Doc Rivers is finalizing a deal to take over as the Milwaukee Bucks coach a day after the firing of Adrian Griffin, a person with knowledge of the negotiations told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Rivers and the Bucks were still negotiating on Wednesday, according to the person who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because no contract had been completed.
ESPN, where Rivers has worked this season an analyst, reported that Rivers has agreed to a deal in principle. ESPN’s public relations department released a statement on social media from head of event and studio production David Roberts saying, “We wish Doc well and we look forward to documenting the next chapter of his coaching career.”
Interim coach Joe Prunty led the Bucks on Wednesday night for their 126-116 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Bucks general manager Jon Horst held a news conference before the game to discuss Griffin’s dismissal but declined to discuss the coach’s potential successor.
“We’re not going to talk about Doc tonight,” Horst said. “That’s not part of this. There will be at some point hopefully a time where we can do that, but this is a chance for us to kind of dive into the Adrian Griffin piece.”
Horst indicated he didn’t consult players before firing Griffin, who had led the Bucks to a 30-13 record that put them second to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference standings.
Bucks players said the move caught them by surprise.
“The record speaks for itself,” two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said after Wednesday’s game. “He was 30-13. At the end of the day, this is the NBA. Sometimes decisions are made. It’s a hard job. I feel and I hope everybody who came to the podium today and spoke about this situation gave Coach Griff his props and his credit.
“At the end of the day, he’s a head coach and he’s going to be around the league for a long time. We’re going to see him probably in the near future.
Antetokounmpo also showed his support for management.
“At the end of the day, I trust the ownership decision,” Antetokounmpo said. “I trust the front office. They’ve never (steered) me wrong in the past. They’ve always created a great atmosphere, a great culture, a winning culture. They always did whatever was the best for the team and for us to be in a position to win, so we’ve just got to do the same here. You’ve just got to trust this is the best decision for me and the guys, and we’ve just got to go with it.”
Griffin had never been a head coach until the Bucks hired him last summer, though he had spent 16 years as an assistant. The Bucks would be replacing him with someone who has nearly a quarter-century of head coaching experience.
Rivers has plenty of Milwaukee ties, as he played for Marquette from 1980-83 and his No. 31 jersey hangs from the Fiserv Forum rafters. He also has a championship background after leading the Boston Celtics to a title in 2008 and a Game 7 Finals appearance two years later.
He didn’t have as much postseason success in later stints with the Los Angeles Clippers (2013-20) and Philadelphia 76ers (2020-23). The 76ers fired him last year after they exited in the second round of the playoffs each of his three seasons in Philadelphia.
Rivers’ 1,097 regular-season wins put him one shy of Larry Brown for eighth most in NBA history. His departure from ESPN brought an emotional reaction from his broadcast teammates, Mike Breen and Doris Burke, before ABC aired the Dallas-Phoenix game on Wednesday night.
“Our dear friend has decided that life as an NBA broadcaster is way too stressful, so he’s decided to opt for a less-stressful job — an NBA head coach on a team that’s trying to win a championship,” Breen said on the broadcast. “We thank him for all his many weeks of service and we wish him all the luck in the world.”
Rivers would be taking over a team that is chasing its second NBA title in four years and has shown a sense of urgency in the moves it has made over the last year.
The Bucks posted the NBA’s best regular-season record last year, but fired coach Mike Budenholzer after a stunning 4-1 first-round playoff loss to the Miami Heat. Budenholzer had led the 2020-21 Bucks to the franchise’s first championship in half a century.
Milwaukee followed up the hiring of Griffin by acquiring seven-time all-NBA guard Damian Lillard from the Portland Trail Blazers to team him with Antetokounmpo, who signed a three-year, $186 million contract extension shortly before the season.
Horst acknowledged the dynamic of the team had changed since Griffin’s arrival.
“These are special opportunities,” Horst said. “The talent became even more special. The commitment to the team even more significant. And I think that increased the urgency.”
Rivers’ immediate task at Milwaukee would be to upgrade a defense that performed poorly enough under Griffin to cast doubt on the Bucks’ title hopes. The Bucks entered Wednesday night ranked 21st in defensive rating, down from fourth last season.
“Defensively, we have a talent group I think that can be better than what they’ve been so far,” Horst said. “Is that a top-five defense, a top-10, top-15? I don’t know. That’s what we’re trying to decide here with the roster as constructed.”
Although the Bucks have one of the league’s best records, they face a much tougher schedule the rest of the way. They’ve gone just 7-5 in January, though they’ve won six of their last seven.
“There’s been a lot of expectations on our team,” Lillard said. “Things have been expected to look a certain way. We’ve kind of had a bumpy road to our success, which is sometimes a part of the process, but like I said, I was surprised.”
Those struggles had led to some frustrations from players in postgame media sessions, but Horst disputed the idea Griffin had lost the locker room. Three-time All-Star forward Khris Middleton expressed a similar sentiment.
“I feel like any time a coach gets fired, that’s the first thing you hear – he lost the locker room – when that’s not always the case,” Middleton said. “That’s just the easiest thing to say. No, I won’t say that.”