May 25, 2024

Bucks eliminated: Doc Rivers, Dame Lillard’s fit get incomplete grade for now

INDIANAPOLIS — As forward Isaiah Jackson lined up a pair of free throws with just over two minutes remaining in Game 6 on Thursday, Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo could only watch from the opposite baseline.

With his hands in the pockets of the pants of his gray Nike sweatsuit, Antetokounmpo stood and stared toward the other end as the Pacers reserve forward knocked down two free throws to help Indiana seal a 120-98 victory in Game 6, eliminating the Bucks from the playoffs. For a second straight season, the Bucks could not get out of the first round despite being one of the preseason favorites to take home an NBA title.

Last season, Antetokounmpo played only two full games in the Bucks’ 4-1 upset loss at the hands of the No. 8-seeded Miami Heat. This season, Antetokounmpo did not play a minute against the Pacers after suffering a left soleus (calf) strain in the Bucks’ April 9 win over the Boston Celtics. Antetokounmpo did not speak with the media after the Bucks’ loss, but Khris Middleton, who missed the second-round loss to the Boston Celtics in 2022 while trying to rehab a left MCL sprain, knew exactly what Antetokounmpo was feeling with the thousand-yard stare during the fourth quarter.

“I honestly haven’t talked to him that much because I know he’s fuming,” Middleton said following Thursday’s game. “I’ve been there before, where you’re itching, you’re fighting the medical staff to say you’re good, that you’re getting held back some.

“I could see the frustration on his face. I mean, I know how bad he wants it, wants to be out there and wants to be the great player that he is and prove to the world how great of a player he still is. So, yeah, I know he’s got a lot going on through his mind right now, just frustration about not being available at this time of the year.”

In each of the last five postseasons, the Bucks have lost a starter for a significant portion of a series. In 2021, they were able to overcome the loss of starting shooting guard Donte DiVincenzo in the first round and the left knee injury that sidelined Antetokounmpo for the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals to win the Bucks’ first NBA championship since 1971. But in the other five postseasons, injuries ultimately played a role in the team’s postseason shortcomings.

“Injuries are just part of it,” Rivers said. “I say this all the time, winning is incredibly hard. It takes 12, 15 players turning themselves into one and buying in, your staff being together as one and then health. And then you still may not win. It’s just hard. And you’re not going to win unless you’re healthy or you’re really deep.

“So, nothing you can do about it. Giannis plays the way he plays, and we need him to continue to play that way. Dame probably had a season this year where he never really could get into the right condition that he wanted because he didn’t know where he was going all summer and so he couldn’t work out. Khris, this may be the healthiest we’ve seen him, so maybe that’s something we can build on, so we’ll see.”

And this offseason, the Bucks likely will look to see if that’s something to build on.

When Milwaukee decided to fire Adrian Griffin earlier this season, general manager Jon Horst made it clear that there were certain things the organization believed the Bucks could be doing better, despite starting with a 30-13 record under the first-time head coach.

“I would say in assessing the team so far, we have a really good record, and that matters,” Horst told reporters in the news conference announcing the decision. “We’ve had that in the past. We’ve had an elite offense, and I believe we not only have an elite offense in terms of rating on a total game, but we have a starting five that’s elite offensively and very good defensively. We’re great in late-game situations, we have iso scorers, we have pick-and-roll scorers. We have a lot of dynamic, flexible things that we can do offensively.

Defensively, we have a talent group that can be better than what they’ve been so far. Is that a top-five defense, top-10, top-15? I don’t know, and that’s what we’re trying to decide here with the roster as constructed. We’re trying to understand where we can take it. Having the players be better. The players have an accountability to do this, to be better. And then the coaching element. I know that we’re gonna be really good offensively. We gotta figure out how to improve defensively consistently.”

Ultimately, despite putting together one of the league’s best records in the first half of the season, Horst and the Bucks ownership group believed that the Bucks were not consistently doing what would need to be done on both ends of the floor to make a deep championship run.

The Bucks were lost defensively under Griffin. Opponents were scoring at will in transition against the Bucks and Griffin was still scrambling to find the best defensive coverages for his team to use after being forced to scrap the initial plans for his base defense five games into the regular season when the players told him his strategy was not going to work with the roster in Milwaukee.

Offensively, the Bucks were second in offensive rating when they decided to dismiss Griffin, but they put those numbers up against one of the league’s weakest schedules and often did so without leaning heavily on the two-man game between Antetokounmpo and Lillard. Improving the partnership of the team’s superstar duo on the offensive end was ultimately going to be a massive undertaking for the new coach and an important part of the job as that two-man game would be what the Bucks used most in the postseason.

