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The Bud Effect: Milwaukee’s Path to Finally Breaking Through

The Bucks’ secret weapon has been here since May.

Atlanta Hawks v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

With the first few frantic weeks of July behind us, the NBA offseason is finally coming down from its collective high. The activity of the NBA Draft, free agency, Summer League, and trade season is now in our rearview mirror, and the months ahead provide a welcome (or perhaps unwelcome?) reprieve from the madness.

The Milwaukee Bucks were not the most newsworthy team of the summer. They kept their draft pick and selected Donte DiVincenzo, after possibly missing an opportunity to trade down and still pick him up. There were no big name trades involving the Bucks, and the names brought in (Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez) were not as big as the name ushered out (Jabari Parker).

Some fans might feel that the summer was a disappointment, a missed opportunity to make major strides in the East. LeBron James has left Cleveland (again), but Boston stands to build on last year’s success by reintegrating Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, Philadelphia appears to have a bright future under Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and oh yeah...Toronto just traded for Kawhi Leonard. It’s easy for fans to think that the Bucks have been left behind; however, those fans might be discounting the importance of the move made before summer fully arrived: the hiring of Mike Budenholzer.

This is an understandable conclusion, albeit one reached when only considering the short-term past. After all, players are the ones who win games, while coaches can often be the ones that lose them. This is a harsh lesson that we learned under Jason Kidd, and a lesson that Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and their returning teammates might have the chance to cast aside. Coach Bud is good, and not just because he won Coach of the Year in 2015. A major limb from the Gregg Popovich tree, his career winning percentage of 0.520 is largely dragged down by his debut as a rookie head coach in 2013-14 (38-44) and his talent-light lame duck campaign last season (24-58). In the three years in between, his Atlanta Hawks teams went 151-95 (0.614 win percentage), were a top-4 playoff seed, but without a true superstar they were firmly entrenched in the Eastern Conference’s second tier.

Bud’s opportunity in Milwaukee is to combine his expertise with Giannis’ singular talent to push the Bucks further than the Hawks ever went. Expectations for the Bucks under Kidd were appropriately high, but ended up always out of reach. Under Budenholzer, Milwaukee’s floor as a team has been raised, whereas the ceiling is always as high as Giannis can take them. The question facing both the franchise and the fanbase is simple: how? What is the path forward for this Bucks team? What does their progression look like, and how likely is it to actually work?

The New Paradigm vs. The Status Quo

Mike Budenholzer’s time in Atlanta gives us a healthy sample of his coaching philosophies in action, and the results of his tenure as the Hawks head coach inform our predictions about his impending debut in Milwaukee. Interestingly, and perhaps surreptitiously, his five years as a first time head coach lines up perfectly with another five-year head coaching career with which Bucks fans are all too familiar...

2017 Las Vegas Summer League - Los Angeles Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Budenholzer was hired away from Pop’s staff in San Antonio to lead the Hawks in 2013. Kidd jumped straight from manning the point for the Knicks to chief clipboard duty, also in 2013. It seems only natural to compare the two coaching careers. It won’t surprise you to learn that while Jason Kidd was lamenting the decline of the post game, Mike Budenholzer was operating a system that worked so well it literally broke the rules of the NBA’s Player of the Month award in January 2015.

The disparity between the two coaching styles will become readily apparent very soon; there is no way to better highlight the differences than with outside shooting. Remember, a major part of Kidd’s coaching philosophy was this quote from an older Zach Lowe piece:

“I think the post-up makes a comeback,” Kidd says. “Sometimes it feels like we are making the game harder than it should be. The bottom line is this: The closer you get to the basket, the bigger a threat you are.”

Bucks fans have yet to fully rinse the putrid taste of the Kidd Era from their mouths. Think about how even Budenholzer’s talent-lacking 2017-18 squad was on their way to matching significant shooting records, and consider this table a long overdue palate cleanser, as well as an indication of what is to come.

*Kidd was fired in January 2018

Mike Budenholzer’s offense will be orders of magnitude better and more modern than anything Milwaukee has displayed in the past four years. It will be like stepping into a time machine, or at least being unfrozen after a century in a cryogenic lab. Bud’s teams have steadily increased their diet of three point shots, never dipping below 31% and roughly averaging one per every 3 field goal attempts vs. Milwaukee’s one per 4.5 field goal attempts. This improvement can not be overstated.

(As an aside, note that the major dip in Atlanta’s shooting came during their lone year featuring NBA dinosaur Dwight Howard, as well as the fact that Bud’s year with the lowest shooting numbers still firmly outpaced Kidd’s highest year, 2013-14 in Brooklyn.)

Despite eschewing the long ball, Kidd successfully swam against the current on offense. The Bucks were still good enough at scoring points, despite their simplistic sets and lack of demonstrable effort when initiating plays. As fans know, the offense wasn’t what did Kidd in, but his flawed defensive schemes and his team’s lack of any urgency that pulled his career in Milwaukee all the way under. What can we see when we compare his results (Defensive Rating and Pace) with that of Budenholzer’s?

*Kidd was fired in January 2018

It’s starting to feel unfair at this point. At its best, Kidd’s ballyhooed trap-heavy scheme peaked in 2014-15...before being widely solved and falling off a cliff. On the other hand, Bud’s defenses averaged a 4th place league ranking for three consecutive seasons, only declining once the roster was stripped down to the studs. It’s the same for pace; Kidd’s teams have never emphasized speed (actual speed, as in running transition off of makes or initiating an offensive set within the first half of the shot clock), while Bud’s teams have always been quicker than average.

