The Milwaukee Bucks were winners of the Damian Lillard trade sweepstakes, obviously, because they got him. Damian Lillard was a winner of the sweepstakes, also obviously, because now he gets a chance to really contend for an NBA title, even if he didn’t get sent to Miami like he preferred.
Lillard and the Bucks were not the biggest winners, however.
That title goes to Adrian Griffin, who is about to officially start Year 1 as a head coach.
Picture this: You’re a first-time NBA head coach, already hired to take over a team won the championship two years ago and had the best regular-season record in the league last year. You were given the keys to a team led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, a two-time MVP still very much in his prime and someone who on any given night could be the best player walking the planet. You inherited a team with great leadership in Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, ownership willing to spend and a sharp general manager in Jon Horst. And now, a few days before your first training camp, you get Damian Lillard as well.
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An incredible opportunity for Griffin has now become a super-duper-incredible opportunity for Griffin. Sure, there will be pressure. Tons of it. The Bucks are supposed to win the 2024 NBA title now, and there’s no arguing otherwise. With Antetokounmpo and Lillard, there’s no way Milwaukee will want anything less, and that’s the way it should be.
But recent history says Griffin should be able to handle it, because others in his position have with flying colors.
Darvin Ham finally got his long-awaited shot to be a head coach last season with the Los Angeles Lakers. The regular season was rocky and injury-filled, but Ham navigated the circus of attention that came with LeBron James closing in on the NBA’s scoring record and then wound up leading the team to the Western Conference finals. It’s hard to look at Year 1 of the Ham era and say it wasn’t a total success.
Joe Mazzulla got thrust into the role of first-year head coach in Boston around this time last fall, just a few days before training camp after Ime Udoka’s personal conduct led to the Celtics suspending him for the year and ultimately letting him go. Like Ham, Mazzulla quickly answered any questions about his readiness by coaching in the All-Star Game and getting the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals. Again, Year 1 for Mazzulla went down as a success.
Ham and Mazzulla are just the latest examples that prove there doesn’t have to be a learning curve for new coaches, especially Black coaches, many of whom until recent years quite simply had to wait too long to get an opportunity at having the head job. Griffin is surely aware of this. The game is the game, and he’s been a coach for a long time — 15 years as an assistant in the league more than prepped him for this. His paycheck is bigger now, he’ll be the one facing questions after losses, he’ll be scrutinized more than ever before. But having Lillard and Antetokounmpo in the same huddle is a wonderful opportunity for any head coach, especially a first-year one.
“Let’s be real,” Griffin said in June when the Bucks introduced him. “What first-time head coach gets to coach the Milwaukee Bucks, with all the special talent on this team? I’m extremely humbled.”
And that was before they got Lillard.
It’s not uncommon for first-year coaches to win and win big. Udoka went to the finals with Boston in 2022 in his first chance. He lost to Steve Kerr, who won the first of his four titles with Golden State in his first season with the Warriors. Tyronn Lue coached Cleveland to its NBA title in 2016 in Year 1 of his career. Pat Riley won his first title with the Los Angeles Lakers in the opening season of his Hall of Fame career.
And let’s not forget that Griffin has literally seen the playbook on how to do this. He was an assistant under Nick Nurse in Toronto and was there when Nurse — again, in Year 1 — helped the Raptors win their first title. Nurse was a Toronto assistant beforehand, inherited a really good team when he got the top job, and then expectations and potential went through the roof when the Raptors stunned the league by landing Kawhi Leonard in the summer leading into Nurse’s first season. Griffin basically is now on the same parallel path: get the job, take over really good team, then have a superstar added to his mix right away (and as an added bonus, Lillard’s former coach in Portland, Terry Stotts, just happens to be on Griffin’s staff).
Everyone knew Griffin had been given a big chance when the Bucks hired him. His chances got a whole lot better Wednesday when the Lillard deal got done. It’ll be months before the ultimate answer will come on who the biggest winner of the trade was, but for now, it’s clearly Griffin.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org
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