FOR THE PAST 15 years, there was little reason to pay much attention to the name of the wheaten terrier owned by Milwaukee Bucks general manager Jon Horst and his family. Griffin Bear Horst joined the family back when Horst and his wife, Mia, were living in a modest two-bedroom condominium in the St. Francis neighborhood of Milwaukee. They had no kids, and Horst was just starting out in the Bucks’ front office as the director of basketball operations. But they had big dreams for their family and careers, and the dog was just the beginning.
But «Griff» wasn’t his original name.
«Our dog’s name was Otis — like the elevator company — for, like, a day,» Horst said last fall. «But it didn’t stick. We tried it, but didn’t like it.»
The next day, the story goes, Horst ran into first-year Bucks assistant coach Adrian Griffin in the same elevator that had inspired the first name. He’d always liked Griffin as a player, and the two had developed a good relationship since he’d moved to Scott Skiles’ bench. Plus, they were basically neighbors in the condo complex.
«So I’m on the elevator with him,» Horst explained. «And I’m thinking, ‘Not Otis … Griff! That’s a great name.»
This time, the name stuck. Although it wasn’t until Horst hired the real Griffin to be the Bucks’ head coach last June that he told him about his namesake.
«I loved it,» Griffin said, back when his future with the team seemed limitless. After years of interviewing for head-coaching jobs, he’d finally landed one of the best jobs in the league: coaching two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and a roster ready-made for championship contention. Three months later, the team acquired seven-time All Star Damian Lillard in a trade just days before training camp.
«I would say I’m so optimistic almost to a fault,» Griffin said last fall. «But I don’t look at it like, ‘What if we fail?’ I look at it as, ‘What if we succeed?’
«It’s a great opportunity. I was so excited when Jon told me about Dame. It’s not every day you get to coach Dame and Giannis.»
All told, Griffin only got 118 days to coach Dame and Giannis, and 233 overall as the Bucks’ head coach. He was fired Tuesday despite Milwaukee’s 30-13 record with one of the quickest hooks in history. To understand how the Bucks went from hiring the guy the general manager literally named his dog after, to firing him seven months later after the team had won nearly 70% of its games, you have to look back at something else Horst said last fall.
Something that has guided every decision Horst and the Bucks have made since Antetokounmpo entered his prime.
«If you’re being honest,» Horst said then, «with Giannis, you’re kind of always on the clock.»
THAT CLOCK STARTED ticking almost immediately as the organization held what one source described as «a constant» series of brutally honest internal conversations about their team and why it was underperforming.
Their record was still good, second best in the league behind only the Boston Celtics. But its defense — long the team’s identity — had rapidly splintered as players struggled to adjust to life without All-Defensive guard Jrue Holiday (who’d been traded as part of the deal to acquire Lillard) and with incorporating Griffin’s more aggressive, blitzing style.
Griffin had been hired in large part because of his reputation as the lead architect of the Toronto Raptors’ defense, which ranked fifth in the NBA in 2019 en route to a championship. Horst even noted how impressed the team was with the way Griffin presented his ideas on how to revamp Milwaukee’s defense during his interview.
All told, Milwaukee spoke to nearly 20 coaches for its head-coaching job. Eight of them were invited for a second round of interviews. Then Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Khris Middleton all interviewed the four finalists.
Griffin said then that he’d been interviewing for head-coaching jobs for two decades, and he’d never been able to make his case to team leaders like he’d done with the Bucks’ three All-Stars.
But therein actually lay the first sign that the job he was hired for was not actually the job he landed. The job he was hired for included Holiday as a defensive nexus on the perimeter — but also as one of the sturdy veterans on a team that had a core trio that had spent three seasons together and won a championship in 2021.
That team already had an identity. Griffin’s job was to reinvigorate it.
When Holiday was traded, everything changed. The Bucks had to forge a new identity on offense and defense. They had to figure out how to mesh the skill sets of Antetokounmpo and Lillard, both of whom are accustomed to having the ball the majority of the time, had to adjust from a relatively low-usage guard in Holiday to a high-usage one in Lillard. They had to build a defense without one of the best front-line defenders in basketball.
And almost immediately, tensions emerged. Top assistant Terry Stotts, who’d been hired by the front office to help guide Griffin during his first year on the bench, abruptly quit five days before the start of the season and two days after a post-practice argument with Griffin, according to team sources. Eleven days later, Milwaukee got lit up by Atlanta at home in just its second game of the season. Eight Hawks scored in double figures, and the team shot 50% from the field.
