Editor’s note: this week, we welcome rcon14, a contributor with our friends over at Acme Packing Company to their coverage of the Green Bay Packers. He’ll occasionally contribute here when he has Bucks insight to share. Follow him on Twitter/X and if you’re into the Packers, check out all his work at APC. All stats are through Monday, November 13, 2023.
The Milwaukee Bucks are not a very good basketball team right now. Yes, they are 6-4, and yes, Damian Lillard has missed a couple of games due to calf soreness, but nonetheless, they rank 21st in Cleaning the Glass’ net rating at -3.6 points per 100 possessions. Their victories are almost entirely by narrow margins: beating the Harden-less and also Harden return-less Sixers by a single point, a Bam Adebayo-less Heat by eight, the Knicks by five, the Nets by four, the lowly Pistons by two, and a Bulls team that had a players-only meeting on night one by nine. Losses have largely been blowouts: losing to the Hawks by 17, to the Raptors by 19, and to the Magic by 15. Only a narrow loss to the Pacers by two, which required a Herculean performance by Giannis Antetokounmpo to even make that one close, hasn’t been a blowout.
Winning close and losing big is not what good teams do. That is what mediocre, or dare I say it, bad teams do. And that is so starkly different than what the Milwaukee Bucks have been over the past five years. While their record is actually the same as it was to start the 2021 season, the performances are so very different. Don’t take my word for it, take the father of this very site’s word:
FWIW Bucks had a +10.7 differential when they started 5-4 in 20/21 and they destroyed Miami and Golden St in the 1st week. This year they haven’t looked good even in wins (-3.6 differential) and could easily be 2-7. Season is long but understandable for there to be concern. https://t.co/rwO3iFifdF— Frank Madden (@fmaddenNBA) November 12, 2023
There have been personnel changes. Damian Lillard has replaced Jrue Holiday. The Bucks traded defense for some much-needed half-court offense. Malik Beasley has entered the starting lineup for Grayson Allen, filling the spacing role the fifth starter so often occupies in Milwaukee. Khris Middleton has been on a minutes restriction coming off offseason knee surgery but has played well in the minutes he has been on the court.
The amount of personnel change is overstated, though. The bones of the team over the past five years are still here. It’s still Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez. The Bucks added Damian Lillard, who while vastly different than Jrue Holiday, is almost unanimously considered to be a much better player than Jrue Holiday, and fills a major need that the Bucks have had ever since ascending to contention. The role players are mostly cheap NBA role players, but the Bucks have made do with Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton, and a host of minimum or near-minimum players for years now. And it was never like this. The personnel may not be perfect, personnel rarely is, but the problem lies in a horrible decision made by the organization, and by the star player, this past summer. They hired the wrong head coach.
Before diving into what has happened this season, and why this team is not clicking, the context of Adrian Griffin’s hire is essential. Rather than diving into Griffin off the bat, it’s important to understand the context of the Milwaukee Bucks’ situation as it existed in the late spring of 2023. The Bucks were a highly successful team over the past five years. The core group had won a title in 2021 and posted great regular season after great regular season. They may have been robbed of back-to-back titles in 2022 because Khris Middleton slipped on the floor in the first-round series against Chicago. Alas, we will never know, but that’s life in the NBA. Injuries happen.
The Bucks were and still are an aging team. Their superstar may only be in his age 29 season, but his game is built on physical dominance, and questions about how he ages into his thirties are fair, even if they are uncomfortable to ponder. The supporting cast of characters are all much older. Khris Middleton is in his age 32 season, and Brook Lopez is in his age 35 season. Jrue Holiday and Damian Lillard were born only a month or so apart. The Bucks do not have time for someone to learn on the job. The Bucks do not have the luxury of time. It is now, maybe next season, and if you’re really lucky, then perhaps the season after that before this group is too old and some type of restructuring is necessary around Giannis and whatever is left of Damian Lillard at age 36. The window is now. It does not matter at all to the Milwaukee Bucks franchise if Adrian Griffin can become a good head coach in five years or three years. The train will have already left the station. If he is not ready to be a championship-level coach this season then hiring him was a mistake.
With the backdrop of that context, the Bucks hired a first-time head coach. Adrian Griffin had been an assistant in the NBA for fifteen years before landing his first head coaching role in Milwaukee. In interviews, he mentioned how he had interviewed for fourteen different head coaching positions over the course of his career. The Bucks were lucky number fifteen. Now, not knowing the context of how many interviews before getting hired is normal, I reached out to someone who had worked in the league before and asked them to contextualize that number for me.
