What’s up Doc? The Milwaukee Bucks’ struggles under Doc Rivers

The Milwaukee Bucks have lost Giannis Antetokounmpo to a calf injury, but their performances under Doc Rivers were wanting. Here’s how Rivers has changed the Bucks for better and for worse. 
Oklahoma City Thunder v Milwaukee Bucks
Oklahoma City Thunder v Milwaukee Bucks / Patrick McDermott/GettyImages

Following an impressive win against the Boston Celtics where the Celtics became the first team on record to not attempt a free throw., the Milwaukee Bucks are now 16-17 under Doc Rivers. While the victory helped ease concerns that they’d fall from the two seed in the Eastern Conference, it came at the coast of their Greek demi-god’s calf. No, not Achilles heel, but Giannis Antetokounmpo’s soleus. 

The Milwaukee Bucks’ mid-season coaching change hasn’t paid off as they had hoped. Adrian Griffin might not have been the answer to the Bucks’ championship aspirations, but he still guided the franchise to a 30-13 record before being dismissed. 

With three games left in the season and the second overall seed slipping from their grasp, the Bucks season is teetering on the edge. This exact scenario was the reason Doc Rivers was brought to Milwaukee, but thus far, the results have been catastrophic. This is how one of the NBA’s most respected coaches has flopped so hard with such a talented roster, and if he can reverse course in time for the playoffs. 

The Bucks before Doc

Under Mike Budenholzer the Bucks were a regular season juggernaut. Over six seasons, they made the playoffs each year, finishing no lower than the third seed, three times they were the one seed, and they topped it off with a championship in 2021. Despite the Bucks’ immense regular season success, outside of their one title run, they had the aura of a team that underperformed in the playoffs.  

Following an ugly first-round exit as the one seed to the Miami Heat in the 2023 playoffs, Budenholzer was released from duties. Adrian Griffin was brought in from Toronto as his successor. Griffin, a first-time head coach, struggled out of the gate to win over the Bucks veterans. First, he aborted his plans to install a more aggressive defensive scheme, and then he was unable to fix their dismal transition defense. However, the Bucks were an offensive juggernaut and owned a sterling 30-13 record. While the days of a dominating defense, enjoyed under the Budenholzer regime, looked over, Griffin had overseen the best offense in franchise history. 

The Bucks’ decision to move on from Griffin in favor of Rivers was about optics and confidence. The team simply didn’t look that good, despite their record, and it became clear the veteran vanguard saw him as a first-time head coach who was in over his head. Rivers, for all of his faults as a coach, owns a wealth of experience, especially in managing superstar players in high-pressure situations. The first objective for Rivers was to figure out how to improve the defense, and while he has, it hasn’t made the team materially better.  

Doc Rivers has fixed the Bucks’ defense but at a cost

Rivers’ first game presiding over the Bucks was a Jan. 29 loss to the Nuggets in Denver. As far as losses go, it was a completely forgivable result, but they limped into the All-Star break with a 3-7 record under Rivers. With a week off, the sense was that he would finally have the time to fix the Bucks’ problems and help propel them to a deep playoff run. And while the Bucks have played better post-All-Star break, with a 13-10 record, it’s still miles behind what they accomplished under Griffin. 

The problem has been that while Rivers has helped fix some of the Bucks’ defensive issues, the offense has completely fallen off. Before the All-Star break, the Bucks’ owned an offensive rating of 118.9 and a defensive rating of 115.9 according to NBA.com. Since the All-Star break, the Bucks’ offensive rating has dropped to 115.6, while their defensive rating has improved to 113.3. However, the massive swing in both metrics is misleading because league-wide offense has dropped dramatically since the All-Star break. 

Relative to the league average, Doc Rivers has improved the Bucks’ defensive rating by 0.5 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break, which equates to roughly one fewer made 2-pointer every four games. Conversely, the offense has lost 1.2 points per 100 possessions in that time. Needless to say, the defense, while better, hasn’t improved enough to offset the major step back in offensive production. So what’s behind the Bucks’ dropoff in offensive production?

