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The Bucks Had No Choice but to Fire Adrian Griffin

Milwaukee might have looked fine, but internally it was a mess under its rookie head coach. Can a new voice—and scheme—put Giannis and Dame back on a title track?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Editor’s note: A day after firing Adrian Griffin, the Milwaukee Bucks have reportedly hired Doc Rivers as their new head coach.

By firing head coach Adrian Griffin, the Milwaukee Bucks have announced that they value process over results. The Bucks are currently 30-13, tied for the second-best record in the NBA, so at a glance it would appear all is well in Milwaukee. But Griffin’s first year as a head coach has been mired by frayed relationships, a botched defensive system, and head-scratching in-game decisions that made the franchise’s star players believe he’s not capable of leading them to a championship.

Griffin’s issues began during training camp, when he reportedly clashed with assistant head coach Terry Stotts in front of the entire team, which caused Stotts to resign a few days later. At the time, sources said that Griffin felt that he was being undermined by Stotts, who was the longtime head coach of new Bucks star Damian Lillard in Portland. Stotts was brought in to mentor Griffin, a rookie head coach, but the two never saw eye to eye on scheme or philosophy, both of which have been running problems for the Bucks all season.

Though the Bucks finished near the top of the league in defensive rating for years under Mike Budenholzer with a more conservative scheme defined by Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo protecting the rim, Griffin installed a scheme that resembled what the Toronto Raptors, for whom he was previously an assistant coach, have recently run. But that scheme worked because of the Raptors’ young, lengthy personnel. It never fit for the Bucks. Lopez defended higher in pick-and-rolls, and bigs like Giannis and Bobby Portis were often asked to trap or blitz ball handlers. The new scheme was meant to generate more turnovers, but instead the Bucks were being absolutely shredded. Points were being hemorrhaged at the rim, in part due to a lack of size inside and the loss of Jrue Holiday’s elite perimeter defense. Just a few games into the season, veteran leaders asked Griffin to put Lopez back into a drop, like he played when he was an annual All-Defensive candidate under Budenholzer.

Griffin listened. Lopez has been back in drop coverage ever since. But Antetokounmpo and Portis are still switching screens with far greater frequency than in previous seasons. Sometimes, Portis has even been asked to defend opponents man-to-man at the logo. Moving away from the basket means the Bucks’ bigs can’t assist in rebounding and rim protection like they used to. Opponents are attempting more shots at the rim and grabbing more offensive boards than they ever did during the Budenholzer era.

Griffin couldn’t do anything about the fact that Lillard isn’t in the same universe as Holiday as a point-of-attack defender, or that Malik Beasley is worse at defending on the ball than Grayson Allen. But keeping Milwaukee’s bigs closer to the paint seemed like an easy adjustment since the Bucks’ point-of-attack defense was leading to easy penetration.

Dame’s never been a stopper, and his transition defense effort can be better, but his shortcomings on defense feel magnified because he isn’t being optimized on offense. The former Blazers star’s usage is way down. He’s rarely being utilized in motion off screens or involved in any handoffs with Giannis. Beasley is shooting lights out at 46.9 percent from 3, but there are diminishing returns when what the team really needs is stops, not points. Beasley is starting and playing nearly 30 minutes a night, which has taken time away from younger players who, in theory, could help the defense without negatively affecting the offense.

Rookie Andre Jackson Jr. is a menace on the ball who in spurts has disturbed the rhythm of opponents’ offenses, like he did against the Celtics earlier this month or while Beasley was sidelined in December. But his playing time has been up-and-down, regardless of his production. In Milwaukee’s loss to Utah earlier this month, rookie Chris Livingston played nearly all of the final 17 minutes and demonstrated impressive on-ball defense. Every time he’s been provided chances, he has looked like a potential lockdown player. Yet Griffin didn’t reward him with any regular opportunities.

The young player who has received the most chances, MarJon Beauchamp, has also been regularly beaten off the dribble this season. (It’s been no different with Milwaukee’s veteran wings, Beasley and Pat Connaughton.) Perhaps Milwaukee’s next head coach should follow the blueprint the Nuggets used last season with rookie Christian Braun by guaranteeing him nightly minutes so that he develops into a factor come playoff time. Jackson and Livingston at least deserve a chance to show what they can do because despite the Bucks’ record, they’re clearly desperate for answers.

The Bucks rank no. 22 in defensive rating on the season. Since their Christmas Day loss to the Knicks, when they gave up 129 points, they rank 27th. The Pacers have continued to rip them apart. The Jazz put 132 on them one game after Giannis publicly lamented the team’s lack of strategy on defense. The Cavs tacked on 135 against them, and the sickly Pistons almost outgunned the Bucks last week. Simply put, they just can’t get stops.

Transition defense is also a major issue. They allow the highest frequency of transition opportunities of any team in the league. Bucks players need to put in greater effort hustling back on defense, but one of Griffin’s schematic tweaks on offense has also led to more bleeding on the break. Griffin regularly has one of his wings or guards looking to crash the glass from the perimeter. If a Buck doesn’t secure the rebound, it leads to leak-outs and one fewer perimeter player trying to contain in transition.

