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Whose team is this?

In practice and in theory

NBA: Milwuakee Bucks-Media Day Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most pressing questions coming into the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2023–24 campaign was how Damian Lillard would fit with Giannis Antetokounmpo. They had spent their entire careers as lone wolves for the teams that drafted them, trailblazers who bucked the trend of superstars leaving for glitzier media markets. United at last, would they become the Warriors or the Nets?

Yet another pressing question concerned yet another addition: that of Adrian Griffin. After honing his craft under Nick Nurse, he arrived to questions about whether a first-time head coach would be able to take a championship contender to the promised land—and whether he would have secured the job over more qualified candidates without Giannis’ endorsement.

For the last five seasons, there was less tension surrounding the question: whose team is this? The Bucks were largely Giannis’ team, but on the court, they were Giannis’ team in Bud’s system. Bud provided Giannis with what he thought was best for the team, which did not always align with what Giannis wanted. Notably, he was not allowed to defend Jimmy Butler during the playoffs.

On the one hand, the circumstances of Griffin’s arrival suggested that Giannis may have more say over the system. On the other hand, Dame’s arrival meant Giannis was no longer the sole alpha. Taken together, the identity of the team—a nebulous concept, but one that is important for buy-in and shapes how the team plays—was up for grabs.

As the first quarter of the season comes to a close, sample sizes begin looking awfully tasty for number-crunching. I’ll compare usage rates for Giannis and Dame before zooming out to consider Griffin’s role with the team.

As of Monday, the Bucks were sitting at 12-5. Giannis’ usage rate was 34% and Dame’s was 28.4%. (A quick primer: Usage rates gives us a rough sense of how often a player is, well, used, where “used” means “shot the ball—including free throws—” or “turned the ball over.” It is calculated as a proportion of the team’s shots and turnovers overall when that player is on the court. Accordingly, missing games doesn’t throw the usage rate off-kilter.) Together, Giannis and Dame account for just over 60% of the Bucks’ possessions.

To analyze how usage rates have changed over the season and how they have improved as the Bucks have become regulars in the win column, I’ll look at how they changed from the first nine games (where the Bucks went 5-4) and the last eight games (where they were 7-1). Notably, Giannis’ usage rate dropped about three points (35.3 vs. 32.5) while Dame’s ticked upward by a point (28.1 vs. 29.1). This represents a gradual shift toward the ball being in Dame’s hands, even if it is in Giannis’ hands more often. Unsurprisingly, their usage rates are relatively low compared to previous seasons, likely reflecting the other’s presence.

More discussed and perhaps more important is Dame Time, defined here as clutch time, defined here as possessions in the last five minutes of games when the point differential is five or fewer points. In the conversation when Giannis interrupted Dame’s physical, Giannis’ deference to Dame in the clutch was one of the key themes. This has borne out in practice, with Giannis sitting at 26.5 compared to Dame’s whopping 43.0.

Within the season, both Giannis and Dame have seen their clutch usage drop, but this drop has been starker for Giannis (31.8 vs. 20.5) than Dame (45.7 vs. 40.0). Initially, Dame was used about 50% more than Giannis in the clutch; recently, that has jumped to 100% (i.e., double). Compared to Giannis, Dame’s grip on Dame Time has persisted.

With both of their clutch usage rates decreasing, who has picked up the slack? Enter Pat Connaughton, who saw his 0% clutch usage nine games in skyrocket to 24% over the last eight games. With the number of clutch Pat threes in recent weeks, this passes the sniff test. It also suggests that teams have adjusted to the two-headed hydra of Giannis and Dame, leaving shooters like Planet Pat ready to launch.

Interestingly, compared to previous seasons, Giannis’ clutch usage is relatively low, but Dame’s is relatively high. Dame’s high usage rate here does not extend to the fourth quarter as a whole, suggesting that it is unique to clutch time. A more charitable interpretation is that Dame has more room to operate due to Giannis’ gravitational pull, and he takes his shots in clutch time. A less charitable interpretation is that the apparent lack of an offensive system reverts to “Dame Time” when it is “Dame Time.”

Ultimately, I am heartened by these trends. To me, the Bucks are scariest when Dame has the ball in his hands, allowing him to (a) drive, (b) shoot, or (c) kick to Giannis driving to the rim—all pretty good options! From this perspective, I would tentatively posit that from a pure basketball standpoint, the Bucks should be Dame’s team.

How does Griffin fit in? As it turns out, starkly. Takes have been flying left and right about Coach Griffin, but one thing that most folks can agree on is that Griffin has implemented his system, for better or worse, and with some uncertainty as to what said system is on the offensive side of the ball. In doing so, he has made it clear that it is his team, even if Brook has returned to gaudy block totals after players cried foul.

Notably, this system has appeared more conducive to Giannis’ desires. No longer relegated to his role as a weak-side free safety, he has the freedom to be able to guard opposing stars. Based on the above, it also seems somewhat conducive to Dame’s desires, at least in terms of not retiring the Dame Time nickname now that the typical clock has shifted ahead two hours.

Griffin is in a tough spot. His status as a first-year head coach is tied to Giannis’ blessing as a two-time MVP and former NBA champion. It makes all the sense in the world that he would bend over backward to please his star. To a lesser extent, it makes sense that he would do the same for Dame, although I would imagine that Stotts’ departure did not land well.

But if a coach is simply a puppet for their players’ desires, why have a coach in the first place? To be sure, authoritarianism is not the answer; a delicate dance is required between system and players. Bud got shown the door by dancing this dance to his own tempo, making the Bucks his team over Giannis. Griffin is dancing to his own tempo too, but Giannis is dancing along to the tune of a 12-5 start that, while certainly not the end of the world, has not set the world on fire.

Ultimately, a coach is responsible for providing what their team needs, not what they want. The aging Bucks do not need to be run ragged, even if Giannis is thrilled. The Bucks, and every other team, should be their coach’s team, in a way that maximizes the talents of their players. The Bucks’ have been Adrian Griffin’s team thus far, but for the opposite reason.