Here’s what the Milwaukee Bucks are getting in Mike Budenholzer – a tremendous developer of talent, a slightly overrated tactician and a bit of a sourball. He’s a good coach, yes. I’m not sure he’s a great one.
Budenholzer took Paul Millsap and made him an All-Star. He took Jeff Teague and, though the two sometimes clashed, made him a competent NBA point guard. He took DeMarre Carroll and Kent Bazemore and made them more money than they probably deserved. He took a team that didn’t have a star and made everyone look like a star, bleeding 60 wins from it. That was peak Bud.
The lesser Bud came in the playoffs. His Hawks won three postseason series in five years. They never won one in which they didn’t hold the homecourt edge. (They came close against the top-seeded Pacers in 2014, but they blew Game 6 here and were outclassed in Game 7 there.) The three teams Budenholzer’s Hawks beat in a best-of-seven were the sub-.500 Nets, the 46-win Wizards and the 48-win Celtics. All three series wins required six games. All were tied at 2-all.
In 2015 and 2016, the Hawks ran into LeBron. They didn’t win a game. They were the better seed the first time, but Kyle Korver got hurt in a blowout Game 2 and by then the Hawks were done anyway. It seemed odd, at least to me, that such a sharp guy – Budenholzer was the 2015 coach of the year – couldn’t figure a way to make those series semi-competitive, but maybe I’m not giving LeBron enough credit. Not since 2010 has an Eastern team gotten past him. (As we speak, the great man trails the Celtics 2-nil. Brad Stevens can really coach.)
Budenholzer has little use for the media – or for anyone else who isn’t part of his inner circle. “Our group,” he always calls it. He got that from Gregg Popovich. He got pretty much everything from Popovich, which isn’t a criticism. If you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best. Budenholzer borrowed so completely that Hawks insiders would joke that he wore a bracelet bearing the initials WWPD – “what would Pop do?”
Had Danny Ferry not been forced into a leave of absence in September 2014, Budenholzer’s tenure might have turned out differently. As it was, he slipped into the GM’s chair and found – shocker! – that he liked being his own boss. Soon the Hawks were en route to 60 wins and the higher-ups were in such thrall that there was never a chance new ownership would dare to ruffle Bud’s tender sensibilities by bringing back Ferry, who actually built the 60-win team.
News flash: Being a good coach doesn’t make you a shrewd czar of basketball. (He thought he could coach Dwight Howard. Nobody can coach Dwight Howard.) Budenholzer’s Hawks didn’t win 60, or even 50, again. Within two years, they were barely above .500. He accepted his demotion to coach-only, but clearly didn’t like it. Twelve months ago, this correspondent suggested his forced marriage with Travis Schlenk would last a year. Bingo.
Budenholzer interviewed with the Suns and the Knicks while still employed here, whereupon the Hawks decided enough was enough. They severed relations that were essentially severed long ago. (To my knowledge, Budenholzer has yet to speak for the record with any Atlanta-based reporter about leaving the city in which he worked for five years.) He then interviewed with the Raptors and the Bucks. The latter club has given him what he presumably wanted all along – a chance to coach Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Budenholzer figures to render the Greek Freak even freakier. That’s what he does. And with LeBron perhaps taking his talents West, there should be room to move in the East. Still, the Celtics and the 76ers seem primed in a way the Bucks, who finished seventh in East, are not. Bud will make his new team better. But, as skilled as he is, he’s not Pop. He’s not Brad Stevens, either.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.