In the end, the success of Rivers’ mid-season takeover in Milwaukee was going to be graded on how deep the Bucks went into the postseason, as well as how much the team improved defensively and the potency and rhythm of Lillard and Antetokounmpo pick-and-rolls. Injuries to both Antetokounmpo and Lillard robbed the organization of any sort of final grade for Rivers because the Bucks’ star duo ended up playing zero total postseason minutes together.

So, without a final resolution, how would Rivers’ progress be viewed?

In the final 36 games of the regular season, the Bucks went 17-19 under Rivers. The Bucks improved on the defensive end under Rivers, but only slightly as the Bucks were 22nd in defensive rating in 43 regular season games under Griffin and 15th in defensive rating in 36 regular season games under Rivers.

While the team did not make a massive improvement on the defensive end, moving from below-average to average on that end of the floor in the middle of the season would suggest Rivers had put together a better plan on the defensive end, especially considering the Bucks played one of the league’s toughest schedules in the second half of the season.

Rivers would likely point to the first-round series against the Pacers as the best evidence of his ability to lead the Bucks defense. After giving up 128.8 points per game to the Pacers in five regular season games under Griffin, the Pacers only averaged 123 points per game in their four wins in the series and the Bucks held the Pacers to 94 and 92 points in their Game 1 and Game 5 victories, respectively. While Tyrese Haliburton’s health certainly played a role in the effectiveness of the Pacers offense, the Bucks under Rivers showed far greater resistance to one of the league’s best offenses and did a better job limiting the Pacers’ transition opportunities, even if there were still times where poor offensive execution let the Pacers get out and run in their four first-round losses.

Offensively, the Bucks were worse under Rivers, posting the league’s 18th-best offensive rating during his time as head coach, but the team spent a far greater share of their time getting Antetokounmpo and Lillard on the same page. In fact, they spent so much time working on their connection that the rest of the team joked about the practice possessions in which an offensive action was called for another starter.

Multiple scouts that spoke to The Athletic found the Bucks easier to prepare for during the second half of the season because of the team’s focus on getting Antetokounmpo and Lillard more reps together, but even that speaks to how well Rivers understood his assignment on the offensive end. Rivers was going to do everything in his power to fast track the connection between his two superstars because if the Bucks were going to find postseason success it was going to be on the backs of their two future Hall of Famers.

Ultimately, though, the Bucks never had the opportunity to see if Antetokounmpo and Lillard could deliver another championship to Milwaukee as the organization envisioned when Horst shocked the NBA world and sprung the trade for Lillard four days before the start of training camp. And now, that is something that the Bucks will have to figure out next season as Rivers gets a full offseason to prepare tactics for this team for next season.

While Lillard’s name has been in the news and other outlets have discussed Lillard’s happiness in Milwaukee, the man himself has repeatedly expressed his content with his situation in his first NBA home outside of Portland. And he did the same thing on Thursday in Indianapolis, even after a disappointing end to the season, in a two-minute discussion about what people might want to say from outside of Milwaukee versus what he is actually feeling in the moment.

“I’m extremely excited,” Lillard said of the prospects of his second season in Milwaukee. “I think, when things don’t go as planned, like I’ve said before, I don’t say a lot. So, sometimes when people make a read, ‘Oh, Dame, he doesn’t look happy.’ I don’t think I’ve ever run around on the court smiling. My disposition has always been that way, but I think, people are going to look at everything and try to make something of everything.

“It’s been some hard times. I haven’t denied that one time this year, basketball and personally, it’s been some hard times, but it’s never been an issue with Milwaukee. I get the opportunity to play with Giannis. I’m playing with veteran players. I know that the only thing we playing for is an opportunity to win the championship. And that’s why I made the decision to be a part of something like this. But I understand that the chatter and gossip and all of those things come with the territory. I know that, criticism comes with being on the team with high expectations.

“And, for me, now that the season has come to an end, I’m looking at it and I’m excited that, me having the season that I had, I was almost 25 points a game, seven assists, we almost won 50 games given everything else and people just, you know, had a whole lot to say. And when I look at my performance, I know that I could have done a lot of things better. And I know that I’m going to have a full season of knowing the coach I’m going to be playing for, having a better idea of the guys that I’m going to be playing with. Being in Milwaukee, I’ve kind of settled into things here.

“So having a regular offseason and being able to actually train and be able to do live stuff. Last year, I couldn’t do certain things because I couldn’t get hurt because I knew I was going to get traded. I think going into next season, people will be, they’ll be really surprised at how much of an impact all of these things actually did have when they see me come back.”

Now, the journey continues to Lillard’s second season in Milwaukee.

And as the Bucks get ready for next season, it will be incumbent on the organization to build a better roster around the duo of Antetokounmpo and Lillard.

