Bucks Cut Head-Coaching Search to Three Unique Candidates


It’s going to be odd seeing another head coach on the Milwaukee Bucks’ sidelines. 

For the last five years, the Bucks have been led by one of the best coaches in franchise history— Mike Budenholzer. Now, the two-time NBA coach of the year and 2021 champion is a coaching free agent, and the Bucks are in the market shopping for his replacement.

On Monday afternoon, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski announced that the Bucks had narrowed their search to just three candidates from the 14 reported by The Athletic’s Eric Nehm to have been in consideration. The three final candidates are current Warriors assistant coach Kenny Atkinson, current Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin and former Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.

Many were critical of the wide net being cast by Jon Horst, the Bucks’ general manager. That is understandable if they were fixating on the candidates that seemed like disasters waiting to happen, like ESPN analyst and former Warriors head coach Mark Jackson. However, covering all of their bases was a smart tactic given how crucial of a decision this is. 

A recent report from Marc Stein suggested that the Bucks will likely look to retain Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez this summer in free agency. It looks like the Bucks may once again run it back with their core four. 

If that is the case — which I have always believed it should be — the biggest change in Milwaukee this offseason will be the coaching change. That means that it is absolutely imperative that Horst gets this right.

Yes, the Bucks cast a wide net, but now that list has narrowed down to three.

Somewhere along the way, some of the presumptive favorites — like former Suns head coach Monty Williams — fell short of Horst’s expectations. Another fan favorite was Miami Heat assistant coach Chris Quinn, whose recent success with the Heat had many people excited about the idea of hiring a member of the Erik Spoelstra coaching tree. Ultimately, though, Quinn has seemingly fell short as well.

With final conversations heating up this week, the Bucks finally have a narrowed list of candidates that are being seriously considered by the front office. Instead of mere speculation about a list of interviewees that seemed to expand exponentially over the past few weeks, we can finally narrow our discussion.

Atkinson Adds Some But Not-so-Great Head-Coaching Experience

First up is Atkinson, a former Budenholzer assistant in Atlanta before coaching the Nets for four seasons. Now, Atkinson is an assistant coach in Golden State, which begs the question of whether the attention he is attracting on the head-coaching market is because of his genuine coaching skills, or simply because he is part of a successful franchise whose success pre-dated his arrival. 

Atkinson had a pretty sorry 118-190 record as the head coach for Brooklyn in four seasons. That stain is why I have been the fence on the 55-year-old. He led Brooklyn to the playoffs once in four seasons (2018-19) and they were eliminated promptly in five games in the first round. That same season was the only one in which Brooklyn exceeded 28 wins in a season during his tenure.

While Atkinson is often deemed a great offensive coach — especially given his contributions to a championship Warriors team last season — it’s not enough to overlook his ultimate failure as a head coach in Brooklyn.

Griffin Has Yet to Experience Being a Head Coach

Adrian Griffin has been an assistant since 2008 when he got his start with the Bucks.

The former NBA player from 1999-2008 started coaching almost immediately after the conclusion of his playing days. After starting with Milwaukee, he has moved on to be an assistant for four more NBA teams in the following 15 years including Toronto, where he coached this season. Any time there is a coaching void on a current assistant’s bench — which there is in Toronto after the firing of Nurse — it seems most likely that an assistant would have a better chance moving up from within, but that might not be the case with Griffin. 

It would be be fitting that Griffin would get his first crack at head coaching in Milwaukee, the same city where he got a start as an assistant. Of course when he got his start in Milwaukee in 2008, his son, Adrian Jr., was five years old. Now, his son, who you may know as rookie wing A.J. Griffin of the Atlanta Hawks, is 19. In all the time it took his son to go from his first year in elementary school to his first year in the NBA, Griffin is still stuck as an assistant.

But maybe that will soon change.

