There are a lot of cliches and philosophies that don’t apply to the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks right now. “It’s year one. Give it another year.” is a classic. “This team is young. They’ll be back more experienced.” is another. “You can’t fire the coach after all he’s done in the regular season. It’s not fair.” is how you know you’re either in denial or know if the coach is gone, then you’re gone soon too because he has the owner by the collar.
Typically, making panic, win-now moves doesn’t work out too well. Keeping a long term outlook as opposed to a short-term one is what front offices do – it’s what helps keep them employed. Panicking, which requires the dumping of assets, often supplies one season’s success instead of multiple down the road. Why win one championship when you could win multiple?
But the Clippers and Bucks don’t have years. They have a single year. At the conclusion of whenever next season begins, each of their respective superstars have the chance to leave if they so choose. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are all free agents next offseason, and barring a miraculous colliding of forces, it’s impossible for all three to be coming off a championship when they enter the market.
Which means change for the two franchises has to come in the meantime in order to lessen the odds that they’re forced to construct major teardowns at the end of next year. Change also means severely deviating from core principles. That’s a scary task to endeavor.
Doc Rivers and Mike Budenholzer are typically regarded as good coaches. If they’re on your bench, your team is generally going to have a certain level of success. Rivers has championship pedigree from his title in Boston in 2008 and has been known for gritty, overachieving teams in the Clippers post-Big Three era (During it, not so much, but it wasn’t his fault the combination of owners were overtasking him as GM and head coach). Budenholzer is the classic modern coach, known for encouraging his offenses to move the ball, shoot threes and attack the rim while instilling religious switching defensively.
But both made egregious mistakes throughout the playoffs and perhaps even before it – mistakes that could be fireable offenses.
While it worked quite well in the regular season, it was clear that the Miami Heat were going to pose a problem for the Bucks. The Heat – statistically – were the best three point shooting team in basketball this year. Milwaukee’s defense gave up a ton of shots – open or not – from behind the arc and still finished as the best defense in the league by far per defensive rating. This was the case because Budenholzer’s defense relied on paint protection, which unsurprisingly dominated thanks to Brook Lopez, Antetokounmpo and yes, Budenholzer’s principles themselves. They did some historic things. But Miami changed that quick.
Simply, the Heat weren’t a different team every night. They weren’t surprised by what Milwaukee was bringing to the table. They had time to study it and think about how to expose it. If they couldn’t get the job done in Game 1, then they could come back in Game 2 and try something new. They also didn’t have a ruckus crowd cheering against them when rising up for shots. They weren’t traveling on planes the day before games. They didn’t have to adjust their eyes to a new arena and backdrop behind the hoop every night. They were simply playing in a gym.
Because of that, Miami was hitting three after three because every single Buck went under screens or dropped so far into the paint that their feet were on the baseline while Milwaukee’s head coach sat there and did nothing about it. This occurred for two whole games.
Obviously, Budenholzer isn’t responsible for Antetokounmpo’s injury, which hindered him in Game 3 and kept him out of Games 4 and 5. But he’s also not responsible for the fact that Antentokounmpo’s style of play isn’t exactly keen to the playoffs, and that the back-to-back MVP has no semblance of shot creation or three-point shooting in his game.
The Bucks aren’t just Budenholzer’s fault. It’s also partially Antetokounmpo’s, for reasons we’ll discuss later. But the problem with Budenholzer’s actions in the second round is that his lack of adjustments – which could have consisted of simply going over screens instead of under them – didn’t even give the Bucks a chance.
Sure, it’s common to continue what works best for you in the regular season in the playoffs. But the concept of going over or under screens isn’t some wizard-y technique or scheme. This is basketball 101 stuff. It’s not that hard of an adjustment to make.
Habits are habits, and sometimes those can be tough to break, but when your season is on the line and nothing else is working, that’s when things have to change.
While Antetokounmpo failed at busting Miami’s wall and couldn’t offer any counter on the offensive end, Budenholzer could have salvaged some of the series, and perhaps let Boston or Toronto lock Antentkounmpo up to the point where it became the Bucks downfall. But Budenholzer stood and watched it crumble against the Heat early. For that, it should probably cost him his job, because the Bucks can’t afford to let this happen again.
