The Milwaukee Bucks are not a good defensive team at the moment in the 2023-24 season.
After posting the third-best defensive rating in the league in 2022-23 (110.9) en route to the top seed in the Eastern Conference and the best record in the NBA, the Bucks now rank 21st in defensive rating (116.8) and are allowing 120.5 points per game. Despite this defensive slippage, the Bucks are 30-13 entering the first of back-to-back games against the red-hot Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday and Friday. They are 3.5 games behind the Celtics in the East with half a season left to play. And they are going to attempt to win a championship by making a coaching change.
Adrian Griffin, who was hired this offseason, is officially out as Milwaukee’s head coach. According to Shams Charania, the decision was made because of the poor defense, deploying Damian Lillard incorrectly alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo and a belief this team was going to fall short of a championship.
When the Bucks traded for Lillard, they should have expected a defensive drop. Jrue Holiday, the piece going away from Milwaukee in the deal, was a premier defensive point guard and anchored the Bucks on the perimeter. Antetokounmpo was a consistent Defensive Player of the Year contender, although he’s now merely just a good defender instead of a great one. Lillard, predictably, remains a defensive liability.
That has been largely balanced out by Milwaukee’s offense, which is second in the league in points per game and offensive rating. Lillard’s addition to the group has helped here, as expected. In 2022-23, the Bucks were eighth in points per game and 15th in offensive rating.
Milwaukee moved quickly to replace Griffin, hiring veteran head coach Doc Rivers Wednesday morning once he was identified as the top candidate. Rivers was commentating on games for ESPN as he took time away from coaching but he clearly had a desire to get back into the game. He served as a consultant for the Bucks since December, so there was some familiarity there. And in doing so, the Bucks have defied their own logic.
Here’s a look at where his teams ranked in the league in points allowed per game and defensive rating throughout his career via NBA.com/stats, broken down by each team he’s coached.
1999-2000 Magic: 16th in points allowed, 9th in defensive rating
2000-01 Magic: 18th, 12th
01-02 Magic: 27th, 15th
02-03 Magic: 24th, 20th
03-04 Magic: 29th, 29th
2004-05 Celtics: 22nd, 15th
05-06 Celtics: 20th, 20th
06-07 Celtics: 18th, 18th
07-08 Celtics: 2nd, 1st
08-09 Celtics: 3rd, 3rd
09-10 Celtics: 5th, 5th
10-11 Celtics: 1st, 2nd
11-12 Celtics: 2nd, 2nd
12-13 Celtics: 12th, 7th
2013-14 Clippers: 14th, 9th
14-15 Clippers: 16th, 16th
15-16 Clippers: 7th, 5th
16-17 Clippers: 12th, 12th
17-18 Clippers: 24th, 19th
18-19 Clippers: 24th, 19th
19-20 Clippers: 13th, 5th
2020-21 76ers: 6th, 2nd
21-22 76ers: 8th, 12th
22-23 76ers: 3rd, 8th
Rivers’ Orlando teams declined defensively throughout his tenure. He had a poor defensive record in Boston until Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, two plus defenders with the former being one of the best defenders in league history, came to town. His Clippers teams were inconsistent defensively. He had a good performance when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, two plus defenders with the former being one of the all-time defensive greats in league history, showed up. He was solid with the 76ers and did recover nicely from losing an elite defender in Ben Simmons, although he still had a great one in Joel Embiid.
There are two big caveats here. Rivers had time over the offseason to get a defensive system in place for each of these teams, which he doesn’t have in Milwaukee even though he has some familiarity as a consultant. The second is that Rivers’ best defensive teams had multiple great defenders, which the Bucks do not have at the moment. Antetokounmpo is still holding form, but Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton and Bobby Portis have all slipped. Some of that is due to age and injuries, but it’s not like Rivers is going to magically find the Fountain of Youth. So while his defensive record is better than Griffin’s 43-game sample size, it’s not a silver bullet.
Rivers’ relationship with star players, which is certainly part of the reason Griffin was let go, isn’t exactly the best. The Celtics breakup wasn’t pretty, and the Clippers disbanded once Chris Paul left for Houston. Rivers, at least partially, caused Simmons to sit out half the season before being traded. He was probably partially responsible for James Harden wanting to leave town, although Daryl Morey takes most of the blame for that.
Supporters of Rivers will point to Harden and Joel Embiid being a dynamic pairing on the court. My counter to that would be that Lillard and Antetokounmpo have been good, at least according to the NBA’s own lineup data. The duo is a +208 in 1,049 minutes together as the Bucks’ best two-man pairing this season so far. For comparison, Harden and Embiid were +272 in 1,483 minutes together. So while the stars may have felt the fit was off, there’s no reason to think Rivers is making it significantly better than what it already was.
Championship or bust
This is really where the entire argument falls apart. The Bucks didn’t believe this group was going to win a title with Griffin at the helm. Even if we take that to be a fair sentiment to have, why do they believe a coach who hasn’t won a championship since 2008 and hasn’t been to the Finals since 2010 will deliver that? Rivers hasn’t even made a conference finals since the 2011-12 season.
In the last four postseasons he has coached in, Rivers has bowed out in the conference semifinals. He held a lead in three of those semifinal series, including a 3-1 lead with the Clippers over the Nuggets in the Orlando bubble and a 3-2 lead with the 76ers over the Celtics heading into a Game 6 at home. In all three of those series, he would oversee a losing effort in Game 7. In LA’s series with the Nuggets, the Clippers had double-digit leads in Games 5, 6 and 7. This man has blown not one, not two but THREE 3-1 series leads in his career. He’s going to win a championship now!?
And Rivers’ failures weren’t due to lack of talent on the floor. He had Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill in Orlando. He had Paul Pierce, Garnett and Allen in Boston. He had Chris Paul and Blake Griffin with the Clippers before having Leonard and George. He had Simmons and Embiid before having Harden and league MVP Embiid, while also having emerging star Tyrese Maxey. There is perhaps no coach who has underachieved with as much talent as Rivers. People say the Green Bay Packers failed by winning just one Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers. How about Rivers winning only one championship with that collection of star talent?
I get it; prime Phil Jackson wasn’t walking through that door. Gregg Popovich was not available (and even he has slipped a bit lately). No coach can get the job done without stars, but Rivers has shown he’s not likely to get it done even with stars. And the Bucks are trusting him in what is the most important title window of their franchise.
Milwaukee has every right to make a coaching change and every right to hire who they want to hire. They don’t have the luxury of picking from a wide pool of candidates in the middle of the season, so I can understand that constraint. But the Bucks passed on Nick Nurse in the offseason in favor of Griffin, even though Nurse had won a championship with the Raptors in 2018-19 over the superteam Warriors, albeit a depleted version of them.
I remember a line from Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas in the 30 for 30 “Bad Boys”. He was talking about legendary head coach Chuck Daly and Daly asking him “do you want to win or do you want to have fun?” It feels like the Bucks were more concerned about the latter.
The Bucks are +475 at DraftKings Sportsbook to win the NBA title, which is exactly where they were before Griffin got fired. They are still behind Boston and Denver in the championship odds table, exactly where they were before Griffin got fired. And now, they have put their trust in a coach who has failed to deliver time and time again when it matters most.