After the game, Antetokounmpo mapped out his frustrations with the team’s scheme on a giant whiteboard that covers nearly an entire wall inside the Bucks locker room.
Antetokounmpo grabbed a marker and began diagramming plays to Bucks assistant coach Josh Oppenheimer, growing more animated and intense as he mapped out the team’s spacing and actions, revealing in real time what he felt went wrong and where they needed to be on the floor. He eventually grabbed his brother Thanasis and forward Bobby Portis to join him.
His frustration was evident.
«It’s Game 2,» Antetokounmpo said after the game that night. «We’re still figuring ourselves out. We’re figuring out what works. We’re figuring out what we are good at and what we are not good at.»
Not much had improved a week later. In practice the day before a Nov. 3 matchup with the Knicks, Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Middleton went to Griffin to discuss their previous strategy on pick-and-rolls, one they’d employed to tremendous success under Mike Budenholzer, which allowed Lopez to drop back and stay closer to the rim instead of playing so aggressively.
Griffin had been trying to install a much more aggressive defensive scheme that had Lopez playing up more and blitzing ball handlers. In one regard, it worked: The Bucks are fourth in deflections per game this season after finishing in 27th last season. But the Bucks also ranked last in field goal percentage at the rim through the first five games of the season, per Second Spectrum.
The decision to move Lopez, who finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting the year prior, was baffling to those inside the locker room who had been accustomed to top-10 defenses under Budenholzer, sources told ESPN, and had pushed Griffin to adjust his strategy as early as the preseason.
«Sometimes as coaches, we’re too smart for our own selves,» Griffin conceded after the five-point win over the Knicks — a game in which Lopez had a season-high nine blocks.
GRIFFIN IS CERTAINLY not the only coach who has seen his roster drastically change after being hired.
A first-time coach, the Bucks encouraged him to replace Stotts with someone who had previous head-coaching experience, sources said. The team hired highly regarded international coach Trevor Gleeson in late December but continued to ask Griffin to seek out counsel from other mentors, sources said.
Peers around the league saw the bubbling chaos and started calling Griffin to offer advice and support. Among them were former Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins and ESPN analyst and former Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers, both of whom had a long personal history with Griffin and share the same coaching agent.
Rivers had several conversations with Griffin over the past few months and became something of an informal mentor to him. (He will now succeed him as head coach, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, as the organization looks to a more veteran voice with experience to handle high-profile and pressurized coaching situations.)
Ultimately the Bucks kept winning at a solid clip, but they were losing faith even faster.
Following a Jan. 6 loss to the Rockets, a game in which the Bucks were down 20 at the half, Antetokounmpo left little doubt as to his feelings about the team’s current state.
«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,» Antetokounmpo, who had 48 points and 17 rebounds in the loss, said. «Every single thing, everybody has to be better. 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 a better strategy, we have to be better. We have four months to get better, so we’ll see.»
Giannis says Bucks ‘have to be better’ after loss to Pacers
Giannis Antetokounmpo urges the Bucks to «be better» after the team was eliminated from the in-season tournament.
In the seven games following Antetokounmpo’s rant, the Bucks went 5-2 but allowed 125.3 points per game (including 135 to the four-win Pistons) and had a net scoring margin of just four points. They were the league’s 27th-ranked defense.
Griffin was hired amid a similar existential crisis, when Antetokounmpo told The New York Times over the summer that «I would not be the best version of myself if I don’t know that everybody’s on the same page, everybody’s going for a championship … and if I don’t feel that, I’m not signing.»
Antetokounmpo, 29, did end up signing a three-year, $186 million extension with the Bucks in November, in large part because they’d demonstrated their commitment to winning by trading for Lillard.
That temporarily eased the pressure on the Bucks, removing the possibility of their superstar forward opting out of his deal after the season.
But with Antetokounmpo in his prime, there is always pressure to win championships, not just games. In that respect, Milwaukee’s move is reminiscent of something another Midwestern team with a superstar in his prime and questions at the top did a few years ago.
Much like this year’s Bucks, the 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers made a sudden midseason coaching change, firing David Blatt with a 30-11 record and replacing him with assistant coach Tyronn Lue. In 1979-80, the Los Angeles Lakers replaced Jack McKinney after he was seriously injured in a bicycle accident after the team jumped out to a 10-4 start.
Both of those teams went on to win a title. The question now is whether changing the name of the coach will be enough for the Bucks to do the same.