As the Hawks head into the offseason and the focus shifts to the obvious topics -- lucky ping-pong balls, potential draft picks and whether Dennis Schroder can make it through the summer without handcuffs – there’s one subject that has the potential to dwarf all others: Is Mike Budenholzer coming back?
This isn’t about whether the Hawks should bring Budenholzer back as coach. They should. That’s not even up for debate. He’s one of the game’s better coaches, and he’s under contract. Critics have a tendency to harp on him constantly screaming at players – as if that should suddenly be verboten for a coach – but he develops players and maximizes their talent.
Kent Bazemore had the proper perspective on Budenholzer and this whole he-yells-too-much thing: “We’re getting to the point where there’s a lot of sensitivity in the world and everyone thinks they need to be talked to or coached a certain way. He just wants the best for guys. I love when I get screamed at because it lets me know I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
The real question regarding Budenholzer is whether he wants to come back. He gave somewhat evasive answers on the subject Wednesday. His non-committal responses were sandwiched between cheery phrases about how much he loved his job, his players, the city, his life. But this comes against the backdrop of rumors over the past few weeks that he’s more than mildly interested in the coaching vacancy in Milwaukee and that he might not be committed to sticking it out through the Hawks’ painful rebuild.
Budenholzer did a group interview Wednesday, the day after the Hawks closed their season with a loss to Philadelphia. Afterward, when I approached him alone for a few follow-up questions, it went like this.
Question: Can you address reports you’ve been working back channels to get insight on the Milwaukee job?
Answer: “Not true.”
Q: Can you say with 100 percent certainty that you’ll be back as Hawks’ coach, assuming it’s up to you?
A: “I’m … literally the season just ended.”
Q: You are kind of not answering the question.
A: “Jeff, I’m not going there.”
Q: So there is a decision to be made?
A: “The season just ended. I literally just spent (several hours) with these guys (on exit interviews). I’ve been totally focused and totally devoted to this. I have genuinely enjoyed this, the city, everything. That’s where my mind is.”
I have no doubt Budenholzer was mentally drained. He opted to stay with the Hawks as coach after losing his title of team president and new general manager Travis Schlenk was given completely control of basketball operations. He did so because he loves coaching, and yes, he was being paid a lot of money to do so. Whether he really feels the need to take a step back and breathe before processing his future is the question.
This could not have been an easy season for Budenholzer. The Hawks lost 58 games, their most in 12 seasons and the second most in franchise history. Budenholzer hadn’t missed the playoffs since his first season as an assistant in San Antonio (1996-97).
But he said he found positives in this season. He shared them with the team collectively and players individually. Among them: the rise of rookie John Collins, the late-season improvement of Taurean Prince, the leadership of Kent Bazemore, the overall effort of players amid difficult circumstances of a roster strip-down.
Budenholzer acknowledged the season was a challenge for him personally. But, “I definitely feel like I grew as a coach. It’s easy to talk about development or day-to-day process when you’re having success. Your beliefs are tested when you’re not having the tangible rewards of winning. It pushed me to be a better coach.”
Is that enough for him to want to stay? Because he’s under contract, he can’t just leave – or theoretically even talk to another team – without the team allowing him to do so. The Hawks have a lottery pick, other draft picks and a ton of salary-cap space with which to improve the roster. But they’re not as far along as the Bucks, who have the multi-talented Giannis Antetokounmpo to build around.
Schlenk is operating on the assumption that Budenholzer is coming back because there has been nothing to lead him to believe otherwise.
“Fifteen minutes ago, we were just talking about our plans for our exit interviews tomorrow to make sure we’re giving the same message to players,” he said Tuesday night. “We’ve talked about some of the things we want to do. I’ve gotten zero indication that any of these rumors are true, even though they’re out there.”
Schlenk and Budenholzer have vastly different personalities. But they’ve worked through their issues, and Schlenk admires the way his coach has handled things.
“A lot of people on the outside had a lot of concerns: Here’s a guy who’s been in the NBA for 21 years, and he only missed the playoffs once. How’s he going to handle it?” Schlenk said. “But as we’ve seen, he and his staff have done a good job keeping guys energized.”
As for the rumors, Schlenk said: “I would just say: They’re rumors, to the best of my knowledge. Nobody has called me, but he’s a good coach. I could understand why other teams would have interest.”
Budenholzer did a nice job developing Collins. The 20-year-old power forward averaged more than 10 points and seven rebounds in his first season. If the Hawks have only one player who’s considered untouchable in trade talks, it’s him.
What did Collins think of playing for Budenholzer?
“It was fun,” he said. “He’s definitely very animated. I love his passion. It’s something I can bond with -- his competitive nature and the way he wants to win every game. I definitely would like to see the relationship grow.”
So should everybody. Starting over with a new coach would be a step back.
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