The Milwaukee Bucks made the (somewhat) shocking decision to fire first-year head coach Adrian Griffin on Tuesday, despite the team coming off of a win on Monday and holding a 30-13 record overall.
The vibes had been off all season, however, and it turned out two straight tight wins over the league-worst Detroit Pistons weren’t enough to stay management’s hand from dismissing their embattled rookie coach to seek a more established voice (they will reportedly pursue “guy who wants to tell you about how he’d actually have two titles if Kendrick Perkins was healthy” and current ESPN broadcaster, Doc Rivers).
But even with many of their victories looking shaky, the Bucks’ aforementioned 30-13 pace was still good for second in the Eastern Conference. So how did they get to the point of deciding to give Griffin the ax? Here’s what we know.
Griffin couldn’t get buy-in from key stakeholders, including Giannis Antetokounmpo
All the way back in training camp, the signs of Griffin maybe not being the greatest people manager started to percolate, most notably when he reportedly yelled at lead assistant coach Terry Stotts in front of the whole team during training camp (via The Athletic):
According to sources who witnessed Tuesday’s events, Griffin wrapped up the shootaround and called the team together for a huddle to close out the day and let the players get to post-shootaround shooting drills. During that huddle, Griffin informed the coaches that he wanted to have a separate huddle with them once they wrapped things up.
When the players and coaches broke the huddle, Stotts went in the opposite direction of the coaches’ huddle and instead started walking toward players to discuss the offense. As Stotts attempted to start a conversation with Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Griffin called to Stotts to join the coaching huddle. When Stotts asked for some time with the players, Griffin yelled for Stotts to join the coaches’ huddle. The incident occurred in front of the entire team, those sources said.
The incident led Stotts to resign from his job, leaving the Bucks with one less experienced voice to come up with game plans and sell them to their group of players, including Damian Lillard, whom Stotts coached for years with the Portland Trail Blazers.
It wasn’t the only time issues burbled to the surface publicly. In December, leaks to Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes revealed that veteran forward Bobby Portis called out Griffin in front of the entire team after their In-Season Tournament loss to the Indiana Pacers:
As one of the leaders of the team, Portis continued on voicing his concerns. Griffin welcomed the criticism and acknowledged he could do a better job being more aggressive with his play-calling, sources say. The nine-year veteran explained that it’s a two-way street: direction is needed and then it’s up to the players to execute, sources say.
Things only snowballed from there. Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated tweeted on Tuesday that there had been “steady rumblings for weeks in NBA circles that several Bucks veterans, including Giannis, had lost faith in Griffin.” Longtime NBA insider Marc Stein reported in his Substack that he had received similar word two weeks prior, when a source texted him that “Stotts would be coaching the Bucks today if he was still there.”
And according to the reporting of Shams Charania, Sam Amick and Eric Nehm of The Athletic, Griffin’s lack of ability to generate buy-in ended up being pivotal, as the Bucks began to have “internal skepticism” about “Griffin’s ability to lead” throughout the organization, from the locker room to the front office:
Following the Bucks’ disappointing loss to the Pacers in Las Vegas, Milwaukee ripped off a seven-game win streak and appeared to steady the ship with a solid four-game road trip around Christmas. But problems arose again in the new year. Team sources said players began to question Griffin’s schemes on both sides of the floor and the strategy that was being laid out for them each night.
While players were willing to be patient with Griffin as he learned on the job because of the team’s vast personnel changes at the start of the season, their questions grew more significant as the team failed to show substantial growth at the season’s midway point.
According to team sources, the issues plaguing Griffin’s early tenure ranged from putting together strong schemes on both ends of the floor for the Bucks to fulfill their championship potential to successfully communicating his vision to his players for them to execute it on the floor. But the bottom line, given the high stakes of this Bucks era, the concern over Griffin’s ability became a question too big for executive leadership to withstand any longer.
Giannis, in particular, had been not-so-subtly questioning exactly that last part for quite some time. After Griffin was relieved of his duties, Jack Maloney of CBS Sports reminded of a time Giannis and several other veterans began openly questioning the coaching staff’s strategies near a media scrum earlier in the season:
Additionally, lost in all the reporting that Griffin was Giannis’ preferred coaching choice over the summer after the Bucks let go of Mike Budenholzer was, apparently, that Giannis was less a fan of Griffin, and more a fan of anyone not named Nick Nurse, at least according to Stein:
League sources say now that the desire to play for Griffin is better described as a determination to play for someone other than Nick Nurse.
Nurse was among the candidates that the Bucks had high on their list after a five-game drubbing by No. 8-seeded Miami in the first round of last season’s playoffs, which led to Budenholzer’s ouster after five seasons in charge and, of course, Milwaukee’s first championship since 1971.
But sources say that Antetokounmpo wanted the Bucks to go in a different direction and thus chose to champion Griffin.
Why did Giannis feel that way? That’s not entirely clear. But it’s not hard to imagine — given his carefully managed 32.7 minutes per game average for his career — that he was less than enthused by Nurse’s reputation for running players until the wheels fall off.
