The NBA offseason is still almost a month away, but the Milwaukee Bucks have already won it. The Bucks secured their future when they signed Mike Budenholzer to a four-year contract to be their new head coach.
This was as significant a hire as the Bucks have ever made. The future of this franchise is bright, with a bona fide 1-2 punch of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Antetokounmpo is the kind of complete player you can win a championship with and Middelton is a legit #2 player. It takes the right combination of luck and skill—mostly luck—for an NBA team to land a player like that.
There’s still work to be done to make Milwaukee a championship team, but now they’ve moved into the realm of things that can be addressed by good coaching and smart front office decision-making. Budenholzer ensures the Bucks will have the former.
Mike Budenholzer’s resume begins with a lengthy tenure in the San Antonio Spurs system, from 1996-2013. Quite frankly, that alone would be enough to convince me he’s the right man for the job. Another Spurs product, Bret Brown, finally turned around the Philadelphia 76ers. And Steve Kerr considers San Antonio head coach Greg Popovich one of his mentors. That background alone amounts to a heckuva recommendation letter for Budenholzer.
Except it gets better. Budenholzer has already proven himself as a winning head coach. He got an opportunity with the Atlanta Hawks in 2014 and by his second year had racked up a 60-win regular season, Coach of the Year honors and a trip to the conference finals before running into LeBron. Budenholzer did this in spite of lacking true championship stars, something he will have in Milwaukee with Antetokounmpo.
Atlanta has never been known for its commitment to winning long-term and key pieces began to leave. DeMarre Carroll left after the 60-win season and Al Horford bolted for Boston a year later. The Hawks traded Kyle Korver to Cleveland in January 2017. But over the next two years, the Hawks continued to play good basketball.
They won 48 games in 2016 and then beat the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. There was a belief here in Boston talk radio that Celtics coach Brad Stevens had been outmaneuvered by Budenholzer in that series. In ‘17, in spite of the roster being reduced to the shell of Dwight Howard’s career, Atlanta managed to win 43 more games, finish in fifth in the Eastern Conference and throw a competitive six-game series against a far more talented Washington Wizards team in the playoffs.
If Budenholzer simply replicates his performance in Atlanta, Milwaukee is looking really good. The Bucks’ best player gives them a ceiling higher than anything the Hawks ever had. And let’s also not forget that head coaches, like players, can get better with experience. What if Budenholzer’s own personal ceiling hasn’t been reached yet?
The landscape of the Eastern Conference is uncertain right now, as we wait to see if LeBron will stay in Cleveland, go somewhere else in the East or head West, where Los Angeles and Houston would be attractive destinations. All the other contenders can really do is maneuver and put themselves in the best possible position. The Celtics have already arrived in that best possible spot. The 76ers clearly announced they were on their way. By hiring Mike Budenhozler, the Bucks ensured that they too will be in the conversation about the future of the East.