The Milwaukee Bucks' choice to fire first-year coach Adrian Griffin on Tuesday was not an overnight decision.
This has resulted from months of disappointing play with growing internal concerns about the sharp decline in their once-elite defense, the flawed use of newcomer Damian Lillard alongside franchise star Giannis Antetokounmpo and the widespread fear that this group, which was expected to… Widely believed to be competing for the title, it was likely to fail if Milwaukee held on.
Going back to the championship season in December, when the Bucks lost to the Indiana Pacers in Las Vegas and internal doubts grew about Griffin's ability to lead, there were strong signs that change was coming.
League sources say Doc Rivers, an ESPN analyst after he was fired by the Philadelphia 76ers last May, has begun working as an unofficial advisor to Griffin at the Bucks' request. One month later, multiple sources familiar with the matter now indicate that Rivers is a serious leader for the now vacant position and the preferred choice of key stakeholders.
League sources said the Bucks have begun discussions with Rivers to become the team's new coach. Warriors assistant coach Kenny Atkinson, who was runner-up to Griffin in the Bucks' head coaching search last year, is a candidate for the job as well if the team can't secure a deal for Rivers.
The problem came early this season for the 49-year-old Griffin, who spent the last 15 seasons as an NBA assistant for five teams after a nine-year career in the league. His inauspicious start first caught the national spotlight when first-year assistant coach Terry Stotts resigned from his position on October 19, 2023, one day before the end of the team's preseason.
Stotts' decision came for a myriad of reasons, but all of the underlying issues appear to have come to a head after a brief verbal altercation in a shootout in Oklahoma City on Oct. 17, 2023, he first reported. The athlete.
League sources said Stotts, who was Lillard's coach in Portland during his first nine seasons there, and Griffin never agreed on his role and responsibilities as an assistant, and the disrespect Stotts felt in that situation was the straw that broke the camel's back. Regardless of why Stotts was headed for the exits, the idea of Griffin's coaching staff losing its most experienced voice was an indisputable setback.
With Stotts out of the picture and the Bucks still searching for their identity as they reached the In-Season semifinals, the franchise reached out to Rivers to serve as a veteran coaching voice to help Griffin find a path forward during the season.
While the Bucks had compiled a 15-6 record before their trip to Las Vegas, leadership organized a meeting between Griffin and Rivers, who was broadcasting the in-season championship games for ESPN. According to league sources, the organization believed that Rivers, an NBA coach for 24 years and a champion with the Celtics in 2008, could provide advice and guidance to Griffin on how to navigate his first season in the NBA with high expectations and a championship-caliber team.
After the Bucks' disappointing loss to the Pacers in Las Vegas, Milwaukee snapped a seven-game winning streak and appeared to have steadied the ship with a strong four-game trip around Christmas. But problems arose again in the new year. Team sources said players began to question Griffin's schemes on both sides of the floor and the strategy that was laid out for them each night.
While the players were willing to be patient with Griffin as he learned on the job due to the team's big personnel changes at the start of the season, their questions became more critical as the team failed to show significant growth midway through the season.
According to team sources, the issues that plagued Griffin's early tenure ranged from developing strong schemes on both ends of the court in order to fulfill their championship potential to successfully communicating his vision to his players so they could execute it on the floor. But the bottom line is that, given the high stakes of the Bucks era, worrying about Griffin's ability has become too big a question for executive leadership to bear much longer.
Throughout the season, the Bucks struggled on defense after being one of the best defensive teams in the league for five straight seasons under former coach Mike Budenholzer. As of Tuesday morning, the Bucks ranked 22nd in defensive rating, allowing 116.8 points per 100 possessions, but frustrations with the team's defense reached a boiling point after a 122-116 loss to the Houston Rockets on January 6.
'There was no pride': Giannis Antetokounmpo attacks Bucks defense after loss to Rockets
After that loss, Antetokounmpo spent seven and a half minutes bemoaning the Bucks' defensive woes.
“Now, defensively, we have to have a plan,” he added. “What's our strategy? Are we going to give a lot of open 3s? Are we going to let them get into the paint? When he takes over, are we going to stay with our team and play one-on-one? What's our strategy?”
“Right now, we're giving it all. We're giving it all. We're giving 3s. We're giving straight drives. We're allowing guys to play in the post and feel comfortable. We're giving offensive rebounds.”
The frustrations continued on Jan. 17, when the Bucks suffered a 40-point defeat to the Cleveland Cavaliers, a loss that came without Antetokounmpo due to a right shoulder contusion. A team that entered the season with a Lillard trade boom began to sink. It was the fifth loss in a nine-game losing streak with back-to-back losses to the Bucks' newest rival, the Pacers, having started the month, and a humiliating loss to the Cavaliers made it even worse.
More importantly, with the decline of their defense that was a staple of title-contending seasons under Budenholzer, the Cavs' game was the latest evidence that these Bucks aren't as good as many people expected – including some key players. Decision makers inside the Bucks.
