If I had to guess – and I don’t, but for the purposes of this exercise I will – I’d say Mike Budenholzer has coached his last game for the Atlanta Hawks. Once you’ve made the decision to interview for another job and that interview becomes public, it’s very difficult to return to the one you have. And I’m reasonably sure Budenholzer no longer cares much for the job he has.
This isn’t an indictment of the man who, only three years ago, was being handed a trophy as the NBA’s coach of the year for leading the Hawks to 60 wins and the East’s No. 1 seed. He’s very good at coaching. That he was less adept at being president of basketball operations was so unsurprising that even this forever-erring correspondent saw it coming. Not many men can be both. (Ask Doc Rivers about his Clippers experience.)
Once Budenholzer was demoted to coach-only – and once it was clear that the new man in charge, Travis Schlenk, wanted the Hawks to tank it up – the Bud-out scenario became more “when” than “if.” Tanking is awful for everyone, but it’s hardest on the coach. Those L’s don’t go on the GM’s record; they go on the coach’s. Look today. After the 24-58 of this season, Budenholzer’s record is 213-197, a winning percentage of .520. One year ago, it was .576. Another year of this and he’d be a career loser.
It’s noteworthy that Budenholzer’s interview – his first; there could be more – is with the Phoenix Suns, one of three teams that did worse than the Hawks in the regular season that just ended. The Suns stink, too. The Suns also have an 11.3 percent better chance than the Hawks of winning the lottery, and the presumptive No. 1 pick is Arizona’s Deandre Ayton, who spent his collegiate season 113 miles from Phoenix.
Also: Budenholzer is an Arizona guy. He was born and raised in Holbrook. He went to college at Pomona in Claremont, Calif. He learned his trade in San Antonio, where his son – Budenholzer was recently divorced – again lives. Geographically, the Suns make sense. Timing-wise, almost anywhere else would make sense.
There’s a slew of openings already. Besides Phoenix, there’s Memphis, Orlando and Charlotte. (As noted, tanking takes its toll.) Milwaukee made the playoffs under an interim coach. The Knicks just fired Jeff Hornacek and are thought to have interest in Mike Woodson, who they themselves fired four years ago, which tells how shallow the pool of candidates is. Assuming Budenholzer does want out, he’d rise to the top of any short list – and there might even be an opening in Cleveland, although whoever winds up there could well be coaching the Cavaliers without LeBron.
From the Hawks’ perspective, there seems no urgency to keep Budenholzer. (Being that he’s under contract for two more seasons, he couldn’t have interviewed with Phoenix without permission.) Every GM wants to pick his own coach, and the coach this GM inherited was the guy who’d held his job. Not to get all goopy, but a parting really could be the best thing for both parties.
The belief here is that the parting will happen. Budenholzer will be coaching somewhere else next season. The Hawks’ rebuild will continue under someone else. But the timing of Budenholzer’s decision will be interesting. The lottery isn’t until May 15. If he leaves before then, he’d risk being remembered as the guy who left the club that beat the lottery odds and won the No. 1 pick.
Rick Pitino knows all about that. He left Kentucky for Boston with the Celtics having the best lottery shot to take Tim Duncan. They wound up with Chauncey Billups, on whom Pitino immediately soured, and Ron Mercer. Pitino has since conceded that, had he known he wouldn’t be coaching Duncan, he’d have stayed in Lexington.