Thu. Feb 22nd, 2024

The rumblings out of Milwaukee persisted. From assistant coach Terry Stotts’ departure before the season even began through the Bucks’ shortcomings during the in-season tournament, first-year head coach Adrian Griffin’s tenure was off to a tumultuous start.

Come Tuesday, Milwaukee dismissed Griffin, even with a 30-13 record, even with the second-ranked offense in the entire NBA. The Bucks’ porous defense and, more importantly, the confusion and disconnect among Milwaukee’s players and staffers about the team’s schematic approach, league sources told Yahoo Sports, all presented too critical an obstacle for the Bucks to overcome in such a crucial season with no goal other than reclaiming the championship Milwaukee won with Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021.

Those are the lofty stakes that loom over this franchise, that led Milwaukee to part ways with head coach Mike Budenholzer — who guided Antetokounmpo’s club to that precious title three years ago — after the Bucks floundered in the first round of last spring’s postseason. That ultimate aspiration is the current that swiftly pushed Milwaukee to hire veteran coach Doc Rivers, according to league sources, out of his seat in ESPN’s broadcast booth. There is little time to spare for the Bucks to solidify a new voice in Milwaukee’s locker room.

The Bucks were working under a more daunting clock this past offseason. Antetokounmpo had yet to sign his three-year, $186 million contract extension in October, and Milwaukee afforded their MVP candidate with real influence over determining Budenholzer’s replacement, sources said. Antetokounmpo did not want former Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, league sources told Yahoo Sports. He wanted Griffin, Nurse’s chief assistant coach in Toronto. Griffin had been credited for helping oversee Nurse and the Raptors’ creative defensive schemes, with Griffin billed as both a former player who could command the Bucks’ locker room and a coaching mind who could bring exotic, malleable defenses that Budenholzer would never utilize during daunting playoff matches.

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 22: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks disputes being substituted out of the game with Head Coach Adrian Griffin during the second half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on November 22, 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts.  The Celtics defeat the Bucks 119-116. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 22: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks disputes being substituted out of the game with Head Coach Adrian Griffin during the second half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on November 22, 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts.  The Celtics defeat the Bucks 119-116. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

With Adrian Griffin gone, much of the Bucks’ energy will be focused on keeping Giannis Antetokounmpo happy. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

That clock still kept ticking quietly in the background. That is how the modern NBA turns, when All-Stars can request a trade without warning, and rival executives are more eager than ever to whisper about the chances said talents will become available for the taking. As much as league personnel have speculated about Donovan Mitchell’s potential exit from Cleveland, there remain hopeful team staffers who repeatedly mention the Bucks’ pressure to deliver Antetokounmpo the contending opportunity he craves — lest he join the fabled ranks of players who changed franchises.

Griffin spent quite a while as a leading coaching candidate around the league. He was a finalist and impressed Sam Hinkie way back during the Sixers’ 2013 search, sources said, a full decade before Griffin received his chance to man an NBA sideline with the Bucks. Still, Milwaukee trading for Damian Lillard only further complicated the task at hand, amplifying the pressures of leading a team with these towering expectations in Griffin’s first stab at the job. Lillard is as dangerous a scorer as there is, but also a former franchise face who would always be facing a significant acclimation process slotting next to another alpha such as Antetokounmpo. And that’s before you consider a Milwaukee roster that features a deep group of veteran players, from Brook Lopez to Bobby Portis, who all hold considerable voices.

It’s clear Griffin never found a formula capable of balancing every aspect and personality within this equation. For Budenholzer’s faults, he clearly established an identity and playing style in Milwaukee that Griffin was never able to solidify.

