Dan Shafer is the founder of The Recombobulation Area, an award-winning, reader-supported weekly column and online publication. Subscribe HERE.
The Milwaukee Bucks are having a pretty weird season.
The team’s record is 32-15, second in the Eastern Conference. That’s not the weird part. On the surface, the Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez being among the top teams in the NBA, just past the season’s midway point, is about what we’ve come to expect in this remarkably competitive era of Bucks basketball. The Bucks have been winning a whole lot of games, just like they always do, but look even slightly below the surface and you’ll see churning waters and chaos beneath.
That profound weirdness and uncomfortable tension finally snapped last week when the Bucks fired head coach Adrian Griffin, just 43 games into his first season on the job, and hired Doc Rivers to take his place calling the shots on the Bucks bench.
This made for what has been, frankly, a discombobulating time to be a Milwaukee Bucks fan. It’s not ideal for a team to fire a coach in the middle of the season. It’s pretty bizarre to have to conduct a clandestine coaching search, and for that search to produce someone as well-known as Doc Rivers. It was odd, if not strangely enjoyable, to see Joe Prunty return to the sidelines as Interim Coach.
But this team desperately needed to recombobulate.
That starts with moving on from Griffin. To be fair, he was put in a very difficult situation. Having your first time as a head coach be on a team with championship aspirations, coming off a shocking postseason upset, and having to adjust to a trade overhauling the roster just weeks before training camp started, makes for a lot of ingredients for a truly challenging scenario.
But quite simply, he did not meet the challenge. Griffin was a disaster as head coach. He did not appear to have a cohesive, or even discernible, offensive or defensive strategy. It would be one thing if the system Griffin was implementing needed time to click, but it was just never clear what his plan was—on either end of the court. For a veteran team like the Bucks, with so much experience together, to look this disorganized on both offense and defense was just unacceptable.
The defense cratered to its worst mark in years, hemorrhaging points in transition night after night. Giannis even boiled over with comments to reporters following a loss in Houston, saying, according to The Athletic‘s Eric Nehm, “Defensively, we have to have a plan. What is our strategy?…Right now we are giving everything.”
When your star player is saying things like “What is our strategy?” and it’s almost halfway through the season, that’s a pretty big problem.
The offense, while far more successful, has been baffling, too. The instant the Lillard trade was made, basketball fans wondered about the tantalizing proposition of a Dame-Giannis pick-and-roll, but that was just…not a big part of the team’s offense, for some reason. Lillard and Antetokounmpo are each among the best offensive players of their generation, but Griffin never seemed to be able to find the right way to maximize the Lillard-Antetokounmpo duo, despite how seemingly complementary their skills appear to be. If that proves as a puzzle too difficult to piece together, that’s a pretty big problem, too.
There have been rumblings going back to the preseason about Griffin’s ability to meet this moment. Perhaps Terry Stotts’ surprising departure as lead assistant before the season even began should’ve been seen as a bigger red flag. Perhaps when Bobby Portis challenged the coach following the Bucks’ loss to the Indiana Pacers in the In-Season Tournament, that should’ve been seen as more of a sign of internal strife than simply a post-loss outburst from a passionate player. There have been endless indicators that things weren’t going to plan.
The Bucks did the right thing by pulling the ripcord, and making the difficult decision to fire Griffin now, instead of waiting for a change that might never come.
The post-firing spin, whether it was from Griffin or elsewhere, saying that, before the Lillard trade happened, this might be a year where the Bucks take a “step back” (as Chris Haynes reported at Bleacher Report), giving a chance for Griffin to grow into the job, is beyond absurd. When you have Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of the 20 best players in NBA history, in his prime, there are no steps backwards to be taken, period. A championship has to be the goal, every year. With Griffin as head coach, the Bucks could not be taken seriously as championship contenders. Better to have a messy in-season moment than to live under the illusion that things would magically change for the better.
The Bucks’ record, and the team’s overall offensive output, has masked a ton of underlying issues. Talent does tend to win out in the NBA, and the Bucks are an extraordinarily talented team. But Milwaukee has played the league’s easiest schedule in the first half of the season, and things are about to get much more difficult. Look no further than the immediate future: The Bucks are headed out on a five-game Western Conference road trip, then return home with a pair of back-to-backs, and then after the All-Star break, will have nine of 13 games on the road, including a stretch where they’ll play the Warriors, Lakers, Clippers, Kings, 76ers, Suns, and Celtics in consecutive games.
Which makes this quite the time for Doc Rivers to be taking the reins.
It’s a pretty remarkable full circle moment for the longtime head coach to go back to the city where he played college basketball at Marquette University, to coach in an arena where his jersey hangs from the rafters. In no small part due to that, and his breadth of success in the NBA, Rivers will undoubtedly command respect in the locker room. He’s a legend.
I am optimistic that Rivers can help this team course-correct and get on the right path toward championship contention. The Bucks have a far better chance of winning the Finals this year now with Rivers than they had with Griffin. This might work, actually.
But it’s an odd situation, because if Rivers had been the Bucks’ hire last offseason after moving on from Mike Budenholzer, I’m not sure I’d have that same optimism. Rivers has been at the helm for a number of devastating postseason losses during his tenure in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, though it’s difficult to discern whether those losses had more to do with the players on the 76ers and Clippers than the coaching. Nevertheless, Rivers’ postseason struggles are A Thing, and it’s going to be A Thing We Talk About come April, May, and (with some luck) June.
Beyond the coaching, too, the Bucks might seek to extend this period of recombobulation in the immediate future by making some changes to the roster before the February 8 trade deadline. Jon Horst has been one of the NBA’s most aggressive GMs at the deadline, and there’s opportunity for the Bucks to retool the parts of its bench that might have been a better fit around Jrue Holiday as point guard than on a team with Damian Lillard. While the back-end of the Bucks’ defense should improve with better coaching—Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo are still among the league’s best defensive front lines—the perimeter still needs work, and it would not be a surprise to see a move made to bolster that part of the roster, even if that means parting with some longtime role players and/or promising up-and-comers.
The bottom line is this discombobulating season has demanded some recombobulation. And while it might look like quite the mess right now, there’s time for this team to settle in, put its metaphorical shoes back on, get its luggage together, and proceed to its destination. Let’s just hope that destination is another celebration in the Deer District and parade in downtown Milwaukee, and not another gut-wrenching playoff exit.