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Bucks' dismissal of Adrian Griffin illustrates where they are as a team

Perhaps the Terry Stotts situation should’ve been the biggest signal things weren’t going to work with Adrian Griffin and the Milwaukee Bucks.

A first-year coach in an urgent, win-now situation is always tricky. Moving over six inches to that big chair, especially for coaches who’ve waited through coaching cycle after coaching cycle, means guys have more time to let ideas marinate in their heads and perhaps they become married to those principles.

Either way, the Milwaukee Bucks came to the conclusion — despite a gaudy 30-13 record — that Griffin was not going to be the man to take them through a top-heavy Eastern Conference and to the NBA Finals in June.

Seemingly, so much had to go wrong for such a hasty move, but Griffin’s job security had been a topic around league circles since the season began.

Almost, alarmingly so.

“I try to block out the noise,” Griffin told Yahoo Sports not long after the Bucks’ win over the host Pistons on Monday night, which turned out to be his last as head coach. “I stay off social media. Everybody’s gonna have their opinion and they’re entitled to their opinion, but I know what I know.”

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - JANUARY 13: Head coach Adrian Griffin of the Milwaukee Bucks looks on in the first half against the Golden State Warriors at Fiserv Forum on January 13, 2024 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Adrian Griffin's tenure with the Bucks lasted just 43 games. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) (Patrick McDermott via Getty Images)

He knew there was speculation about his job but could only block out so much. Regular-season wins couldn’t save his job, and clearly it seems there was no one with power willing to toss out a lifeline.

“I know what we need to do," Griffin said. "We just got to trust ourselves. And this is, you know, a very high-character team and you just got to trust that.”

League sources told Yahoo Sports that Doc Rivers is a prime target for the Bucks to replace Griffin. While Rivers is in the broadcast booth for the moment and was fired by the Philadelphia 76ers after their underwhelming postseason, he does have championship experience, even if 2008 feels a bit distant from the present day.

Griffin talked about leaning on mentors in the coaching profession, but wouldn’t name them. If Rivers was indeed one of them, it makes a tricky situation even trickier when considering how much this is a relationship business based on trust.

But on the floor, drawing a line from Griffin to Rivers would point to, perhaps, an inability to establish a true pecking order and most certainly highlight a team lacking a real defensive identity.

There’s no reason, despite the loss of Jrue Holiday, the Bucks should be in the lower third of defensive efficiency. Damian Lillard is no Holiday, but Giannis Antetokounmpo is the league’s most versatile defender and Brook Lopez is one of the best at defending the rim. Too many times, the Bucks looked scattered on that end — probably because the floor was unbalanced due to the offensive structure being uneven.

“There's times early in the season where they came to me and said, 'Hey, we want to do this,'” Griffin told Yahoo Sports on Monday. “The veteran guys, they come to you and say, 'Hey Coach, we feel strongly about this. You gotta listen. But I do know what it takes to win. It’s give and take.

“You gotta keep the ego out, but there’s times where I had to assert myself and say, 'Listen, this is what we need to do.'”

Antetokounmpo stumped for and was 100 percent behind Griffin’s hiring, and even though Nick Nurse seemed strong in the running early, it was Griffin whom Antetokounmpo put his force behind — and this was before Antetokounmpo signed his extension, it should be noted. So while one can assume he ordered the code red, that would seem a bit strong. But was Griffin supported by everyone in the Bucks organization, especially knowing he’s a first-year head coach on a veteran team, presumably with room to grow?

Even David Blatt got a full year and a half before he was ousted by the Cavaliers in 2016 with a similar record, being replaced by Ty Lue, who turned Cleveland into a champion.

Either the warning signs were so glaring it was hard to predict, or people were lukewarm on his hiring from Day 1. With Blatt, he was named the head coach before LeBron James announced he was returning to Cleveland, so that completely reshaped the direction of the franchise.

While Griffin was hired before the Lillard trade, the bones of this team were set because Antetokounmpo was the constant.

Perhaps it speaks to overall impatience from NBA front offices, or the overall pressure the Bucks are feeling to elevate themselves back to title contention. Since winning the NBA title in 2021, they’ve won one playoff series and were ousted in the first round last spring, a surprising upset at the hands of the Miami Heat.

Lopez is 35, Lillard 33, Khris Middleton 32 with knee issues and Antetokounmpo 29 with real miles on his back and knees. The urgency is apparent.

It seemed as if a repeated theme this season was Bucks players talking about looking for an identity, which feels rare for a team with a championship core — even if you’re adding Lillard and a new coach.

Some of the players spoke about it taking time to adjust from Mike Budenholzer’s system to a new one. Some expressed hope things would turn a corner soon, at least to consistency in performance, if not in the standings.

Lillard certainly could’ve been deployed better, and the up-and-down nature of this team left many confused. Were they the team that blasted the league-leading Boston Celtics at home to the point the Celtics starters were sent to the bench directly after halftime? Or the team that got blitzed by the Cleveland Cavaliers days before heading to Detroit for two straight? Milwaukee was without Antetokounmpo, but the Cavaliers were without Darius Garland and Evan Mobley and, yet, spanked the Bucks by 40.

Stotts was no defensive wizard, but having an experienced coach on the sideline would’ve aided in the situation, and he knew how to best use Lillard from their days in Portland. Lillard is still performing, but his numbers are down and you feel him, at times, forcing his offense. That’s a signal of a veteran player who doesn’t know how he can assert himself in the flow of things, a signal of a disjointed offensive philosophy.

Lillard’s shooting percentage is down to its worst mark since 2015-16, not counting his injury-riddled 29-game campaign in 2021-22. At 43% from the field and 35% from 3-point range, he’s still an All-Star, but the Bucks probably need him at his peak to compete with the Celtics and now the dangerous Miami Heat after acquiring Terry Rozier from the Charlotte Hornets.

Oddly enough, the Bucks are second in offensive efficiency, but their schedule will toughen over the next several weeks. Squeezing out wins against the likes of the Detroit Pistons didn’t exactly bolster confidence for where this team was headed, especially with the trade deadline approaching and the Bucks having little in the way of assets to improve their existing roster.

The Bucks set a high bar and swung big on Griffin, and now must clean up the mess in the meantime to prove it’s a coaching issue and not something deeper.