Why did Bucks fire coach Adrian Griffin? They didn't believe he could lead team to title

The signs of a problematic alliance between the Milwaukee Bucks and head coach Adrian Griffin came early in the season.

Before the season even.

The Bucks hired Griffin to replace Mike Budenholzer, whose shelf life as Milwaukee’s coach expired even though he led the franchise to the NBA championship in 2021. And to help the first-year coach, the Bucks brought in longtime NBA head coach Terry Stotts as an assistant.

However, Stotts resigned just before the 2023-24 season began, and continued criticisms from Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo revealed not all was perfect for the first-year coach with massive expectations.

That Bucks-Griffin alliance ended Tuesday when the Bucks dismissed Griffin amid a 30-13 season. ESPN and The Athletic reported that ESPN NBA analyst Doc Rivers is a favorite to coach the Bucks.

Despite sitting in second place in the Eastern Conference, 3½ games behind Boston, tied for the second-best record in the NBA and sporting the league’s No. 2 offense, the Bucks are also 22nd defensively.

Baked into that .698 winning percentage is play that has resulted in both impressive victories (Philadelphia, Boston, Sacramento) and dubious losses (Atlanta, Houston, 1-4 record against division rival Indiana).

But more than any one game, Griffin, 49, wasn’t connecting with players and the team wasn’t making the necessary progress, prompting a change.

Adrian Griffin has been dismissed as head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. He was in charge for just 43 games.
Adrian Griffin has been dismissed as head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. He was in charge for just 43 games.

Antetokounmpo rarely has been satisfied with the Bucks’ play.

“Once you’re up 20, you’ve got to put them away. You’ve got to put them away,” he said after an Oct. 30 loss to Miami. “We weren’t able to do that tonight. Hopefully, we can learn from this.”

Following a Dec. 7 loss to Indiana in the In-Season Tournament semifinals, Antetokounmpo said, “The talent level we have is incredible. But we have to be more organized. I feel like sometimes we're not organized at all. We don't know what we try to get from our offense, or sometimes defensively we're not sprinting back.”

Earlier this month after a Jan. 6 loss to Houston, Antetokounmpo expressed his frustration in everyone. “We have to be better. We have to play better. We have to defend better. We have to trust one another better. We have to be coached better,” he said. “Every single thing, everybody has to be better. Everybody. It starts from the equipment manager. He has to wash our clothes better. The bench has to be better. The leaders of the team have to be more vocal. We have to make more shots. We have to defend better. We have to have better strategy. We have to be better.”

Frustrations add up, divide and multiply, and despite belief that Antetokounmpo supported and even wanted Griffin’s hiring, when the megastar isn’t happy, no one is happy.

At a recent game earlier this season, a rival executive when asked what was happening with the Bucks bumped his fists together and said players and coach were butting heads. The defensive problems, lack of progress and belief that their play wasn’t good enough to contend didn’t help Griffin.

Another person told USA TODAY Sports that key players had lost confidence in Griffin. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about Milwaukee’s internal operations.

Milwaukee acquired All-Star Damian Lillard just before training camp opened, and Lillard played for Stotts with Portland for nine seasons. Perhaps Stotts felt it was best to step aside and not be an obstacle for the Griffin-Lillard relationship. Another theory is that Stotts wasn’t on board with Griffin’s philosophy and didn’t want to be involved. It could also be a logical combination of the two.

It’s an unfortunate end to Griffin’s first head-coaching job. He came to Milwaukee as a respected assistant with Milwaukee, Chicago, Toronto, Orlando and Oklahoma City. It’s not often a coach winning almost 70% of his games is fired.

But expectations are considerable from ownership and the front office. After trading for Lillard and just before the season began, Antetokounmpo signed a three-year, $186 million extension through 2027-28 though he can exercise a player option and become a free agent after the 2026-27 season. He’s due to make $63.4 million in the final year of the deal.

With Antetokounmpo and Lillard under contract through at least the 2025-26 season, there is a strong desire for (at least) another title.

Ownership and the front office didn’t believe Griffin was the coach to get them there.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why Milwaukee Bucks fired coach Adrian Griffin after just 43 games