Doc Rivers is back in the NBA.
Rivers, who will be introduced at the Fiserv Forum on Saturday, takes over a 30-13 Bucks team sitting 3.5 games behind the Boston Celtics in second place in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks hired Rivers with their sights squarely set on a second NBA championship in four seasons.
Milwaukee stunned the NBA by dismissing Griffin Tuesday amid the 30-13 start. Griffin took over this season for the fired Mike Budenholzer, who was fired last offseason after the top-seeded Bucks fell in the first round of the playoffs to the Miami Heat.
General manager Jon Horst declined to elaborate on why Griffin was fired in a brief statement announcing the decision. But a decline on defense and in analytic measures may have convinced Milwaukee brass that Griffin wasn't the man to lead the Bucks to a championship. Horst then clarified his decision on Wednesday ahead of the Bucks' game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and insisted that Griffin hadn't lost the locker room before he was fired.
"This is not about players comments," Horst said, via ESPN. "This is not about things said or unsaid. This is my job. This is the organization's job at the top to evaluate every single day all areas of the organization and feel like whether we're getting or not getting the most we can out of that group. If we feel like we could maximize the talent of this group better, we made a change. That's why we made it."
A Bucks team that's built a strong defensive identity centered around two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and 2023 DPOY finalist Brook Lopez has fallen to 22nd in the NBA in defensive rating halfway through the season. The departure of five-time All-Defensive Team guard Jrue Holiday in the deal to acquire Damian Lillard has not helped on that end of the floor.
"The dynamics and the things that changed after that I think created even more of an urgency," Horst said. "These are special opportunities. The talent became even more special. The commitment to the team even more significant."
"I also would say that we believe that this is a good team right now. And with improvements, we have a chance to be great."
Is Rivers the man to guide Milwaukee to a title?
The Bucks apparently believe that Rivers is the man to rebuild that identity and guide them to a title. He's done so before with the Boston Celtics. But that was in 2008. Since leaving the Celtics in 2013, Rivers has failed to advance Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers teams with rosters built to contend for a championship beyond the second round of the playoffs.
The 76ers fired Rivers last May after three straight second-round exits with a roster featuring five-time All-NBA center and then-freshly crowned MVP Joel Embiid. His dismissal marked the end of a 24 consecutive-year tenure as an NBA coach including stints with the Orlando Magic, Celtics, Clippers and 76ers. For the first time since 1999, Rivers was not a head coach.
He didn't leave basketball. Rivers took a job as a broadcast analyst on ESPN's No. 1 TV team alongside Mike Breen and Doris Burke. He also took on a role as a consultant to Griffin in December, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania. This role was at the behest of the Bucks, according to the report, and apparently paved the way to his new full-time job.
After a half-season absence, Rivers is back on an NBA sideline, again at the helm of a team built to fight for championship. Will he deliver?
That's what Horst is banking on.
"I believe that there is enough time for them to find an identity, find a rhythm together and continue to grow [under Rivers]," Horst said Wednesday. "So, it may feel shortened, but the things that happen in the NBA happen quick all the time and transition happens all the time. I think we'll be well adapted to it."