The Milwaukee Bucks need to play tougher defense, and start sharing the ball on offense.
So they’re turning to Scott Skiles, the man who owns the NBA’s single-game assist record — and who once got into a fight with Shaquille O’Neal during his playing days and lived to tell the tale.
The Bucks introduced Skiles as their new coach Monday, signing the former Chicago Bulls and Phoenix Suns coach to a four-year deal to replace someone Skiles considers a close friend, Larry Krystkowiak.
The 44-year-old Skiles received a four-year, fully guaranteed contract, a league source told ESPN.com’s Chris Sheridan.
While Skiles said he learned some lessons after the Bulls fired him in December, he isn’t backing away from his reputation for demanding a lot from his players.
“I always feel like I’m supposed to apologize for that,” Skiles said. “And I’m not sure that’s the tack I want to take. Anybody that is going to come to work with enthusiasm, concentrate and play hard will never have a problem with me. I don’t care if they throw the ball in the seats 25 times a game.”
“They’ll be pulled out of the game before they get to 25, of course, but they will never have a problem with me,” Skiles added.
Skiles, who was drafted out of Michigan State by the Bucks in the first round in 1986, said he has a “fond place” in his heart for Milwaukee. But he has no illusions about the difficult task he faces in turning around a team that began the season with playoff aspirations but finished 26-56.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Skiles said. “I don’t have any magic dust to sprinkle on people. We’re going to have to do it by working harder and playing better [defense], and the first step will be getting competitive every single night. The team has not been competitive every night and if we do that, good things will happen.”
The 44-year-old Skiles has more NBA head-coaching experience than Milwaukee’s two previous coaches, Krystkowiak and Terry Stotts, did when they were hired by the Bucks.
Skiles spent nearly three full seasons in Phoenix after taking over for Danny Ainge early in the 1999-00 season. He was fired by the Bulls in December after making the playoffs in three of his first four seasons in Chicago.
But experience wasn’t the main thing new Bucks general manager John Hammond was looking for in his new coach. Hammond wanted toughness, something Skiles is certain to bring. But will the Bucks, one of the league’s worst defensive teams last season, buy in?
“It’s a player’s responsibility to buy into it and be willing to accept it,” Hammond said. “But if you have the kind of people who are willing to accept it, it can happen. I truly believe players want to be coached. They want to be taught. They want discipline within the team. So it’s a coach’s responsibility to bring those things to the table.”
The Bucks are expected to try to overhaul their roster in the offseason. Skiles is familiar with the Bucks from coaching against them, but said he wasn’t comfortable assessing individual players, yet.
“I’ve never made any secret of my philosophy, I believe in playing hard, playing defense, playing with passion, bring enthusiasm every single day and that’s what I’ll be after. I’m not real concerned with what happened before,” Skiles said.
Skiles didn’t want to make excuses for the Bulls’ rough start this season, although he mentioned the team might have been distracted by persistent trade rumors involving Kobe Bryant and ongoing contractual issues with some of their top players.
“It’s still an excuse,” Skiles said. “And maybe that was the case. We just couldn’t seem to get over that. I think Chicago will come back and be a very, very good club next year again.”
Skiles said he spoke to Krystkowiak about the job even before Krystkowiak officially was fired. Skiles said Krystkowiak called it a “great” opportunity, and he doesn’t expect the decision to take the job would affect their friendship. In fact, Skiles and his wife had dinner plans with Krystkowiak and his wife Monday night.
But Skiles is not likely to bring Krystkowiak back as an assistant.
“I would love to work with Larry at some point,” Skiles said. “I don’t know if this is the time or place for that.”
As a player, Skiles played only 13 games for Milwaukee as a rookie, but he went on to a 10-year career that included stops in Indiana, Orlando, Washington and Philadelphia.
While with Orlando, Skiles set an NBA record with 30 assists in a Dec. 30, 1990 game against Denver. Skiles’ more notorious achievement while playing for the Magic, however, was a confrontation with O’Neal during practice that also involved Krystkowiak.
O’Neal reportedly went after Krystkowiak and the 6-foot-1 Skiles jumped in to help out his friend, ending up in a rugby-style scrum.
Skiles confirmed that his run-in with Shaq wasn’t an urban legend.
“But it was purely self-defense,” he joked.