Well, it’s official: Doc Rivers is the new head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Rivers becomes the Bucks’ third coach in less than nine months as first Mike Budenholzer and then Adrian Griffin failed to maximize Milwaukee’s core. His job is to do what they couldn’t.
It won’t be easy. The Bucks went from fourth in defensive rating last season to 21st this season, but also went from 15th in offensive rating to second. Half of that equation is good. These days, teams need an elite offense and a defense that is good enough to compete for a championship. Griffin’s problem was that his defense wasn’t good enough. Even when considering the offense-for-defense tradeoff of Jrue Holiday for Damian Lillard, there are ways the Bucks defense could have been better.
That will be on the top of Rivers’ checklist as he takes over the Bucks job with half a season to go. Here are the most important things on Rivers’ to-do list.
Fix the defense
There was always going to be a dropoff from Holiday, maybe the best perimeter guard defender in the league, to Lillard, who isn't.
The Bucks knew that when they made the trade and were willing to live with it. There’s no doubt it was the right move. In the past, Milwaukee’s offense struggled in the halfcourt, and Lillard arrived as one of the best shot-creators in the NBA. The Bucks now rank fourth in points per halfcourt possession, per Cleaning The Glass.
But the defense has been a mess, and not just because they lost Holiday’s ability at the point of attack.
Going from Holiday to Lillard is no excuse for leaking transition points (14th in the league, per Cleaning The Glass) and ranking 26th in offensive rebounding rate.
Teams usually have to decide between crashing the boards after a miss or getting back in transition. The Bucks don’t do either one. They are just one of four teams (along with the Mavericks, Hawks and Lakers) to rank in the bottom eight in second-chance points and fastbreak points allowed.
That’s effort. That’s coaching. That’s buy-in.
Rivers has to get the Bucks to buy in to doing the little things on defense: Getting back in transition, boxing out, and contesting shots.
Defensive scheme has been a big topic in Milwaukee, and Rivers will have to simplify things there, too.
Griffin overhauled Budenholzer’s drop-coverage scheme at the start of the season, but the Bucks players revolted and changed it back after a few weeks. Griffin’s idea of trying to make Milwuakee’s defense more multiple was sound, but the Bucks never learned to execute any one scheme well enough to lean on. They were a master of none, and a jack of no trades.
With such a short turnaround, Rivers should go to what the team’s tentpole defensive players know best. Have Brook Lopez drop and defend the basket, Giannis Antetokounmpo sew fear as a help-side defender and encourage the rest of the team to funnel the ball their way.
They won’t be as good at executing that scheme as last season, but they don’t have to be.
Systematize the offense
What is Milwaukee’s offense? The Bucks rank seventh in isolation frequency, 16th in transition, fifth in post-ups and near the middle of the league in pick-and-roll.
When they made the trade for Lillard, it seemed obvious to put him and Giannis in a pick-and-roll and let them wreak havoc. It’s been well-covered how that hasn’t happened, and too often Lillard and Giannis find themselves isolating against halfcourt defenses.
It might be too much to ask Rivers to make Giannis embrace a screen-setting role while in the midst of an MVP-caliber season, but this offense can use more pick-and-roll.
Despite the hiccups, the Bucks rank first in points per possession when the ball-handler shoots or passes out of the pick-and-roll. That ball-handler is usually Lillard, an elite pick-and-roll player with or without Giannis setting a screen. The problem is that they only run those plays at a league-average frequency.
Rivers spammed the James Harden-Joel Embiid pick-and-roll in Philadelphia, he should do the same in Milwaukee. It needs to be Lopez or Bobby Portis when it's not Giannis.
Lillard and Lopez operating in the middle of the court with Giannis looming in the slot or the dunker spot as the league’s most dangerous cutter and lob threat is a formula worth rinsing and repeating.
In crunch time, the Bucks can always turn to the Lillard-Giannis pick-and-roll, which has the potential to be the most unstoppable two-man game in the league.
Maximize the role players
This might end up being the hardest part of the job for Rivers. With Giannis, Lillard, Lopez and Khris Middleton, Rivers has a clear group he can trust in a playoff setting. Everything after that is dicey.
It hasn’t been a great season for Portis, who needs a bit of structure to maximize his game. He’s averaging the most post-ups since he was with the Wizards in 2018-19 and isn’t scoring out of them at an efficient clip. Under Budenhozler, Portis was pushed to make quick decisions, roll to the rim and shoot open 3s (he’s also taking less 3s this season). Rivers needs to reign him in.
But the real work will be finding at least one playoff rotation player out of the impressionable group of MarJon Beauchamp, Andre Jackson Jr. and Chris Livingston.
Rivers has been over-reliant on vets in past stops while eschewing the chance to develop younger, more talented players on his rosters. (His constant benching of Paul Reed in Philadelphia or playing Matt Barnes over Reggie Bullock in Los Angeles come to mind.)
There’s a chance that happens here. Rivers could easily lean on Cam Payne, Pat Connaughton and Jae Crowder (who is nearing a return from his left adductor injury) off the bench and limit minutes for Beauchamp, Jackson and Livingston. That would be a mistake.
Beauchamp and Jackson, especially, have had moments this season and are Milwaukee’s best chance at answers on the defensive end.
Beauchamp, the 24th pick in the 2022 draft, has prototypical 3-and-D wing size and is shooting 40% on 3-pointers this season. There’s some off-the-bounce pop.
Jackson grades out as one of Milwaukee’s better defenders and 37% on 3s (albeit on low volume), but his athleticism and rebounding have been important.
By the end of the regular season, Rivers must find three or four role players he trusts in a playoff setting.
The rest of this season is about gearing up for a challenging run through the East. Rivers doesn’t have much time.