Mike Budenholzer was recently voted the NBA’s coach of the year by his peers. He’d been similarly honored before. He won the NBA’s official COY award four seasons ago, when his Atlanta Hawks were a model of asset maximization. They won 60 games without a superstar, which led many among us to wonder what wonders Budenholzer might work with a superstar.
We have our answer. In Year 1 with Milwaukee, Budenholzer won another 60 games, securing the top seed in the East, which his Hawks also had in 2015, and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, which those Hawks did not. The Bucks probably aren’t any better, 1 through 12, as those smooth-running Hawks, but such an observation is essentially weightless. The Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek Freak. He’s a superstar. He’s the reason Milwaukee should get where those Hawks could not.
Bud’s Bucks swept the Pistons in Round 1 and have seized a 3-1 lead over the Celtics in the conference semis. Milwaukee appears the class of the East, which is something we couldn’t say about the top-seeded Hawks once the 2015 playoffs commenced.
That team – starters: Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Al Horford – was tied 2-2 with Brooklyn and Washington before closing out apparently mismatched series. The Eastern final against Cleveland was a cosmic flop. The Cavaliers, who had the NBA’s greatest star, swept the team that prided itself on having no stars, though technically four of the Hawks’ first five were All-Stars that year. Cleveland had LeBron. The Hawks didn’t. Thus ended the best NBA season in Atlanta annals.
That Budenholzer coached the Hawks only three more years had less to do with his coaching than with circumstances. Danny Ferry, the general manager who’d hired Budenholzer and built the team that would win those 60 games, took a leave of absence in September 2014. A racially insensitive remark regarding free agent Luol Deng made by Ferry on a conference call was brought to light by one of the Hawks’ many owners. With Ferry sidelined, Budenholzer – who’d been a head coach for all of one season – became de facto GM.
When Tony Ressler took ownership in June 2015, his first move was to keep the bumped-up executive tandem of Budenholzer and Wes Wilcox, bidding adieu to Ferry. The 60 wins proved a harmonic convergence, never to be repeated. The next season saw the Hawks slip to 48; the next saw them barely break .500. This slide toward mediocrity would have tested more experienced executives, but it was never clear what the Bud/Wes plan was.
Carroll signed with Toronto – the Raptors overpaid – in July 2015. Teague was traded to Indiana in June 2016, which made sense: The Hawks had to see if Dennis Schroder could run the team. What happened next still defies belief. While ostensibly trying to keep Horford, the Hawks signed Dwight Howard. Understand: By then, nobody wanted to play with Howard, especially someone who’d built a stellar career on being a Great Teammate. Horford took his talents to Boston. Howard wrecked what was left of the Hawks.
Korver was dealt to Cleveland in January 2017. Millsap signed with Denver that July, shortly after Howard – the guy Budenholzer thought he could coach – was shipped to Charlotte. By then, Travis Schlenk was the Hawks’ GM, meaning Budenholzer was no longer making decisions. (Wilcox was simply pushed aside, never to be seen again.) Budenholzer wasn’t in attendance for Schlenk’s introductory press session, which suggested this forced marriage wouldn’t last. It didn’t.
Schlenk was brought here to tear down and build up. Budenholzer, who not long ago had been winning 60 games and calling every shot, wanted no part of a restart. The Hawks went 24-58 in their final run under Bud, which was a backhanded testimony to his skills; under a lesser coach, they’d have gone 14-68. As soon as the season ended, the Hawks announced their coach was “exploring options.” Within a month, he’d found the option every coach wants, the one that comes with a superstar attached.
Surely part of Budenholzer’s attraction to Howard was a function of what the big man had once been, albeit a while back. Before Howard signed with Houston in the summer of 2013, he granted the hometown Hawks, then under new management with Ferry/Budenholzer, a meeting. Strange as it sounds, the ultra-serious Bud and the seldom-serious Howard hit it off. (They bonded less tightly when working together; their final playoff game ended with Howard on the bench.)
In Antetokounmpo, Budenholzer has found a younger and better Dwight Howard, not to mention one more willing to learn. Bud’s pace-and-space scheme has cleared lanes for the famous dunker to do all manner of dunks, and the “space” part has also freed the Freak to hoist the occasional 3-pointer. The Bucks ranked first among NBA teams in defensive efficiency, fourth in offensive efficiency. Budenholzer has done in Milwaukee what he did here, the difference being that he now has one of the league’s five best players.
Back to 2015: The Hawks weren’t the same in the playoffs as in their giddy regular season. Millsap was carrying an injury. Carroll and Korver were hurt in the first two games against the Cavs. Those Hawks were a team in the truest sense, which would ordinarily be a compliment, but the NBA runs on star power. Any lessening in any of that first five had an outsize effect. The 60-22 Hawks went 8-8 in postseason. These Bucks have been working without Malcolm Brogdon of Greater Atlanta Christian, a starter who averaged 15.8 points. It hasn’t shown. They’ve got Giannis.
Budenholzer is a terrific coach, and coaches become more terrific when they have the best player on the floor. Still, this is one time when seeing a former Hawks employee excel elsewhere stirs no angst. He’s where he wanted to be, coaching the guy he wanted to coach. The Hawks have Lloyd Pierce, who signed on knowing what the job description was. For what the Hawks are, this Bud wasn’t for them – even though he could win an NBA title soon.
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