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Should the Deer Really Be Feared?


Damian Lillard, Malik Beasley, and Giannis Antetokounmpo sitting on the bench (Photo via The Athletic)

Since the 2018-19 NBA season, the Milwaukee Bucks have been considered by many to be title contenders. They won the championship in 2021, which was their first in over half a century. However, even though there have been some bumps in the road since that 2018-19 season, the Bucks have never looked as bad as they do now. 

What has happened since their championship run to transform them from a formidable force that was feared, to a team that is 3-7 in their last ten games?

The history of the modern-day Milwaukee Bucks cannot be discussed without bringing up the largest contributor to their success, the “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo is not only one of the most accomplished players in the NBA currently, but of all time. In his eleventh season, he is an 8X All-Star, 7X All-NBA, 2X MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and a Finals MVP during Milwaukee’s 2021 championship run. However, since achieving all of that major individual and team success, there hasn’t been much else to follow. 

After winning the 2021 NBA Championship, the Bucks have failed to make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals. In 2022, they got demolished in a 28-point blowout loss to the Boston Celtics in game seven of the Eastern Conference semifinals, with the final score being 81-109. In 2023, coming into the playoffs as the first seed in the Eastern Conference, Milwaukee lost in the first round 4-1 to the Jimmy Butler-led Miami Heat who barely made it out of the Play-In Tournament. Although it is important to note that key players, such as All-Star small forward Khris Middleton and Antetokounmpo were injured during games in both of these playoff runs, the Bucks still fell short of many people’s expectations and have failed to make it back to where they were a few years ago. 

Because of this, Bucks’ General Manager Jon Horst felt it was time to make big changes. This started with firing coach Mike Budenholzer, who had been their head coach since the 2018-19 season, and replacing him with a rookie head coach in Adrian Griffin. Although Griffin didn’t have any head coaching experience, he was an assistant coach for 16 seasons between five different organizations spanning from 2008 to 2023.  

Not only was there a huge change in personnel at the head coach position but there were also huge changes made to the roster. On September 27, 2023, the Bucks were involved in a blockbuster three-team deal that landed them 8X NBA All-Star Damian Lillard to create a dynamic duo. 

Jrue Holiday, DeAndre Ayton, Toumani Camara, Milwaukee's 2029 unprotected first-round draft pick, and unprotected Milwaukee swap rights in 2028 and 2030 got sent to the Portland Trail Blazers. Grayson Allen, Jusuf Nurkic, Nassir Little, and Keon Johnson were traded to the Phoenix Suns. 

Many predicted that the addition of Damian Lillard would create an unstoppable offense and pick-n-roll duo, which would balance out the losses on the defensive end. Having to choose between going over screens to stop Lillard from getting a good look from three, but also having to worry about Giannis rolling to the basket for an easy dunk/layup or kicking it out to the corner when the help defense rotates was a nightmare scenario to even think about. 

Through their first 43 games, the Bucks were 30-13, which was good for second in the Eastern Conference. Even though this might seem like a good thing, many people speculated that something was off. 

Although Milwaukee didn’t have their all-defense team point guard in Jrue Holiday, many anticipated that their defense would still be solid, especially because they still had the 2020 DPOY Giannis Antetokounmpo and 2023 runner-up DPOY Brook Lopez. However, the Bucks were 22nd in defensive rating, which was 18 spots lower than where they were ranked last year throughout the same stretch of games.

Even with their high-powered offense fueled by sharpshooter Lillard and rim-run threat Antetokounmpo, who produced a +4.1 net rating, their defense allowed 120 ppg. With this came many internal conflicts in the organization. As highlighted by CBS Sports, coach Griffin displayed incompetence or flat-out wasn’t on the same page as the players, specifically Giannis. This led to Griffin’s termination just 43 games into his first season as a head coach for the Bucks. 

After the firing of Griffin, the Bucks played three games under interim head coach Joe Prunty, who won two out of three contests. John Hurst then decided to hire former NBA player and long-time head coach Doc Rivers. 

This hire received loads of pushback from the media and NBA community overall. Rivers is notorious for helping lead the 2008 Boston Celtics to an NBA Championship but outside of that, there haven’t been many comparable successes. 

Rivers is the only coach to blow three 3-1 series leads. The first instance was in 2003 against the Detroit Pistons when he was the head coach of the Orlando Magic, who featured two-time scoring champ and multiple-time All-Star Tracy McGrady. 

The other two instances were both with the Los Angeles Clippers. The first of these being in 2015 against future MVP James Harden and the Houston Rockets, with the second occurring in the 2020 bubble against the Denver Nuggets led by star duo Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. 

Both of these losses came in the Western Conference semifinals, which is noteworthy since the Clippers hadn’t made it to the Western Conference Finals in the organization’s history. The next year, the Clippers finally ended up making it to the WCF led by head coach Tyronn Lue, who helped the Cleveland Cavaliers complete the historic 3-1 comeback in the 2016 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. 

After getting fired from the Clippers in 2020,  Rivers went out east to coach the Philadelphia 76ers from the 2020-21 season up until last season. In his three years there, he never made it past the second round. 

The worst instance was last season when the 76ers were up 3-2 against the Boston Celtics. In a close game six at home in which Celtics’ superstar Jayson Tatum had been struggling all game, the 76ers allowed Tatum to get hot down the stretch. He ended up hitting four clutch three-pointers late in the fourth quarter, and the 76ers lost 95-86 and were forced to play a game seven on the road.

Tatum’s electric fourth-quarter performance from game six carried over to game seven where he dropped 51 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists in an 88-112 win to send Rivers and the 76ers home. 

All of the history and context behind Rivers made him a questionable hire. The last thing a struggling team needs is a head coach who has displayed again and again that he cannot make it over the hump. 

With ten games left before going into the All-Star break, Rivers and the Milwaukee Bucks went 3-7, with bad losses coming against teams projected to be in the lottery, as well as teams who were missing key players. 

Some of these losses include: 

January 31: 116-119 loss against the Portland Trail Blazers who are 15-39

February 4: 108-123 loss against the Utah Jazz who are 26-30

February 8: 105-129 blowout loss at home against the Minnesota Timberwolves

February 13: 97-123 blowout loss at home against the Miami Heat who were missing superstar Jimmy Butler 

February 15: 110-113 loss against the Memphis Grizzlies who are 20-36. The Grizzlies were missing their three best players in All-NBA guard Ja Morant, All-Star and DPOY Jaren Jackson Jr, and sharpshooter Desmond Bane

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Doc Rivers quote (Photo via Bleacher Report post on X)

With 26 games remaining in the regular season for the Bucks, they look to tighten up on both sides of the floor, especially on the defensive end. Unfortunately for Rivers and company, the Bucks are faced with the third hardest strength of schedule post-All-Star break, as they verse the Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Los Angeles Clippers twice, as well as play the Timberwolves and Knicks once each. 

Will Giannis, Dame, and Doc fight through adversity and make it to the promised land, or will the Bucks fall short for a third straight season? 

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