Their response was legitimate surprise that the number had been that high. Not because they thought Griffin was qualified, but that almost no one reaches that number before teams simply stop interviewing them. In hiring Adrian Griffin, the Bucks landed on one of two things: Adrian Griffin was a materially different man than the one who had been turned down fourteen times, or that those fourteen other interviews were all wrong. NBA teams are not perfect. They have what end up being failed searches all the time. To some extent, NBA coaches are hired to be fired at a later date. Only four coaches in the league even exceeded Mike Budenholzer in tenure before his dismissal: Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra, Steve Kerr, and Michael Malone. Fourteen is a lot, though, isn’t it?
Off the court, the start of Griffin’s tenure as head coach was a bit chaotic. Right before training camp the team traded Jrue Holiday and Grayson Allen away and brought back Damian Lillard. They traded point-of-attack defense for some desperately needed halfcourt and clutch offense. Then, just a handful of days before the start of the season, lead assistant and de-facto offensive coordinator Terry Stotts stepped down from his role. The only interaction mentioned that may have led to this is the infamous post-shootaround coach huddle that Stotts was taking too long to get to whilst covering some Xs and Os with Giannis and Lillard. Griffin allegedly yelled at Stotts in front of the team to get into the coach’s huddle. The details around even this one incident are not super clear.
Of course, this is probably not the only incident that occurred or thing that led Stotts to decide he didn’t want to stick around, it’s just the only one we know about at this time. The entire Griffin/Stotts situation seems a bit bizarre from the outside. It’s not like a rookie coach having an experienced veteran on staff is something that is not seen across the league. And while Stotts’ last job was as the head coach for Damian Lillard’s Portland Trail Blazers, he has over a decade of experience as an assistant coach. It’s not like he doesn’t understand the assistant dynamic.
This part is less a statement of the facts and more editorializing and hypothesizing. There are many ways to view this departure. From my perspective, the Griffin/Stotts situation was an arranged marriage. Griffin and Stotts had never coached together before, which isn’t always how coaching staffs across the league are constructed, particularly for the important role of lead assistant. There is also the context of this:
One reported finalist for the job included Kenny Atkinson, who had coached an upstart Brooklyn Nets team trying to dig their way out of a deep rebuild with no draft picks to respectability and was fired after the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving circus came to town. The other, much more famous, finalist was former Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, whose Raptors defeated the Bucks on their way to a title in 2019. Nurse is now coaching the Philadelphia 76ers to the second-best net rating in the league at +12.4 per 100 possessions.
Again, we are now venturing into the unknown territory of slop and inference. But if the Milwaukee brass did not want to hire Adrian Griffin and instead wanted to hire Nick Nurse or Kenny Atkinson, or even another finalist not listed here, their hand was potentially forced by Giannis Antetkounmpo being adamant he wanted Adrian Griffin. Trying to pair him with an experienced veteran makes a lot of sense, hence the addition of Terry Stotts to the coaching staff. So in this scenario, the Bucks organization does not think Adrian Griffin is qualified to be a head coach or put together his own staff, so they tried to hire a “shadow coach” of sorts to stop the bleeding.
The other scenario, from my view, is that Griffin simply managed this relationship very poorly. Terry Stotts is familiar with the NBA landscape. He’s been a coach in the league for thirty years. His voluntary choice to step away is a big red flag for how Griffin is treating his assistants or in how Stotts believed this was going to go, and he did not want his name associated with the struggles of Griffin’s coaching with this group of players. Either way, it looks like a bearish sign.
Now out of the realm of slop and inference and back to cold hard basketball. The Bucks under Mike Budenholzer last year ran a near-perfect defensive scheme all regular season. They allowed the third-fewest opponent attempts at the rim, allowed the lowest frequency of corner threes, and forced teams into long twos at a better rate than anyone else in basketball. Not only were the Bucks rarely allowing attempts at the rim, but when opponents were getting there, only six teams were better at defending it. Posting those numbers with a lot of Bobby Portis minutes at the five is very impressive. If you could construct a perfect opponent shot chart, it would look a lot like the 2022–23 Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bucks also fouled at the second-lowest rate in the league and had the league’s second-best defensive rebounding rate. The bones there were phenomenal. The only thing they didn’t do well was force turnovers, which they did at a league-low rate. This all mixed led to the Bucks posting the fourth-best defensive rating in the league at 111.5 and the best eFG% allowed at just 52%.
