By GERY WOELFEL
The Milwaukee Bucks filled their head coaching vacancy last week by hiring Adrian Griffin.
Griffin was allegedly chosen from a final group that consisted of former Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse and Golden State assistant coach Kenny Atkinson.
But, according to multiple sources, Griffin wasn’t the Bucks primary target after they fired Mike Budenholzer. Rather, sources said the Bucks had set their sights on hiring an established and successful head coach, one being Monty Williams.
Williams became available after being dismissed by the Phoenix Suns. He was generally regarded as the cream of the available coaching crop.
“Monty was the Bucks guy,’’ an NBA executive said of Williams. “They made him an offer: five years, $50 million.’’
But Williams rejected the Bucks generous offer and recently agreed to an even more lucrative contract from the Detroit Pistons for six years, $78 million.
A person who knows Williams said a factor in Williams shunning the Bucks may have been the compositions of the team’s rosters.
The Bucks, who won the NBA championship in 2021, are an aging team, one whose window for capturing another title is precariously close to closing.
In fact, three of the Bucks’ starters will be 32 or older by next season. Khris Middleton will be 32 on Aug. 12, Jrue Holiday will be 33 on June 12 and Brook Lopez is 35.
Coaching a team that is long in the tooth may not have been Williams’ only concern; sources said several potential Bucks coaching candidates had severe concerns about the uncertainty of star Giannis Antetokounmpo and his commitment to remaining in Milwaukee beyond his current contract, which contains a player-option clause for the 2025-2026 season.
“Giannis’ future with them (the Bucks) long-term is a real issue; that goes without saying,’’ another NBA executive said.
While some league officials have concerns about the Bucks’ ability to remain a title contender beyond next season, especially with legitimate luxury tax issues, the perception of the Pistons is radically different.
The Pistons are considered an ascending team and understandably so. Their roster boasts several promising prospects, including Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft, and Jaden Ivey, who was the fifth overall pick in the 2022 draft.
Additionally, the Pistons are poised to secure yet another potential star in the June 22 NBA draft with the fifth overall pick.
Williams, according to sources, wasn’t the only highly regarded coach to snub the Bucks for their head coaching vacancy.
While it was public acknowledge University of Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson interviewed for the Bucks job, it was never reported the Bucks had offered him the job, as three sources insist.
Sampson was an assistant coach for then Bucks head coach Scott Skiles from 2008-2011 and has a good rapport with Bucks general manager Jon Horst.
Sampson took the Houston coaching reigns in 2014 and transformed a downtrodden program into a national power.
In the last five seasons, the Sampson-led Cougars advanced to the Sweet 16 twice, the Elite Eight once and the Final Four once.
Sampson’s nine-year record at Houston is a gaudy 232-74 (.758). Sampson, who earlier had head coaching stints at Indiana, Oklahoma and Washington State, has an exceptional college coaching record of 731-345. (.679).
Sources said Sampson opted to remain at Houston primarily because of family reasons. His son, Kellen, is an assistant coach for the Cougars, and his daughter, Lauren, is the men’s basketball director of external operations.
“That was very close to happening,’’ a source said of Sampson taking the Bucks job.
Shortly after Sampson interviewed with the Bucks, reports surfaced Griffin, Nurse and Atkinson had emerged as the finalists. Sources said there was ample support in the Bucks camp for Nurse, who then inexplicably withdrew his name from consideration for the Bucks job before accepting the Philadelphia 76ers head coaching position.
A source said Horst was among the Nurse backers for the job. “He wanted a head coach; he wanted a proven head coach,’’ a source who knows Horst said.
But while Horst’s voice on the selection of a new head coach was heard, there was a perhaps an even bigger voice for Griffin, a source said.
“Giannis wanted Adrian,’’ the source said of Antetokounmpo, who reportedly met with the so-called three finalists for the job. “And it’s all about Giannis with that organization. They don’t want to upset him for obvious reasons.’’
It remains to be seen whether the Bucks made the correct call in tabbing Griffin, who is widely admired and respected by his peers in the Association.
But he has never been a head coach, which some NBA officials interviewed for this story said could be problematic.
“They’re taking a risk, a very big risk,’’ an NBA executive said of the Bucks. “There’s a world of difference being an assistant coach and being a head coach.’’
One thing is certain, though: The Bucks saved themselves a lot of money by hiring Griffin. While Williams will be paid $13 million a season by the Pistons, and Nurse about $8 million, Griffin will be paid an estimated $4 million a season.
The Bucks will also still be paying Budenholzer, who won more games in the last five years than any other NBA coach. Budenholzer has $16 million coming to him over the next two years.
Several people who know Budenholzer said they fully expect him to sit out the 2023-2024 season and then return to the NBA the following season.