The two main changes to the Bucks’ offense after the All-Star break have been a reduction in overall pace and a shift away from drives in favor of more catch-and-shoot jumpers and post-ups. Much like offensive efficiency, the league has experienced an overall drop in pace, but the Bucks’ drop has outpaced the league’s. 

The Bucks have slowed it down for better and for worse

Before the All-Star break, the Bucks played at 102.6 possessions per-game pace compared to the league average of 100.3. Since then they’ve seen their pace drop to 98.5 possessions per game as the league average has also dropped to 98.5. Pace doesn’t necessarily lead to better offensive results, but generally speaking, offensive efficiency declines with every tick of the shot clock. 

The decision to play at a slower pace is odd considering the Bucks’ offensive success pushing the tempo, but it might be tied to their improvement in defensive rebounding. Since the All-Star break, the Bucks’ defensive rebounding rate has improved from 76.5 percent to 78.4 percent. Committing more bodies to grab defensive boards will ensure you kill off more possessions, but it won’t allow you to transition as quickly into offense. 

Another factor has been the Bucks’ ability to slow down their opponent’s offense, as their seconds per defensive possession has gone from 14.1 to 14.9, which is an even greater increase than the 14 to 14.5-second increase in their offensive possessions. Doc Rivers seems to have traded overall pace for improved defensive stability. 

The Bucks’ reduction in pace is in large part a product of their improved defense. While it would be great to get the best of both worlds, sacrificing pace to improve their porous defense is definitely a worthy trade-off. However, the stylistic changes on offense haven’t been nearly as fruitful. 

The Bucks’ offensive changes under Doc Rivers

The bread and butter of NBA offense are drives. They can come out of the pick-and-roll, an isolation, and even a well-timed pump on a potential catch-and-shoot opportunity. As the game has drifted to the perimeter and 3-point shooting has created more space, drives are how teams generate offense. 

Heading into the All-Star break, the Bucks averaged 44.3 drives per game, leading to 29.1 points, 4.8 assists, and only 2.8 turnovers on 55.6 percent shooting. Since the break, those figures have dropped to 39.1 drives, 22.3 points, 4.0 assists, and 3.0 turnovers per game on 49.2 percent shooting. The drops in volume and efficiency are tremendous and explain most of the Bucks’ eight-point drop in points per game. 

The most notable shift has been the redistribution of drive attempts between Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Bucks’ shift away from Antetokounmpo drives is an odd choice. He was far more effective and efficient at generating points than Lillard. And just shifting more driving opportunities away from Antetokounmpo to Lillard would have hurt the Bucks’ effectiveness, but both players have seen a noticeable drop in their efficiency on the play. The Bucks’ more deliberate pace may have seen their two stalwarts face more set defenses and eaten into their effectiveness and willingness to attack the paint on drives. 

Replacing the missing driving attempts has been an increase in catch-and-shoot jumpers and more post-ups. The Bucks went from attempting 27.2 catch-and-shoot jumpers per game to 30.4 after the All-Star break, and have seen their total number of post ups go from 6.0 per game to 8.7. 

Doc Rivers’ decision to go away from what was working on offense, a fast-paced drive-oriented offense spearheaded by Giannis Antetokounmpo, to a slower more post-up and catch-and-shoot-oriented attack has diminished the Bucks’ one overwhelming strength. 

The Doc Rivers era has been swimming upstream 

The Doc Rivers era has been an unmitigated disaster. He was brought in to stabilize the situation and has largely made the team worse. He has helped their defense a small amount, but it has come at the cost of their offense, and it’s likely his schematic adjustments are a large reason why. 

The Bucks will go as far as Giannis Antetokounmpo’s health takes them, but they’ll have to get there despite Doc Rivers. The game looked to have passed Rivers by in Philadelphia and his time in Milwaukee hasn’t done anything to change that perception. The talent is still there for the Bucks to make a deep run, but the coaching disadvantage they wanted to avoid with Adrian Griffin still looks like a real concern. For the Bucks to win a title, they’ll have to swim upstream through the Rivers. 

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