The problem, of course, was Coach Budenholzer’s commitment to the defense they ran. The problems were not so much the concept, but rather the flexibility. This was an issue throughout his tenure. In the 2019 Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup with Boston, the players reportedly had to demand to increase their level of switching in a film session. In the 2022 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Bucks allowed a parade of catch-and-shoot threes from Boston role players that ultimately led to a change in their defense that worked so well throughout last season. In the first round last year, Jimmy Butler simply destroyed Jrue Holiday across the five-game series, and Budenholzer did not try Giannis Antetokounmpo on him, despite that being a very effective strategy in their 2021 playoff matchup. This defense did not need to be reinvented, it simply needed to be moderately more flexible than what it had been.
That brings us to the defense we have seen so far. The Bucks rank a disastrous 25th in Cleaning the Glass’ Defensive Rating, allowing over 117 points per 100 possessions. Despite an emphasis from Adrian Griffin on ball pressure and forcing turnovers, the Bucks simply do not have the personnel to execute that. The Bucks are one of the oldest teams in the league. They are big. They play a traditional drop-defense center. They have no standout point-of-attack disruptors. Despite this emphasis, they rank a below-average nineteenth in turnover rate.
The trade-offs for this aggressiveness are steep. The Bucks are bleeding efficiency in all the places they used to excel. They’ve dropped to eleventh in opponent free throw rate. They are a below-average defensive rebounding team with boxout king Brook Lopez and defensive rebounding maniac Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks still do not allow a ton of shots at the rim, where they rank fifth, and they still force teams into plenty of mid-range shots. They’re allowing more threes this year, but aside from last season, nothing too drastically different than it was for many of the Budenholzer years. What has changed so starkly is opponent efficiency on shots at the rim. Prior the Bulls game, the Bucks were 22nd in rim FG% allowed. After a game in which the Bulls put together a fifth-percentile rim finishing rate, the Bucks have moved up to just league average in opponent rim FG%. To have two bigs that have both finished as finalists for DPOY in the past few years and defend the rim at a mediocre rate is quite difficult to achieve.
The Bucks started the season playing a more “aggressive” defense and asked Brook Lopez to step up higher on screens, sometimes even blitzing or trapping in the pick-and-roll. The results were disastrous. Atlanta absolutely blitzed Milwaukee in a parade of lobs, cuts, and open shots.
They also destroyed the Bucks in transition, buoyed by a parade of poor Damian Lillard turnovers. Transition defense is another place where the Bucks have been horrendous. Cleaning the Glass ranks them 25th in total transition defense, which factors in both frequency allowed and efficiency allowed. The Bucks allow a staggering 40.4% of their missed shots to turn into transition opportunities for the opponent, the most in the league (league average is around 30%). They predictably rank third-to-last in Cleaning the Glass’ Pts+/Possession in transition of their misses. They both allow more transition opportunities than any other team in the league and defend them at the seventh-worst rate.
Now, the trade-off for bad transition defense is that you typically will have a good offensive rebounding rate. You are committing bodies to the offensive glass to try and juice your offensive numbers knowing that you may get beat in transition a bit more often. There’s just one problem for the Bucks: they rank 26th in ORB%. They are sending these bodies, particularly from the corners, even occasionally the wings, but they’re not actually getting the rebounds, and then their small backcourt is getting carved to death in transition.
Now, not only are the Bucks executing these tactical decisions poorly, but these are poor tactical decisions to begin with. I don’t need to walk through the template of a successful defense with Brook Lopez with you. You watched it for five years. I don’t even need to use the Bucks as the only example either. Despite having two undersized guards last year and a wing rotation that can at best be described as uninspiring, the 2022–23 Cleveland Cavaliers finished first in defensive rating. You can still create a successful drop defense even without elite point-of-attack defense. It certainly helps to have Jrue Holiday hounding guys around screens, but you can play the math game of the opponent shooting some lightly contested long twos when you have a halfcourt offense cheat code in Damian Lillard (despite the Bucks being a disorganized mess on that end, they still rank 8th in halfcourt offense PPP).
Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard’s 2017–18 Portland Trail Blazers played the math game pretty well despite two poor defenders at the guard spot with Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and a wing rotation of largely forgettable role players. They did so by filtering the ball to a pre-washed version of Jusuf Nurkic, which led to the Blazers allowing the lowest rim FG% in the league that year. You absolutely can survive with bad guard play on defense. You just have to play defense in a smarter way that acknowledges the very weaknesses that your players have while accentuating the strengths of your personnel. Or, as some would call it: coaching.