The reason the Bucks are still winning in spite of all this is because they still have the NBA’s second-best offense. But internally, players were reportedly alarmed at the lack of structure, from simple things like who’s bringing the ball up to a belief in which plays were being run. Early in the season, in a win over the Heat, Giannis changed a play that Griffin had called in the huddle. After the Bucks lost to the Pacers in the in-season tournament, Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes reported that Portis called out Griffin in the locker room for his lack of control over the offense down the stretch.

Not much has changed since then. The Dame-Giannis pick-and-roll combo is one of the NBA’s most potent, but they don’t run it with great frequency compared to other prolific combos. The offense often looks clunky, with much of the Bucks’ success coming because Giannis dragged them to victory in the fourth quarter or Dame hit a miraculous shot. Most recently, this occurred in a win over the Kings in which the Bucks blew a late lead, in part due to Griffin’s decision to foul Sacramento twice while up three points. On offense, he didn’t call plays to inbound the ball to one of his best free throw shooters. Giannis instead received the ball on two straight inbounds. He missed only one of his four free throws, but the decision to put him on the line to end the game was viewed as just another one of Griffin’s many questionable choices. In overtime, the Kings choked away the lead by missing three consecutive free throws, setting up Lillard to hit a game-winner from the logo. Wins like this bought Griffin time, but ultimately the Bucks front office felt his decisions weren’t going to hold up long term.

I was in favor of Milwaukee moving on from Budenholzer last spring because of his slow adjustments in the playoffs and some of his own terrible decisions in previous postseason losses. But he was undeniably great at installing a system that optimized this roster and making proper tweaks during the season. Griffin reversed everything that worked, changing the defensive scheme to something that didn’t fit, without giving the team any consistent plan at all.

It didn’t take long for Giannis to begin changing play calls and refusing to sub out of games. Trust was lost quickly. The irony is that Antetokounmpo is the reason Griffin was even given the job in the first place. The Bucks front office reportedly favored Nick Nurse, who went to the Sixers and has aptly overhauled a system in need of change, but Antetokounmpo wanted Griffin installed. This was a mistake on Giannis’s part, perhaps misreading his own situation. Antetokounmpo was annoyed last postseason that Budenholzer didn’t let him defend Jimmy Butler, who was roasting Jrue Holiday. But Giannis didn’t need a coach who’d let him do whatever he wanted; he needed a coach who could see the full board and make savvy tactical decisions on the fly.

Maybe it should have been a red flag that Griffin, a former player and 15-year assistant, interviewed 14 times to become a head coach and never landed a job before the Bucks decided to give him a 15th try last summer. But the Bucks hired him anyway, mainly because he was Giannis’s choice.

Now the Bucks have an opportunity to hire a new coach. Doc Rivers might be a better podcaster than he is a head coach, but he’s reportedly their top candidate. Doc won a title with the Celtics in 2008, but he also has been the coach of three teams that have blown 3-1 playoff leads, often for the same reason. Without a doubt, his experience as a coach and the respect he commands make him a more convincing leader than Griffin. But for the Bucks to fire Budenholzer, only to later hire a coach who was largely fired for the same reasons, would be quite a twist of fate.

The Cavaliers were 30-11 when David Blatt got fired in 2016. But they had Ty Lue waiting in the wings, and he soon blossomed into one of the league’s best coaches, leading them to a title that season. The Bucks have Joe Prunty, who will be the interim head coach in the meantime (and for the third time in his career). If Stotts were still there, maybe it’d be him. But whoever is hired can’t fix the Bucks by themselves. Roster changes are needed.

Currently, two active roster spots are being used on Thanasis Antetokounmpo and Robin Lopez, two non-contributors who offer little more than support for their more talented brothers. This is a severely limiting factor in both roster construction and potential trades. So the Bucks will have to make it work with what they have: Jackson, Beauchamp, Livingston, and two second-round picks. They could also do what the Phoenix Suns recently did by trading the rights to the worse selection of pick swaps that have already been dealt. In 2024 and 2026, the Pelicans own the rights to swap with Milwaukee’s firsts, and in 2030, the Blazers have first dibs on Milwaukee’s pick. The Bucks could deal the picks they have coming back, but they will have much lower value, making upgrades a challenge.

The Bucks deserve credit for moving fast to reverse an obvious mistake, rather than ignoring an internal disaster because the team’s regular-season record still looks great. But the stakes are high, and the next choice they make could determine the success of the Giannis-Dame era. If the new coach can install a better system, then it will be on the stars to carry the team to the trophy. Lillard must put in better effort on defense and return his efficiency to prior levels. But Giannis also must accommodate Dame, screening and rolling as needed to activate his point guard’s half-court scoring prowess.

Milwaukee is rightfully all in around Giannis, which is why the franchise has been so aggressive for years. From trading away first-round picks for role players to firing two head coaches within the past eight months, the urgency is there. Now they just need the right leader. Maybe the third time’s the charm.