The Milwaukee Bucks may have broken NBA precedent by firing Adrian Griffin 43 games into his first season as their head coach, but if you were watching closely, you’d know this wasn’t a surprise. Griffin’s schemes were counterintuitive on both ends of the floor. He lost top assistant Terry Stotts in October due to a dispute at a shootaround, and there was another locker room confrontation with Bobby Portis during the In-Season Tournament. As CBS Sports’ Jack Maloney pointed out, even Milwaukee’s players dropped public hints at their dissatisfaction.
Griffin might one day have developed into a good NBA coach. Aside from his record, there was no indication that it would happen this season. The Bucks are on a truncated timeline. Khris Middleton is 32. Damian Lillard is 33. Brook Lopez is 35. They have no draft capital left to trade with. The contract extension Giannis Antetokounmpo signed over the summer added only two more guaranteed seasons. This is more or less the roster Milwaukee is going to have for the rest of this championship window, and that window’s opening is going to get substantially smaller with each passing season. They have to win now, and Griffin was not ready to do that.
Their next head coach will have to be. As the Bucks discovered last spring, finding such a coach isn’t easy even in the offseason. It’s substantially harder during the season. The best coaches are generally already employed, and that extends beyond the top jobs. An incoming coach is generally going to be stuck with his team’s current staff because anyone he might want to hire from another team is locked into a contract. New coaches have no training camp to install their preferred system and minimal practice time to even cover the basics.
We’ve seen coaches replace fired colleagues and win championships right away before. Paul Westhead, Pat Riley and Ty Lue all did so, but all three started their championship seasons within the organizations they won with. Coming in from the outside and winning it all right away would be unprecedented in NBA history, yet there’s a good chance that is what the Bucks are going to try to do. So who might they try to do it with? Here are some possible candidates for one of the most fascinating job openings in NBA history.
Doc Rivers is, by all accounts, the front-runner for this job. He is one of only two championship-winning head coaches who are currently available and seemingly seeking work (along with Budenholzer). The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that the Bucks used Rivers as an informal coaching consultant for Griffin before his firing, suggesting that the organization holds him in high regard. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Bucks are planning to “quickly pursue a small pool of accomplished and available veteran head coaches,” but there just aren’t that many of those out there right now. Beyond the candidates listed below, Milwaukee could pursue… Mike D’Antoni? He’d hardly be the solution for their lagging defense.
If the Bucks believe a lack of experience was Griffin’s greatest weakness, Rivers certainly addresses it. He’s seen it all across more than two decades as an NBA head coach. However, his overall track record would make him an odd choice were the pool not so limited.
Remember, the Bucks already had a coach that consistently won them between 50 and 60 games per game in Budenholzer. They fired him because of his issues making adjustments in the postseason. Rivers has lost 10 Game 7s as a head coach. Four of them were on his home floor. Seven teams this century have blown a 3-1 lead. Three of them were coached by Doc Rivers, who has also blown four separate 3-2 leads. His teams have a 16-33 record in possible series-winning games, according to Mike Prada.
If you want a coach to build a culture and get stars to buy in across a multi-year stretch? Rivers is the coach for you. If you’re looking for a coach to match wits with Erik Spoelstra or Nick Nurse across seven games? All of the evidence suggests that you shouldn’t hire Doc Rivers. He comes with many of the same problems Budenholzer had, but few of the modern system-building strengths. All of the reporting thus far says that Rivers is Milwaukee’s likeliest choice, and he might be an improvement upon Griffin, but he is also at a disadvantage against almost any coach he’d be likely to face in a high-stakes playoff series.
According to Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes, Nate McMillan is on Milwaukee’s short list of possible Griffin replacements. His experience separates him from Griffin and his teams, at least early in his tenures, tend to outperform expectations through defense. Though his Hawks teams largely couldn’t defend due to personnel, his four Pacers teams finished third, sixth, 12th and 15th in defense despite underwhelming talent.
The catch tends to come on offense. McMillan’s emphasis on mid-range shots over 3-pointers has always limited how efficiently his offenses have been able to play. All four of McMillan’s Indiana teams ranked in the bottom five in the NBA in 3-point attempts. The Hawks ranked 28th last season with McMillan at the helm for 58 games. They rank sixth this season. Milwaukee’s roster depends on 3-point shooting. Not only is it their biggest roster strength, but it is a necessity in creating driving space for Antetokounmpo. If McMillan is going to get this job, he is going to have to convince the Bucks that he can be more adaptable on offense. Milwaukee isn’t beating Boston if the Celtics are taking 10 more 3s than they are every night.
Jeff Van Gundy
Van Gundy has popped up in a few high-profile coaching searches over the past 17 years. He’s never landed one of those jobs, but he’s always had his ESPN broadcasting job to fall back on. This is his first season as a true free agent, and it isn’t clear if that has changed his approach to pursuing coaching opportunities. Was he serious about leaving the booth in the past? Is he more actively looking for a seat on the bench now? His work for Team USA has drawn praise, and he’s currently working in a consulting role for Boston’s front office.
