Central Notes: Griffin, Lillard, Pacers, Cunningham

The tensions that led to the Bucks‘ decision to fire head coach Adrian Griffin on Tuesday stemmed from a loss of their defensive identity, according to Ramona Shelburne and Jamal Collier of ESPN. A source tells the authors there was a “constant” string of internal conversations about why the team was falling short of expectations, even though Milwaukee is tied for the second-best record in the league at 30-13.

Griffin had a reputation as a defensive specialist after building the Raptors’ defense that resulted in a championship in 2019, and he impressed general manager Jon Horst and other team officials during the interview process with his ideas for the Bucks’ defense, according to Shelburne and Collier.

However, the aggressive scheme that Griffin implemented wasn’t popular with players, who couldn’t understand why center Brook Lopez was being taken out of drop coverage after finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season, sources tell the authors. The new approach, which also included attacking ball-handlers far away from the basket, helped Milwaukee rise from 27th to fourth in the league in deflections, but the team ranked last in field goal percentage at the rim after five games before Griffin relented following a meeting with his top players.

Even though the Bucks kept winning, the defense never showed significant improvement, which caused the organization to lose its faith in Griffin. Shelburne and Collier note that former coaches reached out to Griffin to offer advice, including Lionel Hollins and Doc Rivers, who the authors say became a mentor to Griffin before ultimately replacing him in the job.

There’s more from the Central Division:

  • Fixing the Bucks‘ defense isn’t the only priority for Rivers as he takes over, observes Eric Nehm of The Athletic. Damian Lillard is suffering through one of the worst shooting seasons of his career, connecting at just 42.7% from the field and 35.1% from three-point range, which are his lowest figures in nearly a decade. Nehm suggests that creating more pick-and-roll opportunities for Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo might be one of Rivers’ solutions.
  • The Pacers have a lot more options on defense after trading for Pascal Siakam, notes Dustin Dopirak of The Indianapolis Star. Coach Rick Carlisle already took steps to improve atrocious defensive numbers early in the season by moving Aaron Nesmith and Jalen Smith into the starting lineup late last month. There has been progress, as Dopirak points out that the team is 19th in points allowed and 17th in defensive rating over its last 15 games.
  • The Pistons considered having Cade Cunningham return tonight, but coach Monty Williams will give him at least one more game off to recover from a left knee strain, tweets Omari Sankofa II of The Detroit Free Press. “We felt like we were in a good place, but decided to make sure he’s in a good place before he’s out there,” Williams said in a pregame meeting with reporters. Cunningham was originally listed as probable before downgraded to questionable and then out.
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