While the Bucks have been less aggressive with Lopez after the first few games, it’s still not the same. The Bucks played more recognizably against the Knicks, but Lopez continues to be a step or two higher than he traditionally has been, and it’s continuing to lead to problems. Lopez’s positioning is not the only issue, however. Griffin has called for more ball pressure on the perimeter, partially to increase the number of turnovers. Milwaukee is forcing more turnovers, but again, still just up to 22nd in the league.
Meanwhile, bad perimeter defenders are getting blown by and having to play catch-up from thirty-plus feet out, leaving Brook Lopez in the unenviable position of truly playing two-against-one. If the Bucks concede that this personnel group is not going to force turnovers at the rate at which it would need to to make the trade-off worth it, then the perimeter defenders could play more conservatively and improve the continuity of the defense, all while exerting less energy.
But this would have to come at the cost of one of Griffin’s main pillars of defense, one he has not shown the willingness to part with, despite how poorly it fits with the personnel at hand. The Bucks had the bones of something that worked very well defending the league’s preeminent play, and now they are getting destroyed by it.
The Bucks defense is allowing opponents to score 1.1 points per pick-and-roll, the 3rd-worst in the NBA.— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) November 13, 2023
Milwaukee ranked 2nd last year, per @SynergySST.
It's a long season ahead to figure it out but what a rough start for the defense under new head coach Adrian Griffin. pic.twitter.com/xPE7kRX9Sl
The league is too talented for the Bucks to be operating at a major deficit at the head coaching position. Instead of taking what the Bucks already had and making minor tweaks to improve upon it, Adrian Griffin has completely blown up what was already working. His top assistant, and the only one on staff with any experience constructing good high-pick-and-roll-based offenses is gone, at least in part due to him. The change to a slightly more conservative defense was demanded by the players, and Griffin conceded rather than being able to recognize what was so obvious to everyone: his desired style of basketball does not fit this personnel, and may not fit anywhere in the league anymore as a workable defensive system.
The league is too talented, there are too many shooters, ballhandlers, and passers on the court to force the volume of turnovers needed to be a highly successful turnover-based defense. If a coach is only going to be reactive to what his players demand and cannot proactively construct a structure on both ends of the floor that optimizes what the personnel excels at, then they’re not doing their job, particularly at a level that is necessary to win in tough playoff series where margins are so small.
The idea that time is needed to give Griffin a chance to implement what he wants to do flies directly in the face of evidence that has both happened to the Bucks and is happening around the league right now. Mike Budenholzer immediately had the 2018–19 Milwaukee Bucks clicking. Through their first ten games, the 2018-19 Bucks had the second-best net rating in that NBA at +12.8, only behind the Stephen Curry/Kevin Durant Warriors. The vision of what he wanted implemented was immediate. The team was first in opponent free-throw rate, sixth in defensive rebounding rate, and third in overall defense. The team was getting up more threes and had an efficient restricted area or three-point attempt shot chart. Good coaches can get their ideas implemented quickly.
Just this season alone we can see it with Nick Nurse in Philadelphia. Playing without James Harden and mostly without the pieces acquired for him, the 76ers are second in the league in net rating. They’re third in offense and seventh in defense. The Houston Rockets have gone from a tire-fire of a franchise to posting the fourth-best net rating in the league despite only adding Fred Van Vleet and Dillon Brooks. Why? Ime Udoka might just be a good basketball coach. Good coaches can get what they want implemented quickly. In this Bucks’ case, what Griffin wants to implement is sub-optimal, and he’s doing a very poor job of actually implementing it. A double-whammy of bad.
The benefit of hiring a first-time head coach is that cutting the rope should be relatively painless if the organization has the courage to do so. If the Bucks are truly serious about winning a title this year, they need to rip the Band-Aid off soon. Waiting until the summer where a playoff exit gives you an easy off-ramp is already too late. They will have wasted 25-50% of this group’s remaining title window by doing so. It will require bravery to do something that will be unprecedented. Every day that goes by is another day without a competent coach getting valuable time and reps with this group, and another day wasted trying to force something that clearly isn’t there. The other fourteen teams were right. Adrian Griffin is in way over his head, and the Bucks cannot afford to waste time for him to try and swim to the surface. A surface that, in the end, he may never reach.