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An optimist’s case for Doc Rivers

No, Doc did not “consult” me in writing this

NBA: In Season Tournament-Indiana Pacers at Los Angeles Lakers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There are seasons wherein it seems nothing happens, and then there are days where it feels like entire seasons happen. The Milwaukee Bucks just underwent one of those turbulent weeks that seem to turn everything upside down. They began the week in Detroit under a rookie head coach with, on the surface, a stellar win-loss record, and they now end it with Doc Rivers stepping into the void. For any number of reasons, GM Jon Horst felt that the project of this season may have been heading for a fall regardless of the standings. Those underlying issues do not completely disappear with the ejection of Adrian Griffin, but faced with limited options to effect radical change, Horst decided to pull one of the few levers he has concrete control on.

Après Adrian, le déluge? Your answer largely depends on how you feel about Doc Rivers’s capability as a head coach. As with any sudden change, the ultimate result can be polarizing—this article is not meant to belittle the vast array of Doc’s shortcomings (playoff performance is an obvious one, a reticence to adjustment we’d seen in Mike Budenholzer, etc.). Rather, what I’d like to do is present the case that Doc Rivers is not merely the begrudging result of a chaotic week; he could actually be just what these Milwaukee Bucks need to increase the odds of realizing their potential.

Without further ado, I present to the readers of Brew Hoop An Optimist’s Case for Doc Rivers.

(Okay, a little further ado)

I’d like to hypocritically present two mitigating factors to my analysis:

1) My conclusions are based largely on research others have done when Doc came into their orbit—I did not have the strength of character to make myself watch basketball that featured Joel Embiid and/or James Harden. Mea culpa.

2) The Milwaukee Bucks will largely be playing a form of high-level pick-up basketball with trace elements of Doc’s system in place until the All-Star break. NBA teams rarely practice in-season and there is only so much that can be ironed out via discussion and homework off-the-court alone. We’re likely a few weeks out before deep changes to the scheme are implemented.

Sparking the Pick & Roll

One area of hope that tended towards concern was the reliability of the pick-and-roll in Milwaukee’s offense. From the moment Damian Lillard arrived, the working assumption was that any coach would spam P&Rs with Dame and Giannis Antetokounmpo on their way to a title. Instead, the P&R ball handler finishes plays for Milwaukee on about 17.6% of possession (just about league average) even though the scoring frequency for that player is at 46.1% (third-best in the NBA). The roll man finishes off a play 6.2% of the time (seventh place) and scores 49.2% of the time (a bottom-third rating). On the face of it, they can probably afford to empower the ball handler (Dame) even more and have some work to do to get the roll man (Giannis) more comfortable finishing off those kinds of opportunities no matter how rare they can be.

In fact, the frequency of P&R as a finishing move has barely shifted from a year ago for both positions. During Budenholzer’s last year in charge the roll man shot on 6.9% of possessions and the handler 17.4%. Digging through some of Doc’s past (for which there is tracking data), I found that while Doc’s Sixers teams didn’t use P&R all that much—a symptom of Embiid and Harden’s proclivities for iso scoring, perhaps?—there were serious jumps once we get back to his Clippers days:

LA Clippers P&R

Season P&R Handler Freq. P&R Roll Freq. Combined P&R ORtg
Season P&R Handler Freq. P&R Roll Freq. Combined P&R ORtg
2019-2020 22.6% (4th) 6.1% (14th) 28.70% 113.9 (2nd)
2018-2019 22.8% (2nd) 6.9% (5th) 29.70% 112.4 (9th)
2017-2018 20.7% (3rd) 5.6% (24th) 26.30% 110.3 (8th)
2016-2017 17.8% (9th) 7.7% (6th) 25.50% 112.7 (5th)
2015-2016 18.4% (7th) 8.3% (7th) 26.70% 108.3 (8th)

Two things stand out: first, Doc’s ball handlers in P&R were pushed to be the one who takes the shot to finish a possession at a top-ten (and often top five) rate across a huge portion of that tenure. Second, even the year where P&R was used least (2016–2017) had a usage rate nearly two percentage points higher than what the Bucks are doing now. By the end, Doc had his offenses using the play type almost a third of all possessions. All while maintaining a top-ten offense year over year to boot.

Part of why Doc has relied upon pick-and-roll so much throughout his career is the personnel he’s worked with (Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul top the list). When he has a dominant on-ball guard, he has pragmatically made it a point to generate P&R looks as often as possible for that player before allowing them to decide whether to shoot or pass to the roll man.

I think it is safe to assume that Damian Lillard will see the number of possessions ending in his hands pushing ever higher, and it would be surprising if Giannis Antetokounmpo is not directed to be the primary roll man to pay those opportunities off. The hurdle will be making Giannis adept and comfortable at all the mechanics behind the intricate game of knuckleduster yo-yo truly effective P&R sets tend to be. But Doc has worked with big men of all shapes, sizes, and skillsets and largely got something to work. It feels like a surer thing that the dynamite play we expected to power the Bucks to glory will find its footing under Doc.

Defense, defense, defense

Admittedly, this is more difficult to assess without having watched a ton of Doc Ball. My observations here are drawn in large part from work colleagues at Liberty Ballers, Clips Nation, and other media outlets doing analysis.