In Los Angeles, Rivers will likely be harder to fire because of the ring he’s won. But his errors could be considered more costly, not only because the Clippers second-round loss to the Nuggets not only added another blemish onto his playoff resume, but the reason for their downfall can be rooted in an issue that didn’t just arise once Denver was his team’s opponent.
We never got to see the Clippers in full force this season. They were riddled with injuries at times, and Kawhi Leonard continued his stringent load management regime. But there were times everyone was healthy, and there were brief glimpses of what this team – which was considered a title favorite – could be.
But it just never came. We never saw it. The Clippers never had a stretch where they truly felt like the best team in the league. We just assumed they would get there. Golden State spoiled us with their switch flipping, and it’s a testament to how good those teams actually were.
The Clippers letting us down falls heavily on Rivers as head coach. Even when the pieces existed for the Clippers to go on a run and impress us all pre-bubble, it never happened. The team never elevated to the level it could have or should have defensively. That lack of effort created bad habits for the playoffs – Los Angeles thought they could get away with the same effort they had in the regular season against Denver in the playoffs. That changed fast, and before the Clippers knew it, bad defensive effort turned into a Game 7 after being up 3-1 in the series.
Rivers didn’t help himself in Game 7 either, for reasons more comparable to Budenholzer.
Already finding himself struggling to motivate a team to play off-ball defense, Rivers watched the two-man game of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic eviserate every hedge or double thrown their way. If Clippers defenders doubled Murray after a screen, he found a way to dump it into Jokic – who was able to do whatever he pleased with it – or get the shot off. If defenders dropped off Murray and doubled Jokic, it left Murray open for a shot that you likely didn’t want him taking down the stretch of a big game, given his playoff hot streak.
The easy counter to all of this – Murray’s shooting, Jokic’s passing from the roll to open defenders thanks to lacking off-ball D and Jokic’s barreling toward the paint or settling for easy rainbow jumpers – would have been to simply not hedge or double anyone and just play man-on-man defense. But Rivers never pivoted to that, and instead watched Jokic and Murray pull Denver away by 20-plus points.
There were issues with playing man-to-man. It was not Montrezl Harrell’s series – the free agent to-be was completely played off the floor on the defensive end. He was too small for Jokic and constantly got lost in basic switches – a sign of the Clippers lacking defensive diligence in the regular season. Ivica Zubac just didn’t have the athleticism to hang with the silky smooth Serbian. Murray was also hitting everything he took, which displayed an impressive elevation of play from the young Canadian. There was a chance no one was stopping him.
Still, Rivers could’ve put George or Leonard on Murray, which was the tactic that worked early in the series and had the Clippers up 3-1. But that never happened, thanks to what seemed to be conditioning problems for the team as a whole. Perhaps they weren’t ever prepared for the defense the playoffs require.
That ultimately falls on Rivers. While George and Leonard were horrible in the fourth quarter and missed every shot under the sun, bad quarters from even the best players can happen. Game 7 happened to be an inopportune time. Leonard isn’t a choker and doesn’t deserve some of the criticism that came his way – the guy has won two Finals MVPs for two different teams and was probably on pace to do it again. Anyone who believes Leonard chokes in the playoffs has short-term memory, because a slew of games just over a year ago proved that to be false.
George is a different story. This was test-case No.3 of him severely struggling in the playoffs. Obviously, the environment of the bubble is a lot to deal with in addition to everything else going on in the world right now. George acknowledged that his head wasn’t totally right at times throughout the Clippers’ stay in Orlando, but as ESPN’s Zach Lowe mentioned, it’s not like every other player isn’t going through the same thing. In addition, it doesn’t seem like George’s teammates are too sympathetic of his struggles as well. It’s probably time for us to lower our expectations for George as a playoff performer and simply as a viable co-star in general. Time and time again, he comes up short, and it really, really hurts his team.
George’s inability to step up in the fourth could hurt Rivers’ case more. By the time Game 7 hit, expecting the former Thunder and Pacers star to be the savior seemed unreasonable given how the playoffs had gone for him. That meant Rivers needed to extract all the defense possible out of the team, since the burden would eventually fall on Leonard to produce late in the game.