With a 30-13 record, the Bucks are just 3.5 games behind the Boston Celtics for first place in the Eastern Conference. But nearly three years after they won a title for the first time in a half-century, and with Antetokounmpo once again showing confidence in their franchise by signing a three-year, $186 million extension in the summer, a higher level has long been achieved that lies in Milwaukee. . Winning regular season games isn't enough.
By firing Budenholzer, the NBA's winningest coach from 2018-2023, the Bucks made it clear that Griffin was expected to compete for championships. By hiring Griffin, they took a calculated risk on a coach who will inevitably need time to develop as a head coach. But Griffin's countless growing pains led to his death. The embarrassing loss to Cleveland seemed to be a turning point.
With the newest member of ownership, Jimmy Haslam, in the building, it was a vivid reminder of the questions Griffin has struggled to answer. The Bucks, who spent many nights struggling to find synergy between the dynamic duo of Lillard and Antetokounmpo, looked lost as they tried to figure out how to build an offensive attack without the centerpiece of their franchise.
This would have been the perfect time to unleash Lillard, so he could enjoy the kind of offensive freedom he was accustomed to all those years in Portland, and which was so difficult to come by during his experience with the Bucks. Instead, after the Cavaliers jumped out to a 22-2 lead in the first quarter, Lillard finished with just 17 points on 7-of-20 shooting to go with five assists and a minus-26.
Khris Middleton, the three-time Bucks All-Star who has faced a difficult adjustment period this season, missed 9 of 10 shots and the score was -40. The list continued from there. Even with Antetokounmpo out, it was this type of outing that undoubtedly hurt Griffin's case. While victories over the lowly Detroit Pistons followed on Saturday and Monday, the team's poor showing in both games did little to ease the growing unrest within the organization.
Overall, the Bucks have performed well on offense this season. Averaging 124.2 points per game and scoring 120.5 points per 100 possessions, they were the second most effective and efficient offense in the league, behind only the Pacers. But despite their scoring success, the offense itself was somewhat disjointed as the Bucks tried to combine the offensive skills of Antetokounmpo and Lillard.
League sources also said Lillard has spent most of this season struggling with the way the Bucks operate on the offensive end. While he remained patient with coaches and teammates, there was inevitable pressure on Griffin from the organization to make the most of Lillard's talent validating the option to part ways with Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen and three first-round picks to acquire him.
For the season, Lillard's usage rate of 26.9 is not only well below his final season in Portland (career-high mark of 33.1) but is well below Antetokounmpo's 32.2, which ranks third in the NBA (and is lower than the league he plays in). . Leading mark of 37.3 last season). Middleton ranks third on the Bucks with 23.6 points.
Even though Lillard is there One of only eight players Averaging at least 25 points, six assists and four rebounds this season, he has seen his efficiency decline. From his overall field goal percentage (46.3 to 42.7) to his three-point proficiency (37.1 to 35.1), he's not the scorer he once was.
Since December 21st, Lillard's scoring average is down to 23.5 points per game, and he is shooting just 40.4 percent from the field and 31 percent from three-point range. Griffin's inability to create more chemistry on the field between his best players on the offensive end remained a point of contention until the end of the season for Griffin.
At the other end of the pitch, the Bucks' struggles were even more evident. Some of it was at least partly expected due to the massive changes to the team's defensive staff.
To open the season, Griffin used an aggressive defensive game plan that looked a lot like the units he ran as top assistant and defensive coordinator under Nick Nurse in Toronto. After a 130-111 loss at Toronto in the fourth game of the season, a group of veteran players went to Griffin and told him that such an aggressive scheme would not sit well with their staff and suggested letting Brook Lopez, the 2023 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, return to playing. Drop coverage in the pick-and-roll and stay closer to the rim during defensive possessions rather than catching or switching near the three-point line.
Lopez's change in responsibilities has helped the Bucks stabilize defensively after a rough start to the season, but they are still struggling to consistently make stops. To this point in the season, Griffin and his staff have not found a way around their personal issues and properly utilize the defensive power of both Lopez and Antetokounmpo, a five-time NBA All-Defensive Team winner and 2020 Defensive Player of the Year.
After Antetokounmpo's impassioned plea for a better defensive effort, the Bucks gave up 132 points and lost to the Utah Jazz (16th in offensive rating), their fourth loss in five games. The team bounced back from the loss to the Jazz with a dominant 135-102 win over the Boston Celtics, who were playing their fifth game in seven nights and have now won five of their last six games. But that stretch of games includes the aforementioned upset loss in Cleveland and a win on Saturday in which the Bucks allowed 135 points to the 4-38 Detroit Pistons. In January, the Bucks allowed 122.1 points per 100 possessions, which puts them 28th in defensive rating for the month.
With Griffin gone, the Bucks now have to find a way to correct course and get to a place where they believe they can win an NBA championship this season.
insatiable: The Bucks look lost without Antetokounmpo in a sloppy defeat to the Cavaliers
Nahm and Partnow: Breaking down the Bucks defense: What went right, what went wrong
insatiable: Bucks hear boos at home as defense gets destroyed again in loss to Jazz
(Top image by Adrian Griffin: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
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