Doc Rivers has fixed the Bucks’ biggest issue, but now Milwaukee has a new problem impacting title odds

One thing you can say about Doc Rivers’ start as head coach of the Bucks is that it hasn’t been boring. 

Milwaukee lost five of its first six games out of the gate with Rivers. The team went 3-7 before hitting the All-Star break. There were some ugly moments during that stretch.

The Bucks were blown out by 26 points to the Heat playing without Jimmy Butler. After losing to a bunch of players on the Grizzlies who you’ve probably never heard of in the game before the All-Star break, Rivers accused his players’ minds of already being in Cabo

Behind the scenes, there was growth happening. The Bucks have been much better since that break, riding a six-game win streak heading into their March 6 game against the Warriors. 

Here’s how they’ve started clicking under Rivers. 

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The Bucks’ defense has massively improved

Before Rivers’ appearance, the Bucks clearly had defensive issues. They looked disorganized on that side of the ball, and their point-of-attack defense was a major problem area. 

They have cleaned their issues up, going from 19th to 4th in defensive rating since the coaching switch. There have been two major areas that they have improved in — transition defense and points in the paint. 

Rivers’ teams have excelled at transition defense throughout his 24 seasons in the league. That is a stylistic choice — they have also been among the worst at offensive rebounding. He believes in abandoning easy putback attempts in favor of sending everyone back. 

That trend has immediately manifested itself on the Bucks. They’ve transformed from a below-average offensive-rebounding team to the second-worst in the league under his reign. The transition defense has vastly improved, though. Teams got out in the open court at the highest rate of the league against the Bucks under Adrian Griffin. They’re the fourth-stingiest in that regard under Rivers.

Milwaukee has gone all-in on protecting the paint as well, going from allowing the fifth-most opponent points in the paint to the fewest in the entire league. 

Put the stats aside for a second, and it’s visually clear that the Bucks are a lot more on the same page. Their switching has been way crisper, they’re communicating better and they’re helping each other out when one of them is caught up in a bad matchup. They’ve even sprinkled in some zone recently, which helped them beat the Clippers down the stretch on Monday. 

One of Rivers’ purported strengths has been as a communicator. He established clear roles during a lengthy first practice while the team was in Minnesota, as The Athletic’s Eric Nehm explained on the site’s NBA podcast

“At the University of Minnesota, it was Doc Rivers going player to player before this first practice and being like, ‘Alright, here’s what we expect from you. This is what we need from you in order to win going forward. Focus on these things.’” 

The offense has looked worse in the process and the team hasn’t won at nearly the same rate, but Rivers is using the approach of taking one step back to go two steps forward. 

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Giannis Antetokounmpo Damian Lillard Milwaukee Bucks

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There are now problems with the Bucks’ offense

The elephant in the room is how much worse Milwaukee’s offense has gotten under Rivers. They were the No. 2 offense in the league before his arrival and have been 15th in the games he’s coached in. 

Part of that is due to personnel. Khris Middleton has only played eight minutes since Feb. 4, and he remains a vital part of the team. The rest of Milwaukee’s roster outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard have little-to-no ability to put pressure on the rim. 

The individual brilliance of those two has kept the Bucks’ offense at a respectable level. Antetokounmpo should get MVP consideration this year. Lillard has been good, but his scoring is way down and his shooting percentages have dropped to 42.3 percent from the field and 34.7 percent from 3. That is far from the Portland version of himself. 

Rivers has prioritized getting Lillard going, installing more sets from his Portland days. Lillard has said that that shift has “helped a lot.”  

The Bucks have had success when Lillard and Antetokounmpo have screened for each other, although Antetokounmpo still does not look totally comfortable in that role. Better chemistry has formed between Lillard and Brook Lopez, who routinely sets screens up high near the logo to give Lillard a ton of space going downhill. 

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The Bucks have also played around with changing the angle of screens at the last second for Lillard, making life harder for the big men who have to defend that action. 

Those changes are very much reflective of the trying stuff out phase of this offense. They still aren’t getting quite the maximum output from the talent on the roster. 

The team is winning while experimenting, but they don’t have much time to iron out all of the kinks. There is a ton of pressure on this team to win now. Lillard is in his age 33 season and clearly in decline. More worrisome is Middleton’s freefall. He is in the first year of a three-year, $93 million extension that pays him through his age-34 season, and he does not look even close to the guy he was during the team’s 2021 championship run. 

The Bucks have used coaching as an excuse for a while now. The team has looked better under Rivers, but at the end of the day, talent wins. Antetokounmpo has done his part. It will be on the rest of the players to win a championship this year.

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