Budenholzer gets up-close look at what he left behind with Hawks

Two of the Hawks chief concerns now: Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer and Giannis Antetokounmpo, here conferring during a playoff game vs. Brooklyn. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
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Two of the Hawks chief concerns now: Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer and Giannis Antetokounmpo, here conferring during a playoff game vs. Brooklyn. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Credit: Morry Gash

Credit: Morry Gash

Mike Budenholzer was the coach who bailed on the Hawks’ rebuild before the foundation was poured, preferring a more established Greek revival model in Wisconsin. And, looky here at who’s facing that now rather-sturdy rebuild in the Eastern Conference final.

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The last and only other man to take Atlanta’s NBA team to a conference final also will be the one now plotting against the Hawks the second time around.

This wondrous postseason run of the Hawks only keeps getting better, now adding a next-level symmetry to it. The feng shui of facing Milwaukee and Mike Budenholzer in the conference final – an artful alignment of past and future – is beautiful to behold.

Old buddy Budenholzer, the Hawks’ coach from 2013-14 to 2017-18, is taking the Milwaukee Bucks to their second conference final in his three years there. The benefit of having a two-time MVP on the roster, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is obvious.

If he is surprised to find the Hawks in his way only three years after one of those polite, unspecific “mutual parting of the ways” – with still a couple of years left on his contract – Budenholzer’s not letting on.

Asked just that Tuesday during his brief news conference in Milwaukee, Budenholzer said, “This is a crazy league. It’s a lot of credit to what the Hawks have done this year. It’s really impressive. I really don’t think that much about it. I’m mostly focused on Milwaukee, what we’re doing here. It’s really impressive and a credit to them what they’ve done this season and what they’ve done these playoffs.”

In other words, coach mode.

Budenholzer’s tenure in Atlanta was good for him – it was his first head coaching position – and largely good for the Hawks. In his second season (2014-15), using a completely different formula than the current team, the Hawks advanced to the conference final. Where LeBron James and Cleveland dismissed them with extreme prejudice.

How different was that formula? The top five scorers on the 2014-15 team, led by Paul Millsap, averaged 8.2 years of NBA experience, with an average age of 29.6. The experience for the top five scorers on this season’s Hawks is half that of its conference final predecessor, four years. Their average age, 24.6. Did we mention there was a rebuild? And that it is proceeding nicely.

When the Hawks decided to start over, one of the key moves by owner Tony Ressler was to bring in Travis Schlenk from Golden State as GM. Consequently, Budenholzer lost the title of president of basketball operations. With less say on personnel, with the Hawks committed to slow, steady growth, and coming off a 58-loss season in 2017-18, Budenholzer couldn’t find the emergency exit quickly enough. A coach-of-the-year winner with the Hawks, he was scooped up 22 days after leaving the Hawks by the Bucks, a team with far more win-now on its roster, led by Antetokounmpo.

The Hawks' Tim Hardaway Jr. confers with head coach Mike Budenholzer during a 2016 game. Curtis Compton /ccompton@ajc.com
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The Hawks' Tim Hardaway Jr. confers with head coach Mike Budenholzer during a 2016 game. Curtis Compton /ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

The Hawks, of course, then turned to Lloyd Pierce to do the hard work of raising the kids. Then, when they needed another authority figure to push them through the awkward stage of learning to win, Nate McMillan was there to set the perfect tone.

For his part, Budenholzer has been increasingly squeezed to move the Bucks past this point to the NBA Finals and perhaps beyond. It’s been reported that he was in the position of saving his job by coming back from an 0-2 deficit to bounce the Brooklyn Nets in the previous round. The pressure to produce squarely is on him this series.

In a postseason rife with injury, Milwaukee has the advantage of relative good health. It lost guard Donte DiVincenzo to ankle surgery. But the Greek Freak, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday will report to Wednesday as well off as anyone can at this point of a long slog. There is a now-is-the-time urgency to the Bucks in this series.

“Every year is different, every playoff journey takes on its own story,” Budenholzer mused Tuesday.

The story of this year’s Eastern Conference final is a fascinating one. Certainly one subtext is: That of a coach who by implication came off as one of the biggest in a long line of disbelievers in the Hawks, now contending with them in the NBA final four.

Although Budenholzer never would frame it like that. “This is about the Bucks and the Hawks. Our players got to be ready to play. Coaches coach,” he said. “At this stage, at this time, it’s just about playing and finding a way to win and compete, doing whatever it takes. That’s really what this is all about.”

Although from the Atlanta perspective, beating this particular coach might yield just the slightest bit of added satisfaction. Consider that the sprinkles on top.

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