a mistake, he’s going to yell at him or he’s going to take him out of the game like he’d do the last guy on the team.

Sometimes, as a coach, they let (some) players get away with stuff that other players can’t get away with. That’s when guys (coaches) start to lose players a little bit.

It’s like…you know… ‘you didn’t say nothing to him so why you gonna say something to me?’

With Skiles, he says something to everybody so everybody respects that."

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune refuted the Skiles hothead theory the day after Skiles was fired, and portrayed him as direct, honest, consistent and loyal to his players.

So, Scott Skiles is tough. No news there. But he has also learned to relate to his players. He is a teaching coach and a few Bucks players mention playing the right way, similar to legendary coach Larry Brown. No doubt the Bucks are playing the right way. The players have bought in to what Coach Skiles is selling…or teaching.

So maybe like "Next Town" Larry Brown, Scott Skiles will do something good in Milwaukee and eventually move on.

Like Skiles the player, his teams play hard and with heart. Like Skiles the player who took on Shaq, he broaches no special accommodations for certain players.

He hasn’t had a true superstar on any of his teams yet. The ‘democratic approach’ has worked. I wonder if things would change if he coached a Kobe (a Kobe trade to Chicago was rumored that last season in the Windy City) or any other top 5 NBA star.

My guess is yes. ‘Viva le democratique’ approach in the mean time. It is refreshing in a league known for star privilege.

Skiles style, accountability, ability to teach, and to get teams to play hard is working in Milwaukee. It is good for Milwaukee, but it is also good for the NBA.


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