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Bucks Call Doc Rivers Off The ESPN Bench

1:01 PM EST on January 24, 2024

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 17: Doc Rivers looks on before the Dallas Mavericks vs Los Angeles Lakers game on January 17, 2024 at Crypto.Com Arena in Los Angeles, California. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2024 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

One day after firing their first-year head coach Adrian Griffin, the Milwaukee Bucks have done the public the great service of improving ESPN's NBA broadcasts by hiring recently departed Sixers coach and current ESPN analyst Doc Rivers. The Bucks fired Griffin despite the team's 30-13 record, which makes his 2023-24 run just two games longer than David Blatt's in 2015-16, when Blatt was fired in his second season while the Cavs were 30-11.

Like Blatt, Griffin was at the helm of a team that was winning a lot of games despite pretty clearly not being at the same level as the best teams in the league. Milwaukee's great record masked a number of concerning structural issues: They'd played the easiest schedule in the league so far, with all their games against the West's four actual contenders yet to come; Damian Lillard's longtime head coach Terry Stotts left the team in October after getting into a screaming match with Griffin at a shootaround; they haven't fully integrated Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and while the two players are having fine individual seasons (Antetokounmpo is having probably the best season of his career, and he's been at full-bore intensity for a few weeks now), their synergy is unremarkable. Worst of all, their once-fearsome defense has regressed down to 21st in the league.

Some of that can be attributed to Lillard's flimsy point-of-attack defense, a rusty combination lock to Jrue Holiday's bank vault. Most of it is on Griffin, as he infamously scrapped Mike Budenholzer's defensive setup, one that prioritized protecting the rim and built some incredible units around Brook Lopez's shotblocking, and implemented a Raptors-style aggressive ball-pressure system. That's a baffling idea, as the Griffin-era Raptors were set up to play that way only because the whole team was constituted of young, huge wings. The Bucks, meanwhile, may be one of the least-suited teams to play that way; asking Pat Connaughton to be Pascal Siakam is very funny, if not a horrible idea.

Four games into the season, after blowout losses to the Raptors and Hawks, the players essentially revolted and told Griffin they were going back to the old system, the one that made effective use of the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year and the 2023 runner-up. They've looked more comfortable since then, but they still look bad and old. They give up a ton in transition, their defensive rebounding rate is the worst it's been since Antetokounmpo got there, and after a close loss to the Rockets earlier this month, Giannis went off on the team's disorganization. "Now, defensively, we have to have a plan," he said. "What is our strategy? Are we going to give a lot of open threes? Are we going to let them get in the paint? When they go in the post, are we going to stay with ours and play one-on-one? What is our strategy?" Two days later, they gave up 132 to the Jazz.

And so the guy in charge of fixing all of this is Doc Rivers, a coach who knows how to win a first-round series. Rivers lasted three seasons in Philadelphia, but his inability to win a second-round series eventually cost him his job, as he had three good chances to do so but never got over the hump. Last year, the Sixers had a lead going into the fourth quarter of Game 6 at home against the Celtics, and they responded to their best opportunity to put Boston away by scoring 13 points and playing some of the most jumbled offense I've ever seen in such a high-leverage situation. Some of that is on James Harden and some is on Embiid, but Rivers has overseen so many of these situations that it was baffling his team wasn't prepared to do anything other than fall over and die.

The good news is, the Bucks are also pretty adept at duffing their chances. Antetokounmpo's injury is why they lost to the Heat in the first round last year, though they've run into many scenarios in which Giannis can't bully his defender, the opposing team shuts off transition opportunities, and the Bucks offense sputters and croaks. Needing to solve that problem is why Lillard was brought in, and Rivers at least has an opening if he can get Lillard and Antetokounmpo playing a two-man game that they either couldn't or wouldn't run under Griffin. Either way, the most likely outcome is a Sixers-Bucks second-round series, which will finally give us an answer to who the real donkey is between Rivers and Embiid.

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