Bucks Hiring Doc Rivers Is An Upgrade — But Not the Coach to Take Them to a Title

Bucks Hiring Doc Rivers Is An Upgrade — But Not the Coach to Take Them to a Title article feature image

Pictured: Doc Rivers who has been reportedly hired by the Milwaukee Bucks to replace Adrian Griffin — but might not be exactly the coach the Bucks need.

The worst kept secret in the NBA  became public knowledge on Tuesday as the Milwaukee Bucks let the world know that head coach Adrian Griffin had lost the locker room. The Bucks fired Griffin on Tuesday after 43 games, one of the shortest stints for a coach in NBA history, and with a record 30-13, good for second-best in the Eastern Conference.

Even with those accolades, however, this should come as no surprise. Nor should it come as a surprise that the Bucks are hiring Doc Rivers as their next head coach.

There were some questions about whether the initial report of Rivers agreeing to join the Bucks was accurate, as it was credited to "CNN Sports" via the NBA on TNT broadcast. But on Wednesday morning, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed Rivers is headed to Milwaukee.

BREAKING: Doc Rivers is finalizing an agreement to become the next coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, sources tell ESPN. The Bucks are getting the coach they targeted over the past 24 hours. pic.twitter.com/SP16vhYJDP

— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) January 24, 2024

Here's what you should know about that …

How Did the Bucks Get Here with Griffin?

There were small markers all the way this season to foreshadow an untenable situation despite the rosy resume. It started when Terry Stotts, who had been comfortable in retirement but chose to return as an assistant, suddenly departed in preseason after conflicts with Griffin. For a coach who played and coached in the league for a long time to suddenly quit means something.

Then the season began, and it was clear from the get-go that the Bucks' defense had fallen off a cliff. You would see Brook Lopez frustrated and yelling coming out of timeouts. It was reported that Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez had to convince Griffin to abandon his preferred scheme to return to the drop coverage that has made them a top defense year in and year out and Lopez a DPOY candidate. Then, in the In-Season Tournament, after the Bucks were knocked out by the Pacers, Bobby Portis confronted his coach in front of the team postgame in the locker room, challenging him.

Finally, Giannis Antetokounmpo himself has come to make comments about how the team was playing, the scheme, and the direction of the team. Antetokounmpo reportedly was the strongest advocate for hiring Griffin. Losing him was likely the last straw.

The Bucks have been a top-ten defense each of the past five seasons under former coach Mike Bundeholzer; this season, they rank 21st, schedule-adjusted.

Milwaukee went 63-13 in division games under Mike Budenholzer; they are just 8-6 this season. That may seem irrelevant, but those games are against familiar opponents with shorter travel and in a weaker division over that span. Winning those games is important for resume-building.

The list goes on and on of the issues this season that were masked by the Bucks' schedule vs. what is . Milwaukee's offense was elite, third-best in the league this season. But they were top ten each season but last year under Budenholzer, and added Damian Lillard for Jrue Holiday. Griffin deserves credit for keeping the offense elite, but the letdowns otherwise were significant.

But ultimately, the numbers and stats don't truly matter; the players did not have confidence and trust in Griffin. That was evident in watching their reactions, on-court play, and post-game comments night after night. League insiders were waiting for the other shoe to drop with Griffin. It dropped Tuesday.

Is Doc Rivers the Right Coach for the Bucks?

Rivers is the coach that you hire if you want to take a team that has not won 50 games and wants them to win 50 games. He's the coach you hire if you want to instill principles and culture. He is not the coach you hire if you want to win a championship. Rivers won a title in 2008 and deserves a world of credit for the culture he instilled in Boston during the Big 3 era, as well as success with the Clippers and Sixers in the regular season.

But Rivers struggles when faced with different schemes and lineups in the playoffs and has a nasty history of blowing series leads. He would be the safest hire, a former player the players will be comfortable with. But he does cap their ceiling in an era where they are absolutely "title or bust."

Rivers is be an upgrade over Griffin and a significant one, but he's not the "best" hire.

The problem is that the best hires were not available. The Warriors' Kenny Atkinson would be a perfect fit, but he's midseason, and with Golden State suffering the death of Dejan Milojević, Atkinson is unlikely to feel comfortable leaving. Terry Stotts might have been a simple answer, but Stotts' defenses were typically poor, and his playoff performance was significantly worse than his regular season record, similar to Rivers.

Mike D'Antoni is a little long in the tooth. Jeff Van Gundy was available and has looked around at various jobs for a decade, but hasn't actually coached in the NBA in longer than that.

Bringing back Mike Budenholzer seemed untenable for a host of reasons. Among them, they fired him the same week his brother died, and if you're looking to go to the next level, returning to the safe and comfortable is not an answer front offices accept.

The Bucks understood they need a championship-level coach. Whether Rivers can be that guy, after such a massive failure with Griffin, is what remains to be seen.

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Doug Ziefel
May 21, 2024 UTC