MILWAUKEE — Jason Kidd helped make the Bucks relevant again. Someone else will have to help them become champions.
Despite mentoring a young, athletic core led by All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kidd was fired by Milwaukee general manager Jon Horst on Monday. Assistant coach Joe Prunty will lead the team for the rest of the season.
Still, if and when Milwaukee does compete for NBA titles, Kidd's influence will be clear. He led Antetokounmpo and company to two playoff appearances in three seasons — not bad for a team that won 15 games four seasons ago. Antetokounmpo has become a star, and Khris Middleton has also become a standout player.
Yet the Bucks are hovering around .500 and stuck in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. The perimeter defense hasn't ever really improved, and turnovers have become a debilitating issue of late.
For Horst, there wasn't enough progress for Kidd to keep his job. The surprise firing, hours before the Bucks beat the Phoenix Suns 109-105, sent a message to players about mounting expectations as the talented kids become veterans.
"It's not all on one person. The players have some type of responsibility," Middleton said after scoring 35 points in the victory. "He's the first one to go, but it could be one of us next. We have to do our job night in and night out."
Consider Kidd's dismissal a wake-up call for a team that had been a feel-good story in the NBA over the last couple years.
"A general manager in the NHL had a statement once: 'If something is inevitable, why wait?'" Horst said at a news conference before the game.
Horst added that the decision was made "relatively quickly" and was not in the works through the season. Co-owner Wes Edens said Horst had the ownership group's support.
"We just felt that we got to a point in the season where this team could do more and could perform at a different level in a different way and (we are) looking for a fresh approach and different voice in leadership for the team," Horst said.
Kidd was one of the NBA's most dynamic guards during his playing career and a triple-double threat in his heyday. He made the unusual jump right into coaching the year after his playing career ended, guiding the Nets to a 44-win season and a trip to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs in his one and only season in Brooklyn in 2013-14.
He was hired by Milwaukee a few months after a group led by co-owners Edens and Mark Lasry bought the team in April 2014. The Bucks traded two future second-round draft picks to the Nets as compensation.
In Milwaukee, Kidd inherited a team that won 15 games in 2013-14. He was part of a fresh start for an organization that had been mired in mediocrity for years.
Other than a 33-win season in 2015-16, the youthful Bucks hovered around .500 under Kidd while Antetokounmpo and Middleton developed. Malcolm Brogdon won the NBA rookie of the year award last season, and Jabari Parker has the potential to be an explosive scorer when healthy.
Despite all that, Milwaukee has largely treaded water in the wide-open East, even after adding talented guard Eric Bledsoe in a trade with the Suns in November. The Bucks are 8-12 since going a season-high five games over .500 on Dec. 9.
"I think Jason's done obviously a tremendous amount for the organization. He's a good friend, he's a soon-to-be Hall of Fame basketball player," Edens said in an interview before the game.
"But we think this team can be the best team in the East and we want to give ourselves every chance we can to do that."
Under Kidd, Milwaukee a regular-season record of 139-152.
"We didn't lose any talent. We still have all of our guys on the floor. We still have to make the playoffs our goal," Brogdon said.
The Bucks plan to conduct a coaching search after the season. It will be an important hire for a franchise celebrating its 50th anniversary and getting ready for the opening of a new downtown arena next season.
Kidd told ESPN that Antetokounmpo called him about 15 minutes before the coach was officially notified he’d been fired by the Bucks and offered to help save his job.
“He called me and said, ‘Coach, this isn’t right what they’re about to do, but (they) are gonna let you go,’ ” Kidd told ESPN.
Kidd said he replied, “I had a feeling that was gonna take place.”
To which Antetokounmpo responded, “ ‘What can I do? I’ll call the owners, I’ll call my agent.’ ”
Kidd said he told him, “There’s nothing you can do. All you can do is tell the truth. That’s it.”
Kidd said he thanked Antetokounmpo for his loyalty and that he was “thankful to be able to coach him and help him become the player he is today. And I know when our paths cross again, he’ll be much better.”
Kidd said he was officially informed he’d been fired soon after when he met with Horst and team president Peter Feigin at a pizza restaurant.
Kidd said he felt the firing was “handled wrong,” but that he was thankful for his time in Milwaukee.
“I enjoyed my time in Milwaukee. There’s no regrets. We took an organization that was in a bad place and shined a light on it,” he said. “They’re still young in running their race. Giannis is young in running his new race, as one of the best players in the world.”
Kidd said there was little fanfare in the dismissal.
“There was no explanation. It was just, ‘We’re going in another direction.’ ”
Kidd said Antetokounmpo, who missed his second consecutive game with a sore knee, had called him at about 2:45 p.m. He was about to head to the arena for the game. Once he saw that call come in, he suspected something was amiss.
“That’s the truth. You wanna look at my phone and see the time stamps?” Kidd said.
Kidd told ESPN he harbors no ill will toward the Bucks.
“It’s a business,” he said. “That’s what people have to understand. People get fired, they get traded. It’s a job.”
Jason Kidd had a 139-152 record as Bucks head coach (.478 win pct).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 22, 2018
Milwaukee is on pace for 42 wins this season, below its preseason Vegas over/under of 47.5. pic.twitter.com/P0t0G9S7of