It is always a massive risk to hire someone who you have no basis for as a head coach. There is a massive question mark stamped on Griffin’s resume, and that sets him apart from Atkinson and Nurse. Not to mention Griffin worked under Nurse just last season. If you are going to hire a coach from Toronto’s system last season, why not go for the head coach?

Milwaukee doesn’t want to take risks. They are in win-now-or-never mode. Failing to win championships could cost the franchise its best chance for decades, or even one of its most iconic players ever in Giannis Antetokounmpo

Hiring someone with little-to-no experience as an NBA head coach is a risk, but that doesn’t mean it’s a risk Horst isn’t willing to take. Griffin is a former NBA player, and in that way he could bring a perspective that Nurse and Atkinson are unable to bring to the table (they played college and pro basketball too, but never in the NBA). Still, the last time the Bucks hired a former NBA player (Jason Kidd), it didn’t go so well.

Nurse Has the Clear-Cut Head-Coaching Edge

Among the three, Nurse seems like the choice.

But it might not be so simple. Wojnarowski reported that Nurse is still a prominent figure in the coaching searches for both Phoenix and Philadelphia. Milwaukee has some competition.

Nurse’s appeal to the Bucks is obvious. In many ways, he is the anti-Budenholzer. The complaints surrounding the former Bucks coach was the lack of adjustments and the refusal to change defensive schemes, even when they clearly didn’t work (like drop coverage with Lopez). 

That’s where Nurse could come in strong. He has a tendency to make a lot of adjustments on the fly, which would certainly be a change of pace for Milwaukee, and a welcome one at that. His prowess as a defensive mind was clear during his time in Toronto. 

At times, Toronto’s half-court offense was lackluster, though. This is said to point out that Nurse is far from perfect. He was fired for a reason. 

He is one of the most prominent names in the coaching search so far — at least for fans, and now it’s clear that the front office has the same interest.

Of the three candidates, Nurse is the only one that has head-coaching experience with a superstar (Kawhi Leonard in 2019) that led to a championship. Milwaukee is essentially asking him to replicate those results and bring a new defensive energy and in-game adjustments that they feel like the team was lacking under Budenholzer. While the Bucks have competition for Nurse, they also have Giannis, one of the best players in the league.

But then again, so are Joel Embiid and Kevin Durant.

Who should be the hire?

Atkinson seems like a risk. There is promise for a solid offensive game plan under his system, but do the Bucks really need offensive revitalization? Despite a loss in just five games to the Heat in this year’s playoffs, the Bucks still managed to score 118.8 points per game. And that was with an injured Antetokounmpo. It’s hard to say if Atkinson is the proper remedy to the Bucks’ issues. He may just be the same old song. After all, he is a former Budenholzer assistant.

There are just so many unknowns with Griffin. But maybe it’s time Griffin turns that question mark into a definitive chance at head coaching. He has been on NBA benches long enough to have earned that chance— that much is certain. The only question left is whether the Bucks want to risk their precarious position as a contender to give him that chance.

Ultimately, Nurse should be the choice, but other teams may feel similarly and Nurse may choose to tread a different sideline. If he has Milwaukee as his No. 1 destination, however, then his championship experience should make him the top choice. After all, the last time the Bucks hired a former coach of the year who had just been fired, he won them a championship two years later.

History tends to repeat itself.

All in all, it seemed like time was rolling along, but we weren’t getting anywhere. Now, the Bucks have a direction and can go in depth with each of these three candidates. These coaching searches tend to go quickly, but Horst seemed content on taking his time. Hopefully that patience pays off.

Horst knows how important this decision is. For Milwaukee. For Giannis. And quite frankly, for his future in the organization as well.

Whether it’s Atkinson, Griffin or Nurse, Horst will have his fingers crossed that they deliver at least one more championship to Milwaukee.

Because no matter how slowly it may be happening, the Bucks’ championship window is closing.

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About Ben McCormick

Ben McCormick is a sports writer from North Carolina. He has run independent blogs and begun writing for The Lead in 2023. He writes for The Daily Tar Heel as well, where he has worked since September of 2022.

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