For example, Nurse’s previous No. 1 option, Pascal Siakam — a similar player to Giannis in some ways — led the league in minutes in his last two years under Nurse, playing over 37 per game. That equaled out to, in just nine more games than Giannis over the last two seasons, 1,002 additional minutes.
But while we can’t know for certain the reason why Giannis was more anti-Nurse than pro-Griffin, what is clear is the season under the latter didn’t improve Giannis’ appreciation for him.
Lost in Giannis’ amusing viral quote from early January calling out the Bucks’ failure by saying that “everybody has to be better. Everybody. It starts from the equipment manager. He has to wash our clothes better” was Giannis including the coaches in the group that has to be better (from Nehm’s story for The Athletic at the time, emphasis mine):
“At the end of the day, this is not the end of the world,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s not the end of the world, for sure. It’s a start for us to go the direction that we want to go. This is not who we are. This is not who we are. And if we keep on this pace, I don’t think we’re going to get where we need to get to.
“We have to be better. We have to play better. We have to defend better. We have to trust one another better. We have to be coached better. Every single thing, everybody has to be better. Everybody. It starts from the equipment manager. He has to wash our clothes better. The bench has to be better. The leaders of the team have to be more vocal. We have to make more shots. We have to defend better. We have to have better strategy. We have to be better…
“We have four months to get better, so let’s see.”
The Bucks will now hope that Rivers can coach them better should he agree to a deal — and help fix their ailing defense — which leads us to the other major reason the Bucks fired Griffin midseason.
Griffin couldn’t find a working plan on defense
As early as November, my Brew Hoop colleagues argued that they had already seen enough to know the Griffin hire had been a mistake. His decision to change the Bucks’ base defensive scheme from a drop-heavy wall with Brook Lopez at the rim and Giannis in help had been replaced with a switchy, helter-skelter attack that did not fit their personnel, as Damian Lillard has never been mistaken for an interested defender, and Malik Beasley, a player with a career defensive box plus-minus of -1.2, was not the type of stopper who could “take the toughest assignment” most nights Griffin tried to sell him as.
From Brew Hoop’s editorial back then, “It’s time for the Bucks to admit defeat on Adrian Griffin”:
That brings us to the defense we have seen so far. The Bucks rank a disastrous 25th in Cleaning the Glass’ Defensive Rating, allowing over 117 points per 100 possessions. Despite an emphasis from Adrian Griffin on ball pressure and forcing turnovers, the Bucks simply do not have the personnel to execute that. The Bucks are one of the oldest teams in the league. They are big. They play a traditional drop-defense center. They have no standout point-of-attack disruptors. Despite this emphasis, they rank a below-average nineteenth in turnover rate.
Only after the players fought to go back to their old scheme did Griffin relent (via CBS Sports).
“Sometimes as coaches we are too smart for our own selves,” Griffin explained. “[A] couple players came to me — I won’t disclose — but they wanted Brook deeper in the drop and I was smart enough to listen to them. It paid off tonight.
“As a [former] player, it helps me relate to the players because the players are in the trenches. We watch it on film, but they live it. The players aren’t always correct with their assessment, but I think it’s wise to at least listen to them.”
But that concession wasn’t enough, as this snapshot from Brew Hoop from last Friday, “Adrian Griffin’s Bucks, 41 games in” made clear even before Milwaukee ultimately opted to can him:
The Bucks rank 21st in defensive rating, but they’re even kind of lucky there. Teams have much more control over their own three-point shooting percentage than their opponent’s. On wide open threes (no defender within six feet of the shooter), of which the Bucks allow 19.4 per game, no one has allowed a lower percentage than the Bucks, at just 35.5%. The league average this year is just shy of 40%. On threes that are classified as open (defender 4–6 feet from the shooter), the Bucks allow the ninth lowest percentage at 33.5%, and the league average is 35%.
The Bucks’ defensive rating benefits from wayward opponent three-point shooting, accounting for volume, by the third largest margin in the league, behind only Houston and New Orleans, at approximately 2.5 points per 100 possessions. After normalizing opponent wide open three-point shooting across the league, the Bucks’ defensive rating plummets from 21st to 28th, marginally worse than the “lost a record number of NBA games in a row” Detroit Pistons. 21st is not an acceptable level of defense for a team that is supposed to be contending for a title. The fact that they’re actually kind of fortunate to be 21st should be flashing DEFCON 1. This defense stinks.
“Kind of fortunate to be 21st” should probably be the only headline you need there.
Now, it remains to be seen if Rivers (or anyone else) can get this older, creakier Milwaukee team that swapped out five-time All-Defense honoree Jrue Holiday for a zero-times fighting over a screen All-Star in Lillard to approach anywhere near the level of defense they played in the regular season under Budenholzer, but after 43 games, the front office decided that Griffin wasn’t going to be able to generate either the buy-in or tactics necessary to try.
That is, ultimately, why he’s no longer their coach.