What a colossal mistake the Milwaukee Bucks made.
On the heels of firing Adrian Griffin a mere 43 games into his head-coaching career, the Bucks turned to perhaps the one viable name least likely to meet the expectations and pressure now mounting in Milwaukee: Doc Rivers.
There are a multitude of factors playing out in Milwaukee, none of which seem likely to be a particular Rivers speciality. This is a 30-13 team that just fired its head coach, which means every move, stumble, struggle and drama will be magnified – and require steady coaching that protects its players from the drama circling outside the locker room.
There’s the need to properly and completely unlock the Giannis Antetokounmpo-Damian Lillard tandem. Rivers never did so with the pairing of Joel Embiid and James Harden. Nor the triumvirate of Chirs Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. And so on.
And, most important, is the fact you don’t fire a head coach while boasting one of the NBA‘s best records unless you believe him incapable of also making a deep postseason run — something Rivers hasn’t done since his new players were in middle school.
This is not some idle, throwaway level of fret for this Bucks team and the choice they’ve made. Rivers has proven himself, time and again – and certainly since leading the Boston Celtics to one championship 16 years ago – incapable of leading aspiring championship teams anywhere good.
This wariness to turn to Rivers is also an open secret across the NBA.
When the news broke that Griffin was out, and Rivers might well be his replacement, a rival NBA executive texted this to CBS Sports: “And the other Eastern Conference contenders breathe easier.”
There’s a reason for that relief.
Rivers is quite literally one of the coaches who has most often snatched failure from the jaws of NBA postseason success. Again. And again. And again.
In its illustrious history, the NBA has seen just 13 blown 3-1 series leads and, somehow, Rivers has coached three of them. He is 6-10 in Game 7s, by far the most losses for a coach in NBA history. Ten. That is, obviously, quite a lot. And he happens to be 17-33 in games in which his teams had a chance to clinch a playoff series, which is a brutal 34% win rate. That, too, is the most losses for a coach in such a scenario in NBA history.
There are many reasons Rivers is a uniquely bad choice for Bucks general manager Jon Horst and the other decision makers in Milwaukee. But first and foremost is Rivers’ almost astounding postseason shortcomings since winning that championship in Boston.
He had a star-studded team with the Los Angeles Clippers for seven seasons and never made a single conference finals, a ceiling Sixers fans will be familiar with. Because over his three years in Philly, while coaching the guy who dropped 70 points the other night, Rivers’ teams again failed to get past the second round of the playoffs.
Perhaps that’s because Rivers’ teams have also blown multiple 3-2 series leads — four, for those counting, including last year against the Celtics when he still coached that Sixers team.
That, too, offers insight into why Rivers is a perplexing choice for the Bucks job. While the East has many serious would-be postseason landmines — the Heat, the new-look Pacers, the red-hot Cavs — there are two big dogs Milwuakee will have to contend with to get to a Finals.
One is the Celtics. The other is the Sixers — the team that became convinced enough of Rivers’ inability to succeed that they fired him last season.
That means, with the Bucks hiring Rivers, they passed up Nick Nurse to hire his assistant, whom they just fired 43 games into his coaching career, only to then turn to the guy Nurse has successfully replaced in Philly.
Why, then, would Milwaukee turn to Rivers with this history of lost series, the heartbreak and disappointment, and optics of the whole thing? Why, with Griffin’s firing surely upping the pressure on those in Milwaukee, turn to this particular coach now?
It’s hard to know. Perhaps it’s the idea that he is a “winner,” a notion the facts simply do not support. Perhaps it’s because many see him as a “culture” guy who can work magic in a locker room and among stars. But that idea will get you at least as many sideways looks as approving nods if you suggest it to rival NBA executives and coaches. There’s much to suggest Rivers is not that “great culture” builder so many in the media have tried to sell to us.
This view holds that Rivers has too often shoved his players under the proverbial bus rather than steer them toward real success. That his starkest skill since Boston has been survival rather than success, playing the game rather than winning enough of them. Ask DeAndre Jordan. Ask Ben Simmons. And now, perhaps, ask the suddenly unemployed Adrian Griffin.
Because according to The Athletic, Rivers was hired to help the rookie head coach “to serve as a veteran coaching voice to help Griffin find a path forward through the season.”
And how did Rivers help that head coach? It seems by pulling a Dick Cheney and using his voice to help that organization come to the conclusion that what the Bucks really needed was Doc Rivers.
That’s some real Game Of Thrones stuff there. And it’s a reminder that Rivers has been able to go from one great situation to another — contender, to contender, to contender.
But what he hasn’t done is win. Not in any lasting way. Not in the playoffs.
The Bucks, like the Clippers and Sixers before them, have fallen for Rivers’ siren song. But they’re likely to learn the same lesson Philly did less than a year ago: That Doc Rivers might be great at selling the idea of Doc Rivers, but in the business of coaching basketball teams he’s a mistake waiting to happen.