As it stands, the Milwaukee Bucks’ offseason has been topsy-turvy. We said a tearful goodbye to Jevon Carter, Goran Dragic, Joe Ingles, Meyers Leonard, and Wesley Matthews - a quinumvirate whose loss we may never fully overcome. Luckily, we warmly welcomed Malik Beasley, Jazian Gortman, Andre Jackson Jr., Chris Livingston, Robin Lopez, and Omari Moore into the fold, a sextet of folks who all certainly play basketball. These moves infused some needed youth into our aging roster, but ultimately amounted to rearranging deck chairs on a ship.
The real tops and turves stem from the firing of Mike Budenholzer and the subsequent hiring of Adrian Griffin. Five years of Coach Bud’s finely tuned system have been unceremoniously thrown out the window. In their place are master schemes that have been expertly honed by Coach Griffin over a decade and a half as an assistant coach.
My sarcasm comes from our propensity as humans to glom onto change as a lifeboat that will take us from failure to success. I argue that (over-)attention on Griffin will lead us to attribute changes in the Bucks’ performance to his coaching at the expense of other factors. Instead, the Bucks’ performance will mostly come down to the players - which is okay, because they aren’t half bad.
As the Bucks season slowly rears to life, our eyes will slowly train onto Griffin. Understandably so: he’s a rookie head coach for a team with championship aspirations, which are shrinking fast as their generational player continues his trek on the treadmill of time. However, it is important to realize how our attention can bias our perception.
To understand the complexity of the world - well, the Bucks’ world - it is impossible to attend to all of its moving parts at once. Instead, we focus on certain elements that seem particularly meaningful - like a new head coach. This attention translates into greater understanding of these particular elements, but at the cost of understanding other pieces of the puzzle. In psychology, this is broadly referred to as change blindness.
Moreover, we often attend to these elements in order to understand what will happen next. Here at Brew Hoop (and other, lesser venues), we are constantly divining the Bucks’ playoff chances, the best eight-man rotations against Eastern Conference rivals, and the like. We typically do so by making causal inferences, where a cause (e.g., Pat Connaughton can’t hit the side of a barn) is linked to an effect (e.g., he won’t crack the playoff rotation). When we attend to particular elements, though, we are more likely to engage in causal attribution for these elements: we attribute them as the cause of effects.
Translated to the Bucks, we may observe that Griffin introduces a new defensive scheme and that the defense improves. Due to change blindness, we may focus on the new defensive scheme rather than, say, the improvement of individual players. Due to causal attribution, we may further link the new defensive scheme as the cause of the improved defense.
That may indeed be the case, at least in part. But it is important to be aware that other elements of the Bucks will change this season - beyond the new guy on the sidelines - and that these elements can also cause certain effects. In other words, although silver-bullet thinking should not usually be heeded, it should be especially heeded when there is a gleaming silver bullet that captures our attention.
At the end of the day, I suspect that nothing will (really) change. Griffin will not be a carbon-copy of Budenholzer, but he did not inherit a system that requires wholesale revision. I also do not think he has a particularly long leash to make changes: Giannis’ blessing is one thing, but a year or two without results is another.
Most importantly, as much as the coach can affect things on the margins, basketball is decided by those that touch the basketball. To that end, the most important changes this offseason weren’t changes at all: the Bucks brought back Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Jae Crowder, A.J. Green, Brook Lopez, and Khris Middleton. That means that the guys with the lion’s share of the minutes - Giannis, Jrue, Khris, and Brook (plus key role players) - are the same. That heavily dictates the trajectory of the squad, for better or worse.
To me, the clearest indicators of a successful season might not include how Griffin is able to adapt to his new position. Rather, it will be Khris’ health and marginal improvements for guys that, given their advanced age, could easily backslide. The latter could be summed up by “getting better every day. If only someone coined a word for that.