PHOENIX — The Milwaukee Bucks have a lot to learn.
That isn’t a great place to be in the middle of an NBA season. And it is an especially uncomfortable place to be in during a five-game, 10-day trip through the Western Conference. But that’s the Bucks’ situation as they try to get accustomed to doing things differently on offense and defense with new head coach Doc Rivers.
While the Bucks were second place in the Eastern Conference, holding a 30-13 record before Adrian Griffin was dismissed in his first season as an NBA head coach, the organization felt as though it needed to make a change. Rivers has altered tactics on both ends in his first week with the team. And that has meant the Bucks have gone back to not only building the foundation of their strategy but doing so while playing every other night for the last week.
“It had a definite training camp vibe to it,” center Brook Lopez said of the team’s lone practice during the trip on Friday in Dallas. “There’s a lot of learning, a lot of talking, listening, back and forth, just figuring stuff out. But we’re fortunate, we have a lot of smart players, a lot of talented players and unselfish players and those are three things that give us a great curve when it comes to picking up new things.”
Sneaking training camp activities into an NBA schedule is a difficult thing for any team or coach to balance.
“Our shootarounds have been long and I know that,” Rivers said before a 123-108 loss to the Utah Jazz on Sunday. “I can probably get away with that for another week or two until they stop liking them, so we’re going to take advantage of it.”
The Bucks have compiled a 3-4 record in the seven games since dismissing Griffin, with interim head coach Joe Prunty going 2-1 and Rivers 1-3. That reflects the difficulty of trying to make an in-season coaching change, but the underlying numbers have been interesting thus far.
In the seven games since Griffin’s dismissal, the Bucks have scored 115.5 points per 100 possessions, 17th in the NBA, and given up 113.9 points per 100 possessions, 10th in the NBA. That is a noticeable change on both ends of the floor as the Bucks ranked second in offensive efficiency before Griffin’s firing and 22nd in defensive efficiency. The bump in defensive acumen is the outcome the organization had hoped for most in making the coaching change, but the decline in offensive production has been an unexpected consequence.
On the offensive end, Rivers has talked about how it has been difficult to try to pick up the team’s terminology in the middle of a season. For instance, some of the actions this season are the same things that Mike Budenholzer ran when he was head coach of the Bucks (and Rivers scouted the Bucks as head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers), but those actions were called different things under Griffin. So, even if Rivers can describe the action or the play that he wants them to run, he can’t quickly call the name of that action on the fly because he first has to figure out what the team is calling it this season.
Those gaps in language and terminology, as well as Rivers’ desire to install new plays and actions, have led to an offense that hasn’t run smoothly in his first week.
“Just us talking to him about what plays we like to run for the majority of time during practices,” Khris Middleton said, in regards to how they’ve tried to make things work. “Then, in games, we kind of know at certain times what we want to run and we’ll go to Doc about the play we want to run.
“Sometimes we run it, sometimes we don’t, but it’s a conversation at this point because he’s trying to learn our terminology, what we like to call, plays and actions that we like to run. But he’s also trying to figure out how to take us to the next level. So it’s a collaborative, group effort right now trying to get on the same page as quick as we can.”
On the defensive end, things have been a little easier for Rivers because the new coaching staff has only been required to install a defensive game plan where it is about principles and how the team wants to guard certain actions and less about calling a certain play at a specific time. Those principles don’t change as much from play to play.
In fact, on the defensive end, Rivers has tried to somewhat remove the coaches from the process.
“We had — (it was) probably the first time for the coaches — we had what I call a quiet practice, meaning coaches can’t talk, only players,” Rivers said after Friday’s practice in Dallas. “And if they run into each other, they run into each other. Because the only reason they ran into each other is because they didn’t talk. And I asked the team, do they think they’re a high talking team, a medium or a low, and they actually said low. And I said, so now we know we can fix it.”
Rivers acknowledged that part of being quiet on the defensive end might be the players demonstrating they don’t know what they are supposed to be doing. He suggested it’s akin to a student sitting in a classroom hoping the teacher doesn’t call on them because they don’t know the answer.
As far as communication, Rivers pointed to Lopez and veteran forward Jae Crowder as the team’s standout talkers on defense.
“Everyone’s definitely trying to do that,” Lopez said about the team trying to talk more. “And, it’s obviously something that’s taken a bit longer to figure out with the, I guess, composite group we have of new and old. Different people, taking longer than we thought it might to figure each other out. Different coaches and everything like that to throw in too. Different concepts.
“So it’s a lot to figure out and you really have to have a good sense of what you’re doing and figure stuff out before you can talk confidently about it on the court, on the fly. You can always talk about little things, saying you got your guy’s back and stuff like that, but you really have to be able to understand the concepts and know what you’re talking about to be able to confidently speak on the floor in those moments.”
Thus far, the new lessons and new thoughts haven’t led to winning as the Bucks have gone 1-3 on the trip. But after the game in Utah, while admitting that he might have to rethink his rotations after the Jazz outscored the Bucks 40-13 in the fourth quarter, Rivers told reporters he thought part of the reason for the team’s tired legs late in the game was the team’s commitment to improvement with longer practice and shootaround times, as well as a stronger effort on defense.
That was a sentiment shared by his best player.
“I definitely agree,” two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “I feel like, from practice, because we’re adding stuff and everybody’s excited and everybody sees what we’re trying to accomplish here and, they’re excited for the things that we can do as a team and how better we can get.
“And like in practice, people are going faster and running up and down. And obviously, you know, having a new coaching staff you gotta kind of show what you’re made of and what you can do. In shootarounds, guys are more aggressive, shoot more, cut more, play harder. We have a longer shootaround because we’re adding stuff, and then you go to the game and you’re kind of a little bit gassed, I’m not going to lie.
“But, at the end of the day, you find that happy balance. Right now, it doesn’t matter and I hope everybody in this locker room feels the same way that I feel. It does not matter. There’s so many things that we’re doing right now that we are getting better. And the moment everything clicks and our legs are there and our minds are there and guys are healthy and everybody is locked in, I think it’s going to go very well. I really do believe.”
Things haven’t gone perfectly for the Bucks on this trip, but Antetokounmpo is encouraged by the work the team has done thus far and thinks the changes that have been made are positive for the team moving forward.
“It’s a very, very hard, schedule, but when everything settles down, we are going to be very, very fine,” Antetokounmpo said. “I really do believe. I believe we are trending towards the right direction.”
(Photo of Giannis Antetokounmpo: Chris Nicoll / USA Today)