For now, that responsibility will fall on Horst, the general manager since 2017, but league sources tell The Athletic that the Pistons have interest in Horst for their president of basketball operations position. The Pistons may not end up choosing to attempt to pull Horst away from his position in Milwaukee — Horst still has two years left on an extension he signed in October 2021 — but they are expected to ask for permission to interview Horst now that the Bucks’ season is over.

No matter who is leading the front office for the Bucks, they will need to carefully consider the team’s path forward.

Last summer, Horst approached the offseason with a simple plan. Two members of the Bucks’ core four were free agents and the Bucks did what they needed to do to re-sign both, bringing back Middleton on a three-year, $102 million deal and Lopez on a two-year, $48 million contract. With the starting lineup from the previous season intact with Middleton and Lopez next to Jrue Holiday at point guard, Grayson Allen at shooting guard and Antetokounmpo at power forward, Horst moved on to looking for options off the bench.

Because the base of the Bucks roster put the team well over the salary cap and deep into the luxury tax, Horst filled out the rest of the lineup with minimum contracts. Horst added Malik Beasley, Jae Crowder, Robin Lopez and A.J. Green as free agents on minimum contracts during the offseason, drafted Andre Jackson Jr. at No. 36 and Chris Livingston at No. 60. Eventually, when Horst traded Holiday and Allen to obtain Lillard, the Bucks added backup point guard Cam Payne to fill out the roster.

While the roster may have worked with Holiday at point guard, it was a poor fit with Lillard’s skillset. With Holiday starting in the backcourt, Beasley might have been able to hide on lesser matchups, whether that was the smaller of two guards or the weaker offensive player. But next to Lillard, Beasley was forced to cover the opponent’s best guard and that led to disarray for the Bucks defense all season long, whether Griffin or Rivers was serving as head coach.

As the Bucks consider what to do next, they will need to ask serious questions about the roster’s composition around Antetokounmpo and Lillard. When the Bucks signed Middleton and Lopez last offseason, it appeared clear that the team was committing to two more seasons with their core four of Holiday, Middleton, Lopez and Antetokounmpo, but now the Bucks have to figure out if Lillard being around instead of Holiday changes the plan for the core of the roster or just the rest of the team around them.

Because of the team’s struggles at the point of attack defensively, Lopez and Antetokounmpo were asked to do far too much and cover up for easy dribble penetration from opposing offenses. And while Antetokounmpo’s effort defensively is beyond reproach, there could be some question about a 36-year-old center anchoring the back line of a defense, but Middleton told reporters that was overblown after the game.

“I think Brook doesn’t get enough credit for what he does,” Middleton said. “I mean it doesn’t really show up in the box score stats or anything like that, but he’s a guy that guys don’t want to see in the paint … but this season he had to play a lot of different roles. The schemes changed a little bit, he had to adapt to that. That’s hard.

“I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to change my game a little bit on both ends of the floor, and it takes a while. I think Brook was a professional. I thought he handled himself about adapting to change and still finding ways to be productive on the court. I mean, there’s times where he couldn’t finish games just because of the way we wanted to play, but the times he was out there, he was still giving his all. And that’s a guy I want to play with for the rest of my career, for sure.”

This past season, Middleton played 55 games for the Bucks, dealing with an early minutes restriction because of the recovery needed for a procedure to his right knee last offseason. Last season, he played just 33 games as he dealt with myriad injuries as well. But he was spectacular in the Bucks’ first-round series against the Pacers.

As Rivers said after the series, that was probably the healthiest Middleton had looked all season long, despite playing through a left ankle sprain he suffered in Game 2, and he logged 40 minutes for three consecutive games after not doing so once in the regular season. But the Bucks will still need to figure out how hard that means they can push him during the regular season and how his plan might fit with Antetokounmpo, Lillard and Lopez.

Last offseason, the Bucks appeared to sign up for a two-year run with their core four players, but then they made a lot of changes. They swapped out Holiday for Lillard four days before training camp got underway. They started the season with a first-time head coach before replacing him midseason with an experienced coach who has won an NBA title. And then they went through a first-round series in which their two-time MVP didn’t play a second and lost without winning a playoff series for a second straight season.

With the changes made during the 2023-24 season, the Bucks have set themselves up to hit the ground running heading into next season with an experienced coach, a Top 75 duo and an entire offseason to fine-tune a plan for next season. If the Bucks tinker with the rest of the roster outside of the core four, they could position themselves to be considered among the favorites to contend for an NBA title before next season begins, but that will require patience.

After another disappointing first-round loss in the postseason, that might be difficult to accept, but it appears to be the Bucks’ simplest path forward.

(Photo of Doc Rivers and Damian Lillard: Jeffrey Phelps / Associated Press)