The Bucks and Clippers firing their coaches might be a bit risky heading into seasons so important. For all the gripes raised about the Clippers lack of chemistry, bringing in someone other than Rivers means installing a new system and building new relationships between coach and player. With Rivers back, Los Angeles can at least learn from their mistakes in the 2019-20. The Bucks face a similar problem with Budenholzer – what if the new guy isn’t the right fit, and Milwaukee is worse than they’ve been in previous seasons (Which has still been quite good – making round three is hard)? In that case, Antentokounmpo is out whether he adjusts his game or not, and he’ll likely be justified.
Yet, if you sit Rivers and Budenholzer down and ask them what happened, any answer that doesn’t blame themselves feels scape-goatish, and probably makes you wonder why you shouldn’t fire them right then and there.
There are changes that need to be made in both franchises that don’t have anything to do with who’s on the bench. As mentioned above, even if Milwaukee adjusted defensively, got a healthy Antentokounmpo and was able to beat Miami, problems were on the horizon. First, an adjusted defense still wouldn’t have made up for Miami’s performance on that end, where a combination of Bam Adebayo, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala not only walled Antentokounmpo off but stopped him in man-to-man sets. Crowder simply went head-to-head with the two-time MVP and won, despite being five inches shorter.
Teams are able to figure out how to defend Antetokounmpo drives once they have the time to prepare for it. In the regular season, a team is playing Dallas – per se – two nights before Milwaukee, have an off day and then have an 1.5 hour practice to prepare for Milwaukee’s basic sets, rather than creating a complicated defensive scheme involving walls to stop Antentokounmpo. It was easy for the Bucks to ride him in the regular season – no team had time to get as creative as it takes to stop him.
Miami did though, because they took care of Indiana in timely fashion and had only one opponent to focus on during their off period. The playoffs are a conglomeration of information and personnel bull-rushing the opponent with everything it has. Teams key in on every rotation, every play and every lineup of their lineup and know how to stop it. That just doesn’t occur during the frantic regular season.
When Miami hit Antentokoumpo with the wall in addition simply to absurd effort and overall defense, he froze because he didn’t have a counter. There’s no off-the-dribble shot creation in his game, because his jump-shot has proven weak even after an offseason of work in 2019 and because his handle just isn’t that tight (Which, to be fair, is a tough skill to master when you’re that big – we need to appreciate Kevin Durant more).
It’s likely time for a shifting in Antentokounmpo’s game, at least in the playoffs. There’s no doubting that Antentokounmpo is an unstoppable force in the paint, even though he doesn’t play like a center. He gets to those spots by driving instead of posting up, but his presence on tip-ins and plays around the rim is still unguardable on both ends. No one’s been as dominant inside the paint in terms of points and rebounds since Shaq. The numbers Antentokounmpo puts up are staggering.
So in this case, does Shaq need his Kobe Bryant? Connect the dots. Bryant was one of the game’s most gifted scorers ever – any shot was his, whether it be off the dribble, off the catch, driving, you name it. Shaq couldn’t get those shots. Neither can Antentokounmpo.
Obviously, only one player in the NBA currently exists that’s better than Bryant, and he isn’t teaming up with Antentokoumpo any time soon. But the point remains that Antentokounmpo needs a creator next to him – someone that’s more efficient and simply better than Eric Bledsoe is on the offensive end. He’s not only got to be a good enough passer to get Antentokounmpo entry passes, but also be a player good enough to help push Milwaukee to the Finals next year.
Chris Paul figures to be on the move once again, and while he’d be perfect for the Bucks (Rumors have already linked Milwaukee to him), there’s practically no trade that exists that would make sense for both parties. Oklahoma City is clearly entering a rebuild, and wouldn’t want to take back an Eric Bledsoe-type as he carries a $16.8 million cap hit next year and will be 31 by the time the season starts. Milwaukee moving anyone else would be a surprise, as they represent themselves as core pieces or don’t have the salary to cover for Paul’s $38.5 million cap hit. The Bucks lack assets too – Donte DiVencenzo is the only Buck that would make sense for the rebuilding Thunder, but his rookie deal is only worth $2.9 million next year. Him and picks doesn’t satisfy the CBA.
