The Milwaukee Bucks fired rookie head coach Adrian Griffin on Tuesday just 43 games into his tenure. You won’t often see a coach get canned with a 30-13 record, but it goes to show the level of stakes the Bucks have riding on this season.
They don’t have time to fool themselves with a regular-season record. When they traded for Damian Lillard, it became championship or bust. This is not a championship team right now. So they got proactive, making a move based on their heightened standards of performance rather than the general standards that a No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference would typically satisfy.
Give the Bucks credit for that. They could’ve taken what they obviously believe was a bad hire in the first place and made it worse by refusing to admit their mistake. But here’s the problem: If they fire one guy to just make another mistake on the next hire, nothing will have been accomplished.
Doc Rivers sounds like the leading candidate. Hmm. Have you seen how much different, for the better, the Philadelphia 76ers look this season under Nick Nurse? The fascination with big-name retread coaches will never go away, and to be fair, maybe all the Bucks need is someone who’s used to managing superstars — but Rivers isn’t exactly a creative offensive mind, and I would argue that’s what Milwaukee needs most.
Hear me out: While everyone is going to point to Milwaukee’s defensive decline — from fourth a season ago to 22nd this season, in which the Bucks are surrendering almost six more points per 100 possessions — as the reason Griffin is out of a job, to me, that was a conscious roster decision.
Sure, Griffin changed up Mike Budenholzer’s big-drop strategy in the early going, and of late Giannis Antetokounmpo has pointed to a lack of a defensive plan. But by and large, when you flip out Jrue Holiday for Lillard, and start a Lillard-Malik Beasley backcourt, you are going to struggle defensively. If Milwaukee’s front office expected anything different, they set Griffin up to fail.
More likely, the expectation was that the offense would more than make up for that defensive decline, which, in theory, would leave the Bucks on the plus side of such a philosophical shift. It’s true, Milwaukee is scoring basically the same six points more per 100 that they are losing defensively from a year ago, making it look like a wash on paper, but a wash is not what they were after. And besides, numbers can only tell you so much.
Anyone who has watched this team will tell you the Bucks are not getting anything close to the best version of Lillard. That was Griffin’s main job. Maximize Lillard and Giannis, and the rest might not even matter. But Giannis isn’t as natural as everyone hoped he would be as a short-roller, and Lillard has openly admitted he has struggled to play with his typical rhythm without the ball in his hands as much he’s used to.
It’s a tight fit, and Griffin never quite found it. Lillard is shooting 42% from the field and 35% from 3. He’s averaging 25 points per game. Those are acceptable numbers, but nowhere close to the production that most people were expecting. Lillard was supposed to be feasting on defenses that could no longer focus entirely on him. His 51.5 eFG% ranks 26th among point guards, in the vicinity of Russell Westbrook, per Cleaning the Glass.
That’s what needs to change, because the tradeoff the Bucks bet on is simple: Lillard’s offense has to be worth more than Holiday’s defense, especially because Holiday offense, while not elite, is far better than Lillard’s defense, which I laid out as a disaster less than a month into the season.
Throw in the fact that Holiday has now taken the Celtics, the Bucks’ chief Eastern rival, to an even higher level, and it only puts even more pressure on Milwaukee to raise their offensive level behind Lillard. That’s the position they willingly, happily, put themselves in from a roster standpoint. It’s not about numbers. It’s about what we’re truly seeing on the court.
This team needs to start humming, not barely getting by against the likes of the Pistons and the Warriors playing without Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Not scoring 95 points in 40-point loss to the Cavs with Lillard and Khris Middleton combining to shoot 8 for 30. Not losing to the Rockets by managing to score a measley 108 points despite Giannis going for 48.
Lillard was 5 for 16 in that Houston game, including 1 of 8 from 3. He’s shooting 27% from 3 for the month of January.
This just isn’t going to cut it against the backdrop of what should’ve been a predictable defensive decline. Perhaps the defense shouldn’t have fallen off this much, but I’d be careful thinking a new coach is going to fix that side of the ball. The Bucks made their deal with the basketball devil. They’re all in on offense. Have been from the moment they acquired Lillard. Whoever gets this job has to get that part more than right; they have to get it damn near perfect. Because the Bucks’ defense, which, again, I would put more on the front office than the coach, doesn’t allow for any error.
It’s a tough gig. Griffin wasn’t the guy for it. We’ll see if the next person is.