Establishing an identity and leveling up: Why Doc Rivers was the choice for the Bucks

Who are the Milwaukee Bucks?

And, perhaps more importantly, what are they about?

Nearly halfway through the 2023-24 season those questions have not been answered.

That’s the charge for Doc Rivers, at least immediately: Establish an identity.

“The window is now,” Bucks forward Bobby Portis said flatly. “It’s not a secret. It’s not a secret. We need to get it done.

“Experience is probably needed and probably would be (accepted) for sure and we’ll follow suit and do whatever the coach wants us for to be the best team we can possibly be and peak at the right time. That’s all we can really ask for.”

Yes, despite a historic offensive output the Bucks have some things that can get smoothed out. Yes, they’ve been poor defensively and that side of the ball requires immediate attention. Rotations need to be settled. Doing those things matter, and will help answer those questions.

But in the days that follow the announcement of Rivers' hiring as head coach Friday night, there’s only so much he is going to be able to do with no practice time and a few a shootarounds as the team jets off for its first West Coast trip of the season.

So, what are a couple of things Rivers will wrap his arms around right away?

An immediate one is an intangible, but something a coach with 1,000-plus wins and a championship ring is being brought in to grasp: Understanding these players feel they should win a certain way and they want to feel a certain way about it, and Rivers needs to message it appropriately.

And, according to the players who spoke to the media Friday, Rivers was indeed ready.

"Sometimes less is more: He said a few sentences and they were powerful," Pat Connaughton said. "He talks about just being able to have that identity that we should have as the Milwaukee Bucks. You talk about the talent that we have on the team, teams should be a little bit more afraid to play us. I think right now with the way our defense has been playing and the way we've kind of been up and down in games specifically – I know we have a great record – I don't think teams have really been worried about coming in and playing us whether it's at home or on the road.

"Making sure that we have that chip on our shoulder that we've had for a while, since I got here six years ago, we've played with a chip on our shoulder and teams knew it was going to be tough when they were playing the Bucks. I think that was a great start for him as a leader. I think everyone's bought into that."

It's something this team had been searching for under first-year head coach Adrian Griffin, who was fired Tuesday.

“The expectations are high,” Connaughton said Wednesday. “And not only are they high but you’ve got a lot of guys who have won at the highest of levels. And (Griffin’s) experiences aren’t the same as ours. I feel like that’s a tough situation to be put in.”

And while wins are wins, not all wins are equal.

“I just feel like winning games in a fashion we want to win and not feeling a certain way after a win, not feeling like … we won a lot of games to this point, but we’ve had a lot of games where we felt like we won and we didn’t play to our full potential,” forward Jae Crowder said.

“Personally, I think we should’ve blew out more teams,” guard Cameron Payne said flatly.

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers reacts to a call during the first half of their game against the Milwaukee Bucks Sunday, April 2, 2023 at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis.
Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers reacts to a call during the first half of their game against the Milwaukee Bucks Sunday, April 2, 2023 at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis.

Guard Damian Lillard has talked all season about how the team had not yet reached its full potential but was winning anyway – which could be a positive on the road to that finished product. But it became clear the team needed a different voice in the front of the room to help not only clear that path but straighten it out.

“When we get to that level that we want to get to, and when things start to click and we find our way, in the end, I think we’ll be the team that everybody expected us to probably just come out here on Day 1 and be,” Lillard said. “I think the encouraging thing about that is you want to be a team that’s playing that way, that that’s your version of yourself at the right time. You don’t want to just come out in November and (be) clicking on all cylinders and you don’t experience adversity until the worst time. I think it’s something that could be considered a positive thing as long as we keep working towards it.”

The second thing Rivers can dive into is leveling out the defense. Portis acknowledged early in the season the players had no idea what to expect of themselves game in and game out. They were willing to try different schemes, but they knew they weren't as suited for some of them. And while the offense has had its hiccups even as one of the league’s best, the defense has belched out poor showings all season long.

“We should have a top-five defense in the league; give ourselves a chance to win big,” Crowder said. “I just feel like that’s something we need to focus on. We have offensive firepower. We know that. The world knows that. But we’re not stopping anyone, we’re not (scaring) anyone on the defensive end of the court and I think we have players that can instill that. We have guys who can put our best foot forward and be a top-five defensive team in this league. But we’re not there yet and we have a lot of work to do.”

So how can Rivers fix that immediately?

Again, given he has coached nine Hall of Famers, nearly two dozen other all-stars and handfuls of players who have made all-NBA and all-defensive teams as well a few who have league and finals MVP trophies on their mantels, the bet is Rivers can recognize what seems obvious and move the chess pieces into more advantageous positions.

“Understanding hey, we have some guys that have been together for a long time, what are the things that we do great and have done great over the last five years and then where are the areas we can make adjustments, where are the areas they can obviously impart some of their wisdom, some of their experiences that they’ve seen that have worked at the highest of levels as well,” Connaughton said. “If you can combine those two things, you got (36) games, you got all-star break, you got hopefully some time before the playoffs start with the play-in tournament where I think we can put it together.”

Added Portis: "Just being on the same page. Talking. Communicating. Then, knowing what the hell we need to do on the court. Everybody’s role, everybody’s coverage and whatever they can do on the defensive end is different. So, just talking early and having an understanding of what you really need to do on a day-to-day basis. I think that’s the biggest thing."

Crowder used the catch-all of “leadership” as being a way Rivers can affect these issues immediately.

“I think everybody gonna buy in and listen to what coach gotta say. His pedigree is outstanding,” Payne said. “So we’re going to have a great opportunity. We have vets. I think everybody is gonna buy in and see what coach got for us.”

The Bucks went 30-13 under Griffin. They're going to have played three games under interim head coach Joe Prunty. They’re on pace for a 56-win season as it is. This team is still going to win a lot of games before the end of the regular season.

Rivers’ charge is to level it out, so they can level it up.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Why Doc Rivers was the choice for the Bucks