Paul is a hard one for Milwaukee, and other options are limited. Goran Dragic would be a beautiful fit, but the free agent will likely be cashing in this offseason after a renaissance year in Miami. Paying him and Bledsoe is a tough swallow, and if the Heat make the Finals, him leaving seems like a reduced possibility. Milwaukee could also look at Fred VanVleet, though his price level will topple Dragic’s largely.
The poor free agent class makes the trade market more appeasing, though non-CP3 trades have their limitations too. It would be odd to see them do so after the season they just had, but if Toronto decides to blow it up and move veterans, Kyle Lowry would make sense as a passer and creator for the Bucks offense. Rumors have existed about Victor Oladipo’s unhappiness in Indiana, though he may not be the passer Milwaukee needs to unlock Antentokoumnpo. Plus, if the Bucks wanted a Pacers guard, they probably should have just kept the one they let go last summer.
While he and Wizards continue to shoot down the noise, Bradley Beal’s time in Washington still feels numbered as the ceiling on a team with him and John Wall is pretty low. Like Oladipo though, Beal’s strength isn’t passing, which would be problematic in the playoffs with Antentokounmpo at center. Plus, Milwaukee’s lack of young assets makes a deal unlikely.
Finding a trade partner in the West is near impossible, as every team in the conference will be looking to contend next year. That said, Jrue Holiday was almost dealt at the trade deadline in February, and the Pelicans could look to go all-in on their youth with a new head coach. A call to Portland could be placed about CJ McCollum, but once again the lack of point guard skills rings true. In addition, that would be two win-now teams dealing with each other. A deal for McCollum probably means Khris Middleton is in the deal back to the Trail Blazers.
Milwaukee doesn’t have many pivots, which is what makes this season so frustrating and its end such a disaster. While Antentokounmpo has things he needs to change, his coach didn’t give the team a chance to overcome those deficiencies these playoffs. If the Bucks need serious change over the course of the next year– which Antentokounmpo seems willing to give them – then a change on the sidelines is necessary.
All of this, of course, is predicated on the fact he is a Buck next season, which the front office controls, not him. An unwillingness of Antentokounmpo to sign long-term could force the Bucks hand to move him, and with the lack of true fixes characterized above, it might be hard to blame them for doing so.
The Clippers have more potential fixes but an even worse future if they don’t work. If Milwaukee is forced to move on from Antentkounmpo and start over, they’ll at least get a haul in return and have assets-galore. Los Angeles has the opposite, as they’ll be left with nothing after giving up the largest trade haul in NBA history for George and in theory Leonard.
In addition to simply trying on the defensive end and not rolling out bone-headed schemes, Los Angeles probably needs some more proven size. Even with simple defensive schemes, Jokic was torching them in the series, as he does most bigs in the league. Harrell’s effectiveness may not have cost him his roster spot but certainly did cash, so he could be back, but the combo of him and Zubac just didn’t work against Denver’s flashy center. Philadelphia figures to be active this offseason, and Al Horford, despite the contract, would be a nice addition if a trade could be worked out. Atlanta could look to move one of Clint Capela or Dwayne Dedmon, as both are making starter’s money and would never play together. If Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert’s relationship is too strained, the Clippers could look into a deal with Utah for one of the league’s best defensive players, though the Jazz’s asking price would likely be massive and require assets the Clippers don’t have or would be unwilling to part with (George).
Marc Gasol is a free agent, and if Toronto pivots toward more of a tear-down, he could be looking for a new team. Derrick Favors could make some sense as well, though he was extremely productive for the Pelicans last season and they could bring him back. Aron Baynes and Serge Ibaka could be names that also make sense – though Ibaka might be out of the price range.
The Clippers have options because they’re Los Angeles and they have two stud players. They’re also more motivated – or perhaps more panicked – than anyone because of the implications involved. A title has to be secured, but in order to do so, the first issue worth addressing is making sure that the players know what it takes to get there. For that to happen, leadership and accountability must be present, and it wasn’t last season.