When the Bucks came into Brooklyn in November, they did so looking something like their old selves.
A dramatically retooled Milwaukee roster — one that had not only made the tectonic shift from Jrue Holiday to Damian Lillard at starting point guard just before the start of training camp, but had also swapped out several other key members of last season’s rotation — had stumbled in the early going, splitting its first four outings. The culprit: a suddenly disorganized and permissive defense that had given up an average of 122 points per game, headlined by a 19-point blowout loss to the Raptors.
After that loss, several Bucks veterans went to first-year head coach Adrian Griffin and asked him to scrap the more aggressive defensive scheme he’d sought to implement to start the season, one that frequently had center Brook Lopez trapping ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll out on the perimeter, in favor of the more conservative drop coverage that had produced three top-five finishes in defensive efficiency in the previous five years. Griffin acquiesced; in the next game, against New York, Lopez thrived in the drop, blocking eight shots in 36 minutes of work as Milwaukee came away with the win.
In his pregame news conference that night at Barclays Center, I asked Griffin about the decision to toggle back to the drop. He started by talking about having the humility to realize you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. He ended by reaffirming the importance of developing scheme versatility, which he believed the Bucks will need in the playoffs.
It’s the middle, though, that I’ve been thinking about.
“Listen, you know, we’re still getting to know each other,” Griffin told me. “As a coach, there's some non-negotiables in [what we ask of our players], but there's also some [situations where] you need to be flexible. I think this is one of the instances for me — just listening to the players. You know, it doesn't have to be my idea. It just has to be the best idea for the team.”
The Bucks won that game in Brooklyn, but never quite seemed to get out of the getting-to-know-each-other phase with Griffin. And on Tuesday — or, according to the post-mortem reporting, perhaps much longer ago than that — the powers that be in Milwaukee decided that the best idea for the team was to move on from Griffin’s ideas entirely.
Milwaukee fired Griffin just 43 games into his first season as its head coach. It was his first run as an NBA head coach, period, after nine seasons as a player, plus 15 more as an assistant on the benches of Scott Skiles, Tom Thibodeau, Billy Donovan and Nick Nurse.
After spending nearly a quarter-century waiting for a chance, getting slightly more than half of one — getting axed before your first All-Star break — feels as brutally cold as the worst Wisconsin winter. Especially considering, at the time of his firing, Milwaukee sits at 30-13, in second place in the Eastern Conference.
But the devil, as ever, lies in the details … and, maybe as much as that, in the quote sheets.
Yes, the Bucks boast the East’s second-best record. That mark, though, has been propped up by a league-best 18-6 mark in “clutch” games — contests in which the score was within five points in the final five minutes. (Only the Warriors, Hawks, Raptors and Suns have played more close games.) Viewed through one lens, that’s a good thing — precisely what you’d hoped to achieve by importing Lillard, master and commander of Dame Time, to bolster what had previously been a pretty moribund crunch-time offense in Milwaukee.
There’s a glass-half-empty take, though: Why exactly is a team featuring two-time MVP worldbreaker Giannis Antetokounmpo, All-NBA offensive inferno Lillard, All-Defensive Team center Lopez and three-time All-Star swingman Khris Middleton finding its games coming down to one or two possessions in the final few minutes nearly 60% of the time?
Look past the 12-point antlers and you see a fairly soft underbelly on these Bucks. Milwaukee is just fifth in the East in point differential, and 10th in net rating. Strip out garbage-time numbers, as Cleaning the Glass does, and the Bucks are 11th in efficiency differential, outscoring opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions — closer to a high-40-win squad than the 60-win pace they’ve flirted with throughout the first half.
Adjust for the strength of the schedule that every team has faced thus far, as Dunks and Threes does, and Milwaukee’s margin dips to just 2.5 points per 100 — miles behind conference rivals Boston (plus-9.5) and Philadelphia (plus-6.4), and also a clear cut below surging home-court aspirants New York (plus-4.3) and Cleveland (plus-4.1).
When you’re the second-best team in the league, firing your head coach seems completely beyond the pale of absurdity. If you’re worried you might be the fifth-best team in your conference, though, it doesn’t seem quite as crazy … particularly when you’ve got one of the oldest and most expensive rosters in the NBA, when you’ve traded away virtually all of your upcoming draft picks and when you are very, very clearly in win-now, all-in, burn-the-boats mode, as directed by your rainmaking, franchise-defining superstar.
Antetokounmpo snapped the NBA world to attention in late August when he told Tania Ganguli of The New York Times, coming off an embarrassing first-round elimination at the hands of the hated Miami Heat last postseason, that he wouldn’t extend his contract in Milwaukee unless he felt “that everybody’s on the same page, everybody’s going for a championship, everybody’s going to sacrifice time away from their family like I do.” The desire to remove any doubt that Antetokounmpo would sign on the dotted line likely played a massive role in Milwaukee moving heaven, earth and Holiday to land Lillard just one month later; sure enough, Antetokounmpo put pen to paper on a three-year, $186 million extension just before the start of the season.
That wasn’t all Giannis said in the Times interview, though. He also expressed uncertainty about how the Bucks would transition from Mike Budenholzer — the head coach who had unlocked his game, vaulted Milwaukee to perennial title contention and won the 2021 NBA championship, but who’d been fired after the latest Miami defeat proved to be one high-profile playoff exit too many — to life under Griffin, the option with whom he was reportedly most intrigued over the summer.
“You’ve got to see the dynamics,” he said. “How the coach is going to be, how we’re going to be together. [...] This is my team, and it’s going to forever be my team. I don’t forget people that were there for me and allowed me to be great and to showcase who I am to the world and gave me the platform. But we have to win another one.”