From what I’ve gathered, most base Doc schemes utilize as many bodies on strong-side defense as they can possibly manage while generating as much friction on the perimeter as possible. The idea is that you cannot afford an opponent’s most creative players space in motion to make things happen around them. Often that means hedging from off-ball defenders, a tendency to collapse the structure onto a dominant scorer, and then scrambling like hell to prevent clean passes to shooters. You hope that you can jam the first action by the primary ball-handler well enough that the kick-out is mediocre and thus affords you time to recover.

Part of this also means switching and occasionally zone (especially out of timeouts to try and throw offenses off-kilter with unexpected looks). What should be encouraging for the likes of Brook Lopez is that Rivers is also comfortable with drop zone designs undergirding a base defense—years of running DeAndre Jordan in the paint will do that.

Conceptually and in a vacuum, it all makes sense. There remain points of concern:

  • Milwaukee’s lead guard personnel (Lillard and Malik Beasley) have not shown the drive or ability to be the kind of guys to lead a perimeter pest-y approach
  • The Bucks are old as hell
  • So much of defense is about founding principals and relentless communication/trust between teammates to make it work—Doc will be working against an extremely short clock to whip something coherent together

One of the immediate fixes that shouldn’t require overhaul is an adjustment to how big men are utilized by Milwaukee’s defense. No more half-court traps, no more switching everything so that Brook has to guard Tyrese Haliburton in isolation from 35 feet out, and more dedicated effort to make the mobile bigs (Giannis in particular) the lynchpin that prevents the whole edifice from falling apart.

The great hope here is that Doc proves a more effective communicator of who is doing what, when, and why, and that playing even a little more toward strengths makes an abysmal defense something closer to mediocre.

We Ball (Or, Buy-in)

Let’s be clear about something: morale in that locker room near the end of the Griffin era must’ve been awful. As soon as the news of his dismissal hit the wire, reports popped up from left, right, and center about how little faith players had in Griffin as a communicator, strategist, and leader. If you’ve looked at the Bucks’ body language for months and suspected that something was amiss... well, turns out you were right! For better or worse in the macro sense, the veteran core of players took it into their own hands to have their leader dismissed.

Much will be made of the lack of high-level post-season success Doc has had in what will now be 25 years of head coaching. People aren’t wrong to imply that that alone disqualifies Doc from being a serious candidate for a team that needs to win when it counts. They jettisoned Mike Budenholzer just to hire a guy with similar issues a few months later (after a fever dream interlude).

But perhaps there is something to be said for moving from literally zero experience to having some of the most experience of any individual active in the NBA today. I’ve wondered for the past months whether the lackluster product we see on the court was a function of bad coaching, bad moods, or (Lord help us) the first full step on the path to decline for a contender.

While there may be some marginal truth in the last possibility, I continue to believe there is more to be brought out of the talent at hand. I hadn’t expected Damian Lillard to be so disengaged on offense—turns out, neither did he. I expected Giannis and Khris Middleton to actively work to overhaul the offense to bring their all-time point guard into the mix—they may have been and continue to be willing, but the coaching staff was unclear how to make it so. While winning in spite of their disjointedness, you wonder how much more they can give if the guy helping organize them has worked on 25 campaigns leading literally hundreds of different players to modicums of success.

That kind of experience makes garnering Giannis’ trust much more likely than it’d be with another coach with a lesser track record. Should Doc’s ideas prove to be more Dame-centric, it will likely come at the expense of Giannis’ usage. If someone like Doc can command buy-in from Antetokounmpo, in particular, the floor for this team rises by a significant margin. From there, I admit it sounds like it’ll largely be on the players and the rest of the coaching staff to figure out the details in tight games to deliver victories. But hey, at least that’s a rodeo we’re used to, right?

If Horst believed that what held the team back was the coach’s vision and his ability to communicate it to his players while getting buy-in, I’d struggle to name anyone available right now who can do just that that isn’t Doc Rivers. Kenny Atkinson might have interesting ideas, but a single 42-40 season before being promptly couped out of authority by his players does not make gravitas. Milwaukee is trying to do a salvage job on the fly and Rivers fits the job requirements about as well as his contemporaries.

And sorry to break it to everyone: neither Mike Budenholzer nor Terry Stotts was ever going to be walking through that door. Professional sports is a deeply unprincipled business, but even this carnival has limits.

It feels silly to boil down what plagues the Bucks as simply needing someone who has a sense of how basketball can be won with the players at hand, but that does seem to largely be where they sit. Necessity is the mother of invention, and these Milwaukee Bucks needed someone who could come in and do some inventing for them—turns out players can only draw up so many plays for themselves before it wears thin.

Doc Rivers is not likely to be regarded as the finest head coach in the league at the end of the 2023–2024 season. What he can be is bang-average at his worst and maybe something a little better at his best. He has experience with players like those Milwaukee will be totally reliant upon to do any sort of serious winning. While they’re almost assuredly in for some chaos playoff ball that’d even make the Budenholzer years blush, they’re also much more likely to be in it with a real shot at winning on the back of structurally sound schemes and talented/bought-in players.

In the grand scheme of things, that’s not nothing.