The tricky part of evaluating Van Gundy as a prospect is that it’s been so long since he coached that we know very little about his approach to coaching in 2024. His last Rockets team ranked third in the NBA in 3-point attempts… but took only 23 of them per game. No modern team takes fewer than 30. No active Buck was in the league when he was coaching. How would he align their defense? These are mysteries at this point. The Bucks are reportedly looking for answers, as Haynes reported that Van Gundy is on their shortlist.
Prunty’s advantage, aside from proximity, is that the Bucks have actually seen him handle this exact situation before. He replaced Jason Kidd when he was fired and led the Bucks to a 21-16 record down the stretch that nearly culminated in a first-round upset over the No. 1 seeded Boston Celtics. The Bucks know what to expect out of Prunty. That has quite a bit of value when you only have 39 regular-season games left with which to make whatever changes need to be made.
Of course, if Milwaukee thought of Prunty as a long-term solution, he might have been hired in 2018. Sure enough, while initial reporting pegged him as the replacement for Griffin, subsequent reports have pushed him aside in favor of Rivers and other former head coaches. The stakes are substantially higher than they were in 2018, and the Bucks just fired a head coach that came in without experience. Prunty is the only candidate on this list that has never been a full-time NBA head coach. That puts him at a severe disadvantage. He’d need significant support from within Milwaukee’s locker room to earn the job even on an interim basis.
Atkinson is highly-coveted around the NBA, but this offseason showed he is perfectly happy remaining in Golden State. The Hornets nearly poached him to be their head coach last offseason, but he ultimately elected to remain with the Warriors. He has every reason to be choosy with his next job. He was among the NBA’s most promising young coaches in Brooklyn before the arrival of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving ultimately cost him his job.
Assuming he has no reservations about taking on another star-heavy roster, Atkinson is by far the most sensible external choice from an X’s and O’s standpoint. He made his name as an assistant under Budenholzer in Atlanta, so many of the principles Milwaukee’s players are already familiar with would still apply. In Brooklyn, however, he developed an identity of his own by running one of the NBA’s heaviest pick-and-roll offenses. He did so with players like D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen. You know what the Bucks have been criticized for not doing enough of? Running pick-and-roll with Antetokounmpo and Lillard. That pairing should be the most lethal in the NBA. Atkinson could help get them there.
Atkinson was a candidate for this job in the offseason. Charania has reported that he will be a candidate again now if the Bucks fail to secure a deal with Rivers. The Warriors will likely do everything in their power to keep Atkinson through the season, especially after the tragic death of assistant coach Dejan Milojevic, but the Bucks could give him a chance to coach a true contender. Such chances are rare and might be too tempting for him to pass up.
And now, we venture into the realm of pure speculation. There’s not really a precedent for a former assistant returning to become the head coach of a team he left mere months earlier, but the Bucks are already trying to make history with this change, so what’s one more big swing? Stotts has two enormous advantages over the field.
The first is obvious: he coached Lillard for nine seasons. Having a relationship with one of the team’s stars lends instant credibility. Of course, the second advantage is that Stotts may already have a bit of locker room credibility because he was with the team through training camp. If nothing else, that gives him an idea of what principles Griffin tried to instill even if he plans to change many of them.
The primary downside, apart from any lingering awkwardness over the October spat with Griffin that ultimately led to his dismissal, is Stotts’ profile as a coach. How much Lillard had to do with this is ultimately a matter of debate, but Stotts essentially coached worse versions of these Bucks in Portland. His offenses were great and his defenses were terrible. If the Bucks think their path to the championship comes down to fixing the defense, Stotts probably isn’t the call. If they want to overwhelm opponents with scoring? Stotts warrants a look.
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And so, we’ve reached the unlikeliest candidate on the board. The odds of Budenholzer returning to coach the Bucks less than one year after they fired him are virtually nonexistent. There has been no reporting suggesting it is a possibility. But I’m going to make the argument for it now. Provided there is no lingering bitterness in the locker room over previous postseason failures, Budenholzer makes more sense than any candidate on the board.
Yes, all of the flaws that cost him his job still remain. But with any other candidate, the Bucks are trying to figure out if they can lead them to the championship. They already know Budenholzer can do it because he’s done it. The majority of the roster’s core knows how to play for him. He wouldn’t suffer from the lack of a training camp as new coaches would. Heck, it might even be cheaper. The Bucks are already paying Budenholzer his old contract. Maybe they could bring him back on a discount.
It’s not going to happen because things like this never happen. It wasn’t necessarily a mistake to fire Budenholzer. The theory of potentially finding a coach better suited to seven-game chess matches than 82-game marathons was sound. If this was the offseason, I wouldn’t be listing Budenholzer. But picking a new coach in the middle of the season is an entirely different animal. Implementing wholesale changes in January and expecting them to stick in May is almost impossible. Familiarity is a valuable commodity to the Bucks right now in a way that it might not be in July. That makes Budenholzer a more sensible option for Milwaukee now than he might have been last spring. It would be awkward and unprecedented, but the Bucks have already taken a bold step by firing Griffin. Why not take one more by hitting the reset button on the move that brought Griffin to Milwaukee in the first place?