Gregg Popovich had to convince Mike Budenholzer it wasn’t a prank phone call.
Popovich, the long-time Spurs head coach and mentor to Budenholzer, reached out to the Hawks head coach to be the first deliver some important news Monday afternoon. He was the one to tell his long-time assistant he had been named NBA Coach of the Year.
Budenholzer might not want the spotlight but it shone brightly on him Tuesday after the league announced the award.
An emotional Budenholzer choked up several times in a televised press conference as he thanked his family, father, players, coaches, staff, management, ownership and Popovich.
“I’m very, very thankful for everybody who put me in this position, who put me in this place,” Budenholzer said. “I am forever thankful for this opportunity.”
Budenholzer was honored after leading the Hawks to a franchise-record 60 wins and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. He is the first Hawks coach to be honored since Lenny Wilkens in 1993-94.
In in second season with the Hawks, Budenholzer oversaw a number of impressive accomplishments including a 22-game improvement over last season. The Southeast Division champion Hawks also had a 19-game win streak, the fifth-longest in NBA history, which included a league-first 17-0 month on January. Budenholzer was named the league’s Coach of the Month in January. At one point, the Hawks won 35 of 38 games en route to their best record in the conference and second best in the NBA.
“This award has a permanent spot on his desk in San Antonio,” Budenholzer said of Popovich, who gave him his start 21 years ago as a video assistant with the Spurs. “He shares it every couple of years and lets us take a picture with it. I might be able to sneak back into his office and put it back down.
“I was very, very fortunate to be so close to a coach who has done so much for our league, done so much for so many coaches and shared so much with me. I can’t even begin to articulate how thankful I am and all the things I’ve learned. The thing that Pop did for me, and did for a lot of coaches, is he let me coach. It seems really simple. That is part of the beauty of being around Pop. Sometimes the things that are most successful are very simple.”
Budenholzer finished with a total of 513 points, including 67 first-place votes for the Red Auerbach Trophy. He edged out the Warriors’ Steve Kerr with 471 points, including 56 first-place votes. The Bucks’ Jason Kidd was third with the only other first-place vote. Budenholzer got a vote on every on ballot but one.
A panel of 130 sportswriters and broadcasters vote on the NBA’s postseason awards. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution does not participate as a matter of newspaper policy. Coaches were awarded five points for each first-place vote, three points for each second-place vote and one point for each third-place vote.
Budenholzer first got emotional when he mentioned his father.
“Winning this award evokes a lot of emotions,” he said. “It’s very, very humbling. As the son of a coach, it means a lot. I just want to thank my dad. He was a high school coach in Holbrook, Arizona forever. Winning a lot of games, winning a state championship with my brothers, he gave me a love for the game. My dad taught me a lot about life and basketball.
“My most vivid memory I have for my dad is passion for the game. Hopefully, our players see that passion in how we coach every day - the passion for the game, the passion for each other, the passion to play unselfishly, the passion for competing.
The Hawks’ team-concept approach leaves little room for individual awards. The Hawks had six players average in double figures with the starting five scoring from 16.7 to 12.1 points per game.
“(He brought) the mindset of working as a team,” center Al Horford said. “That goes a long way. Guys here, one through 15, feel like they can help and they can contribute and they can step in at any moment and do big things for our team. That’s because coach has given us that confidence.”
Before joining the Hawks, Budenholzer spent 19 seasons with the Spurs, working his way from video coordinator to lead assistant under Popovich. Budenholzer made a point to thank general manager Danny Ferry for having the faith to hire him in Atlanta.
In two seasons with the Hawks, he has a 98-66 record. The Hawks were second in the NBA is assists per game (25.7), fifth in fewest points allowed (97.1) and 10th in points scored (102.5). The Hawks were one of two teams, along with the Spurs, to finish in the top 10 in the league in most points scored and fewest points allowed.
Budenholzer ended his speech by thanking each member of his family.
“Thank you for allowing me to follow my passion,” he said. “Thank you for allowing me to coach.”
2014-15 NBA COACH OF THE YEAR RESULTS
Mike Budenholzer Atlanta/67/58/4/513
Steve Kerr/Golden State/56/61/8/471
Gregg Popovich/San Antonio/3/—/23/38
Kevin McHale/Houston/ —/—/13/13
Quin Snyder/Utah/ —/1/4/7
David Blatt/Cleveland/ —/—/3/3
Doc Rivers/L.A. Clippers/ —/—/2/2
Rick Carlisle/Dallas/ —/—/1/1
Dwane Casey/Toronto/ —/ —/ 1/ 1
Jeff Hornacek/Phoenix/ —/— /1/1
Monty Williams/New Orleans/ —/—/1/ 1
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