Milwaukee Bucks Top Five Coaches All-Time
The NBA will always be about the players and the talent that is performing on the court. But as evidenced by guys like Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, and Steve Kerr, a true championship team needs a good head coach.
The Milwaukee Bucks have had 16 guys hold the head job in the 50-plus year history of their franchise. But there has been a lot more coaching turnover in Milwaukee during the last two decades, as over half of those coaches have been a part of the franchise since 2000. Through the ups and downs the team has had, there have been many coaches who have done a better job than others. But a certain few just stand out. Let’s take a look at the top five coaches in Bucks history.
5. – Jason Kidd (2014-2018)
Bucks fans probably would not expect to see Kidd on this list. Yes, it is true that the Bucks just haven’t had that many good coaches over the history of their franchise. But it is also true the Kidd made an important impact on this franchise. Hired in the summer of 2014 after the Bucks were coming off their worst season in franchise history, Kidd managed to take a fairly average roster to a sixth place finish in the Eastern Conference, where they would take the Bulls to a six game series in the first round of the playoffs.
He would take the team back to the playoffs a couple seasons later, but as the roster became more talented the record did not become better, and Kidd was fired for that reason during the 2017-18 season. It can be seen as a frustrating few years for the franchise, but Kidd did help build the foundation for the successful team we see today. His biggest contribution within that was his development of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who Kidd groomed into an elite player.
4. – Mike Budenholzer (2018-Present)
Kidd’s successor was hired in the summer of 2018 and has been just what the Bucks needed to take this franchise to the next level. Already a Coach of the Year winner during his time with the Hawks, Budenholzer brought his “let it fly” system to Milwaukee and results were seen instantly, as the Bucks would win 60 games and make their first appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals since 2001 last season.
This year, Budenholzer had his squad in the conversation to be a 70-win team, and if the season resumes this summer it is possible they finally make a long awaited Finals appearance. Budenholzer has used what Kidd started and taken it to a level the former guard was just never able to. The Popovich disciple could very well be number one on this list by the time his tenure in Milwaukee is said and done.
3. – George Karl (1999-2003)
Karl came over to the Bucks after coaching the Seattle Supersonics, a team he took to the NBA Finals in 1996. Needless to say, he brought experience to a young core with budding stars such as Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson that was ready to win. Karl led the Bucks to .500 or better records each of his seasons running the show in Milwaukee, and led the team to an Eastern Conference Finals appearance in 2001 where they finished just one win short of the NBA Finals.
Karl has always been well regarded in NBA circles and was given a lot of power in Milwaukee. Unfortunately, as that 2001 team was slowly dismantled in the years to follow - in part because of Karl playing a role in the trade of Allen - the coach was also shown the door in 2003. Regardless, he has the third most wins as a coach in Bucks history, and took a franchise that had very little success for almost a decade and turned it into a contender.
2. – Larry Costello (1969-1977)
Costello was the head coach during the only NBA championship the Milwaukee Bucks won in 1971. Sure, he had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, but any coach who has won an NBA title deserves their place among the top coaches in the game. Costello led the Bucks to five straight seasons of at least 56 wins during his tenure, and led the Bucks back to another Finals appearance in 1974.
Costello finished his Bucks coaching career with 410 wins, second most all-time in franchise history. But where he really shined was the postseason, where he had a 37-23 record, including an impressive 12-2 mark during the postseason of the team’s championship run in 1971. Costello coached just one season outside of Milwaukee in his career, and while his name may not resonate with younger fans, it is one that will always be remembered by longtime Bucks backers.
1. – Don Nelson (1977-1987)
Simply put, Nelson is one of the better coaches the NBA has ever seen. Nelson got his start as an assistant in Milwaukee in 1976, and would be promoted to head coach in the same season. His NBA head coaching career would span over three more decades, with two stints with the Warriors and a stop in Dallas as part of Nelson’s career. But the coach made a name for himself in Milwaukee, where he oversaw some of the winningest years in franchise history.
Nelson quickly turned the Bucks around when he took over, leading them to a 60-win season in 1980-81. They would be perennial winners until Nelson left in 1987, often falling short in the playoffs to Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. Nelson won a franchise best 540 games in his decade in the Cream City, and although his playoff win percentage wasn’t as good as Costello’s, he still led the team to 42 postseason victories. Nelson was a fan favorite in Milwaukee, and will always be loved by some of the Bucks greats – including Marques Johnson and Sydney Moncrief – who played for him in the ‘80s.
Statistics Courtesy of Basketball Reference