When “we have to win another one” is the North Star, anything that represents a potential diversion from that path, or an impediment to following it, must be eliminated. A defense that ranks 21st in points allowed per possession, forces turnovers at the league’s lowest rate despite Griffin’s attempts to institute higher pressure/more volatile schemes, allows shots at the rim more often and stops them less effectively than at any point under Budenholzer, has gone from an elite defensive rebounding team to a mediocre one, and has been the worst in the NBA at getting back in transition … well, that’s a pretty big impediment.
And it’s one that Antetokounmpo has been harping on, in no uncertain terms, for months.
“We have to be more clear in what we’re trying to accomplish defensively and who we are going to let attack us, because you’ve got to live with something,” he told reporters after the Nov. 1 loss to the Raptors. “You cannot stop everything. We gotta keep figuring out solutions. Right now, we’re not there yet.”
“Defensively, man, like, I feel like we got to take it up a notch,” he said after a Nov. 11 loss to the Magic. “We have to take it up a notch. This is not who we are. This is not the Milwaukee Bucks. We gotta guard people.”
“Obviously, the talent level that we have is incredible, but we have to be more organized,” he said after a Dec. 7 loss to the Pacers. “I feel like sometimes we’re not organized at all. We don’t know what we’re trying to get from our offense, or sometimes defensively, we’re not sprinting back. … We had a lot of situations today that they got a lot of dunks, open 3s, early 3s. We have to be better.”
“We’re still not there, but I don’t know, me personally, I don’t care about the record,” he said after a narrow Dec. 21 win over the Magic. “I don’t care if we finish 60-22 or if we finish 65-17. It has nothing to do with what the goal is. The goal is to be on the same page, work on a string offensively and defensively, start believing. Start believing in our game plan, start believing in ourselves, start believing in our ability and know what everybody can do.”
“I’ve been a part of a few teams that have been No. 1 in defense, but at the end of the day, it’s all about pride and effort,” he said earlier this month after another loss to a Pacers team that’s beaten Milwaukee four times this season. “If you have no pride and you don’t put no effort in it, you don’t get no results. At times, I think we have a lot of pride because we know that we are extremely good and we play hard, and at times, we don’t.”
“Defensively, we have to have a plan,” he said after a Jan. 6 loss to the Rockets. “What is our strategy? Are we going to give a lot of open 3s? Are we going to let them get in the paint? When they go in the post, are we going to stay with ours and play one-on-one? What is our strategy? Right now, we are giving everything. We are giving everything. We are giving the 3s. We are giving straight-line drives. We are letting guys play in the post and get comfortable. We’re giving offensive rebounds.”
“We gotta defend the 3 better,” he said after the Bucks needed 141 points, including a season-high 45 from Lillard, to beat the league-worst Pistons on Saturday. “They were 10-for-17 in the first half. We gotta defend the closeout better.”
“This was a difficult decision to make during the season,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst said in a team statement announcing the firing. “We are working immediately toward hiring our next head coach.”
Which, now that you mention it, was just a couple of months after another experienced head coach — Terry Stotts, the architect of the offensive infrastructure in which Lillard blossomed to All-NBA status — walked off his job as a Milwaukee assistant following what was described as “an incident at [a] shootaround in Oklahoma City” emblematic of the “tenuous” relationship between the former longtime Trail Blazers coach and the Bucks’ first-year head man.
And, while we’re here, just a couple of weeks before Horst and assistant general manager Milt Newton started watching the Bucks’ practice sessions from the sideline, according to Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report, which “began raising eyebrows of coaching staff and players.”
It very much remains to be seen if Griffin’s replacement will have any more luck than he did cobbling together an average-or-better defense. (With a suite of options like Lillard, Malik Beasley, Cameron Payne, steps-slow versions of Pat Connaughton and Jae Crowder, and perhaps-not-ready-for-prime-time versions of MarJon Beauchamp and Andre Jackson Jr. at the point of attack, he’ll sure as hell need luck, and plenty of it.) The new boss will also need to apply some WD-40 to a Bucks offense that sits near the top of the NBA in points scored per possession due more to the individual gifts of Antetokounmpo, Lillard and a returning-to-form Middleton (averaging 17.4 points and 6.3 assists on 51/41/83 shooting splits since getting his minutes restriction bumped up to 30 minutes per game last month) than to the smooth tactical integration of their talents.
Whether it was months ago or Tuesday, that’s the conclusion the Bucks reached: Even at 30-13, this team was playing like at best the sum of its parts, not something greater, and that just wasn’t good enough to compete for championships in a conference featuring this Celtics team and that version of Joel Embiid, and against whichever monster emerges from the top of the West. And if that’s what both the bosses and the rank-and-file felt — according to that Athletic report, “players began to question Griffin’s schemes on both sides of the floor and the strategy that was being laid out for them each night” — then as cruel as 43 games feels, 82 would’ve felt even crueler.
Winning at the level the Bucks aspire to — the level Giannis demands, the highest level there is — requires relentless conviction, an unshakable belief. Without that type of buy-in, you’re drawing dead, and Griffin had evidently lost it. (If he ever had it in the first place: Marc Stein reported Tuesday that Antetokounmpo’s summertime “desire to play for Griffin is better described as a determination to play for someone other than Nick Nurse.”) Whoever comes next will have to inspire it to have any hope of playing the role of Ty Lue to Griffin’s David Blatt and getting the Bucks back to the top of the mountain.
He’d better inspire it fast, too; championship-or-bust franchises don’t have a whole lot of patience. If you’re not sure about that, just ask the guy whose “getting to know each other time” lasted all of three months.