You can read plenty across the internet about the struggling defense, a major decline from the Bucks’ calling card under Budenholzer. There was an expected dropoff from Jrue Holiday to Lillard in terms of perimeter peskiness, to the point it may have even overshadowed the further deficiencies in Milwaukee’s defensive lineup that have come with swapping Grayson Allen for Malik Beasley. Allen has played so well in Phoenix, as part of the three-team megadeal that landed Lillard in Milwaukee, the Suns are no longer considering him for a trade prior to next month’s deadline, according to league sources. There’s an argument to be made the Bucks’ roster would’ve been susceptible to these shortcomings guarding opponents, in the league’s current scoring frenzy, regardless of Griffin’s strategy or effectiveness.

The defense continuing to struggle in January, with Milwaukee just 6-5, certainly influenced the timing of this change on the bench. But the Bucks’ quick approach to bringing in Rivers also affords Milwaukee two full weeks to reevaluate its group before the Feb. 8 trade deadline as league-wide chatter has started to include far more about the Bucks’ recent activity.

Milwaukee is exploring a range of options to improve its perimeter defense, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Milwaukee has contacted various teams about what it could return with the second-round pick it will receive from Portland, sources said, which currently stands as No. 35 in the 2024 NBA Draft. There are some front-office figures who view that type of selection as more valuable than or the equivalent of a late first-rounder because the pick isn’t bound to a rookie-scale and carries lower tax implications. New York, as a recent example, dealt Detroit’s 2024 second-round pick — projected as the No. 31 pick — to Toronto as part of it’s package for OG Anunoby, in lieu of sending any true first-round capital to the Raptors.

With their early second, the Bucks are considering different combinations of trades that could move veteran wing Pat Connaughton, plus reserve guard Cameron Payne, sources said, to help fortify Milwaukee’s defensive rotation. Payne fell out of Griffin’s rotation, and Milwaukee’s change on the bench could feasibly change his playing time, thus the Bucks’ position about his trade candidacy. Yet if Payne’s circumstances don’t improve, then it would appear the veteran ball-handler would also be amenable to a new situation, sources said, where he could reclaim another chance at helping a bench unit compete for a championship.

The combined $12.5 million salary between Connaughton and Payne would put Milwaukee in position to land several targets, such as Portland wing Matisse Thybulle and Clippers forward P.J. Tucker, sources said. Alex Caruso would mark a dream outcome for the Bucks, but Chicago has indicated the Bulls would need multiple first-round picks to even consider parting with Caruso, according to league sources, if Chicago even truly considers moving him at all.

Then there are the loftier targets, including Dejounte Murray and Bruce Brown Jr., sources said. For Milwaukee to get into the salary ballpark for either difference-maker, the Bucks would have to include Portis and his $11.7 million figure. This sequence of options is quite illustrative of how many front offices’ approach the deadline. Milwaukee is assessing the names who are on the market, their teams’ asking prices and how that player fits alongside Antetokounmpo and Lillard.

A deal highlighted by the No. 35 pick probably isn’t going to strike Atlanta’s fancy for Murray, considering the Hawks, at present, are searching for a pair of first-round picks plus a starting-level player for their All-Star combo guard, league sources told Yahoo Sports. The Raptors have posted an initial price point of a first-round selection for Brown, sources said, after Toronto acquired the veteran as part of its return for Pascal Siakam. But Brown’s contract, a two-year, $45 million balloon payment with a team option for the 2024-25 season, is expected to dissuade several suitors from sacrificing that level of draft pick when Brown is considered a lower-market player than his salary. For that, Brown appears to be a much stronger possibility for Milwaukee than Murray. Another player in this salary range, Detroit’s Bojan Bogdanović, was a known target for the Bucks prior to last year’s trade deadline, sources said.

Milwaukee is gearing to do something. Firing Griffin is not the end of this line. The Bucks have been nothing if not opportunistic under general manager Jon Horst, whether that’s changing pick protections from a previous move to steal Tucker back at the 2021 trade deadline, or the team’s surprise blockbuster to nab Lillard this fall.

Horst’s front office features loyal lieutenants who all speak with reverence of his creativity and acumen. Replacing Griffin with Rivers appears to be the first trick up his sleeve. What will come next? An attempt to deliver the real magic that keeps Antetokounmpo center stage.

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