MILWAUKEE — Adrian Griffin understands the responsibility that comes with taking over a title contender as a first-time head coach.
“Let’s be real,” Griffin said Tuesday during his introductory news conference as the Milwaukee Bucks’ coach. What first-time head coach gets to coach the Milwaukee Bucks, with all the special talent on this team? I’m extremely humbled.”
The Bucks went against the grain by selecting Griffin, who spent the last five seasons as an assistant with Toronto. He replaces Mike Budenholzer, who led Milwaukee to the league’s best regular-season record but got fired after a first-round playoff loss to Miami.
Six teams have made coaching changes since the end of the regular season. The Bucks are the lone team thus far to pick someone without head coaching experience.
The Philadelphia 76ers chose former Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, the Houston Rockets selected ex-Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka, and the Detroit Pistons hired former Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams. Phoenix hired Frank Vogel for his fourth NBA coaching job. Toronto still hasn't filled its vacancy.
Bucks general manager Jon Horst said Griffin’s background as an NBA player and assistant over the last two decades made him an ideal candidate. Horst cited a comment from his assistant general manager.
“Milt Newton said throughout this process after we met with Adrian, ‘Adrian’s a head coach. He just hasn’t gotten the opportunity yet,’” Horst recalled.
Griffin, who turns 49 on July 4, already is taking steps to address his lack of experience. He confirmed Tuesday that his staff will include Terry Stotts, who spent 13 seasons as an NBA head coach, including a two-year stint with Milwaukee from 2005-07.
“To get a guy like Terry is a home run,” Griffin said. “He brings unbelievable experience.”
Griffin was an undrafted swingman from Seton Hall who ended up playing eight seasons in the NBA after toiling in lesser leagues. He has spent 15 years as an NBA assistant since the end of his playing career.
He now steps into a big opportunity with expectations to match.
The Bucks fired Budenholzer just two years after he led Milwaukee to its first NBA championship in half a century. The Bucks posted the NBA’s top regular-season record in three of Budenholzer’s five seasons but, with the exception of 2021, they couldn’t match that success in the playoffs.
Griffin takes over a talent-laden roster led by two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Griffin spoke to Antetokounmpo before he was hired and said he felt like they connected and that they have similar values.
“Yes, we have high expectations, but we’re going to embrace them,” Griffin said. “But it starts by getting to work. Never lose sight of the work involved. I think going undrafted and going the minor league route, it taught me the value of hard work. That’s what we’re going to build upon from day one.”
Griffin was on Toronto’s staff when the Raptors won the 2019 championship. One year later came a development that could have hindered his shot at becoming a head coach.
Griffin’s ex-wife, Audrey Sterling, accused him in an August 2020 social media post of physically abusing her and failing to pay child support. Griffin filed a defamation suit a year later that was settled last September.
The initial complaint filed by Griffin included statements posted on social media by two of their children supporting him and denying their mother’s allegations.
Griffin said Wednesday he couldn’t get into the details of the litigation but noted that he “absolutely denied” his ex-wife’s accusations and pointed out he was the one who filed the defamation lawsuit. Horst said the Bucks researched the issue and cited a review the Raptors had conducted in collaboration with the NBA.
“It was clear and determined the accusations were just unfounded,” Horst said. “I can tell you beyond that, just the multiple conversations I’ve had with Adrian and others had with him, in each case his comments were just really heartfelt and sincere. Ultimately, we believe him and believe in him, and the person of high character that he is. Everyone that we spoke to felt the same. It gave us a ton of excitement and confidence in making the hire, even though we were aware of those allegations.”
Griffin now is back in the place where he began his coaching career.
After getting traded to Milwaukee in the summer of 2008, Griffin stayed with the Bucks throughout training camp before getting a call from coach Scott Skiles at the start of the season. Griffin hadn’t made the team but got an offer to join Skiles’ staff.
Griffin has been coaching ever since. He now rejoins Horst, who was the Bucks’ director of basketball operations in 2008.
“It's funny how life works,” Griffin said. “Everything has come full circle.”