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How the Milwaukee Bucks are playing differently under new head coach Doc Rivers

The team is trying more pairings of star players Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard, The Athletic’s Eric Nehm says

LA Clippers head coach Doc Rivers.
Doc Rivers watches during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Milwaukee. Morry Gash/AP File Photo

When the Milwaukee Bucks swapped coaches last month in the middle of the NBA season, the team’s poor-ranking defense gained wider attention and scrutiny.

But the new head coach, Doc Rivers, has been unexpectedly focused on the team’s offense, according to Eric Nehm, who covers the Bucks for The Athletic. That’s been surprising because the offense was already strong under Rivers’ predecessor.

After the team’s second game under Rivers, the new coach said strengthening the offense would be crucial until the team’s defense improves.

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“Some of those turnovers, some of those wasted possessions, have come from Doc Rivers trying to figure out exactly how he’s going to do things offensively,” Nehm said.

In an interview with WPR’s “The Morning Show,” Nehm discussed how Rivers appears to be leading the Bucks differently than Adrian Griffin, who was fired by the Bucks on Jan. 23.

The following has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Kate Archer Kent: How differently are the Bucks playing under Rivers versus Adrian Griffin?

Eric Nehm: There are, I’m sure, a lot of changes that Doc Rivers would like to make as the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. There just isn’t a ton of opportunity to actually do that.

They’ve looked quite a bit stronger since Doc Rivers has taken over. Offensively, they’re trying to use a little bit more of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard together in two-man pairings and trying to get that camaraderie between those two players, and that chemistry, growing a little bit.

But thus far, you’ve got to take baby steps, because it’s really hard to make a whole lot of changes in the middle of an NBA season.

KAK: What changes might Rivers consider as the team tries to make a deep run into the postseason? 

EN: They were very good offensively before Adrian Griffin got fired. I think a lot of people, including myself, expected Doc Rivers to come in and focus on the defense. I have been a little bit surprised to see Doc Rivers go after the offensive end as much as he has.

At the top of his list is getting Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard on the same page. They haven’t been quite good enough. He wants a dominant pairing from those two guys. I think he’s struggled to make it work smoothly.

Both of those guys are used to being the very best player in their team, having the ball in their hands more than anybody else. And now Rivers is in a spot where he’s trying to put them both together, and they’re like, ‘I can do this by myself. Why do I need this other person?’ That’s where you get some of these issues.

KAK: How are Bucks players feeling? What are the emotions like with the coach change? 

EN: I think one thing you’ve kind of heard from them over and over again is, ‘He just kind of knows what he’s doing.’ And that’s to be expected of someone that’s done the job for 24 seasons before joining the Bucks.

I don’t think the players feel like they need to help Doc do all that much. I think Doc knows what he wants. He understands the limitations of joining in the middle of the season.

It’s really hard to find a situation that he hasn’t seen before, because he’s coached so many great teams. He’s had high expectations. He’s won a championship. He’s coached multiple All-Stars together. He’s coached multiple great offensive players together. He’s coached great defenses. He knows how to communicate his vision, and he knows how to get everyone on the same page. 

KAK: Why did the Bucks fire Adrian Griffin? What was going on inside the team? 

EN: The Bucks have really high expectations. I think they’ve shown that over the last eight months as you look at them getting rid of their championship head coach Mike Budenholzer and then again this year with Adrian Griffin.

That can be hard for people from the outside to believe, because (the Bucks held) the second best record in the NBA at the time. There was just not enough progress for the organization to believe in what Adrian Griffin was doing.

When you look at the month of January, they just weren’t growing defensively. I just don’t think the organization felt like they were ever really seeing that progress with Adrian Griffin. First and foremost, the defense just (wasn’t) getting better as the season went on.

KAK: Do you think organizations are becoming less patient with coaches than years ago?

EN: It’s kind of crazy to think about the Milwaukee Bucks that a lot of people know from the ’80s. Coach Don Nelson never won a championship, but he had the job for almost an entire decade, from the late ’70s into the late ’80s. He was the Bucks’ head coach. He was beloved. He knew exactly what he was doing. Everyone was happy being a consistent winner year over year. They never made that NBA Finals appearance, but everyone was pleased with the job that he was doing, because clearly it put together good systems. 

In the middle of what ended up being a championship season in 2021, Mike Budenholzer (was in) his third season with the Bucks. The organization had real thoughts about firing him. In those three seasons, Mike Budenholzer and the Bucks had one of the best records in the league. That wasn’t enough.