No one will deny that Budenholzer is a superior NBA coach to Kidd, but I think that fans don’t yet understand just how wide the disparity is, or how it’s not due just to how bad Kidd was overall, but to how good Bud has been already! But let’s take things one step further. Budenholzer has already proven himself to be a competent coach capable of sustaining high level results. In addition to that, the headmaster of Hawks University carries a sterling reputation in player development. We know the direction of the team, but what about of the players that comprise the roster?

How Well the Bucks Roster Fits

Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks teams experienced roster turnover, just like any other team in the league. However, he tended to more often play guys who fit into a few different archetypes, somewhat based on their shooting profile. In looking through the rosters from his five years in Atlanta, here are the five main categories of players Bud seems to like, and who might fit the description on the Bucks.

Bigs who shoot (3PAr of 0.300 and higher, 3PT% between 33-37%)

Bud-era Hawks Players

  • Pero Antic
  • Ersan Ilyasova
  • Mike Scott
  • Mike Muscala
  • Dewayne Dedmon
  • John Collins

Current Bucks Players

  • Ersan Ilyasova
  • Thon Maker
  • Brook Lopez

Much has been made about the claim (or perhaps report?) that Bud prioritized Ersan in free agency, and influenced general manager Jon Horst to sign him early on July 1st to avoid missing out on Turkish Thunder in Milwaukee: Part 3. There are a number of reasons why the context of the signing were problematic, including how it was a flashing neon light regarding Jabari’s future in Milwaukee, but a clear benefit is how Coach Bud gets a player he both knows and trusts.

His stable of bigs in Atlanta changed over time but always remained well-stocked, particularly after the departure of franchise mainstay Al Horford. Additionally, it included the likes of both long-time big man shooters and bigs who learned to shoot in Atlanta. This distinction further informs the Bucks’ interest in Brook Lopez, who only started taking threes back in 2016 but has become a credible threat from outside.

Thon Maker figures to be a wild card in this category; Thon has consistently shot the ball, but he hasn’t shot it well, and there are a number of other things he’ll need to do to find a niche in Bud’s systems. However, Bud’s time coaching both Dedmon and Collins may direct his development plan for Maker, and he just might find the key to unlocking Playoff Thon and turning that into just Regular Thon...which would be a major boon for the career of the Bucks’ first round pick in 2016.

Shooting wings (3PAr of 0.380 or higher, 3PT% of 36% or higher)

Bud-era Hawks Players

  • DeMarre Carroll
  • Kent Bazemore
  • Thabo Sefolosha
  • Mike Dunleavy Jr.
  • Tim Hardaway Jr.
  • Taurean Prince

Current Bucks Players

  • Sterling Brown
  • Malcolm Brogdon
  • Donte DiVincenzo

Bud emphasizes versatility in his wings, and his crop of forwards and combo guards with the Hawks bears that out. Brogdon is probably the closest thing to a direct comparison here, but he dominates the ball far more than any of the wings from the Budenholzer-era Hawks. His ability to handle gives him a strong chance to contribute as a combo guard, as it does for DiVincenzo (if his time at Villanova and brief stint in Las Vegas translates to real NBA playmaking ability). Sterling Brown is a more traditional fit as a 3&D wing, given that his passing is average and his ball-handling is less so, but has enough basketball IQ to maintain his place in the pecking order.

Point guards who shoot a bit (3PAr between 0.200 and 0.250, 3PT% of 33-37%)

Bud-era Hawks Players

  • Jeff Teague
  • Dennis Schroder

Current Bucks Players

  • Eric Bledsoe
  • Matthew Dellavedova

Playing together in Atlanta, Teague and Schroder split point guard duties and seemed to maintain a distant working relationship, largely fueled by Schroder’s ego and Teague’s general average-ness. This is not the case in Milwaukee, where Bledsoe (solidly better than his backup) has a firm grasp on the starting position, while Delly will not be found griping about playing time. Both pairs of players failed to shoot threes on pace with most of their teammates, as they found extra driving space created by the gravity of the shooters around them. This might not benefit Delly as much, but will be a major advantage for Bledsoe, who is at his best when he is able to drive inside and bend the defense on the dribble.

Shooting specialists (3PAr of 0.400 or higher, 3PT% of 40% or higher)

Bud-era Hawks Player

  • Kyle Korver

Current Bucks Players

  • Khris Middleton
  • Tony Snell

In both cases, this is less a direct comparison and more like wishful thinking. Korver has been an elite shooter over his NBA career, and is one of the first players to demonstrate the usefulness of gravity on the court. However, he is largely one-dimensional, and it is an insult to Khris’ professional growth to classify him as a shooting specialist, or even as a 3&D player. Middleton has excelled as a midrange scorer and secondary facilitator, and while his advanced metrics are somewhat murky, opinions of his overall defense are high. If anything, Khris Middleton does not shoot enough threes, and if I were in Bud’s shoes I would heavily prioritize finding ways to get Middleton more long-range shots. If Middleton (whose shot release is on the same level of quickness as Korver’s) can find ways to get looks from outside without losing his knack for making things happen inside the arc, the Bucks might have found their second All Star to pair with Giannis.

In looking at Snell, a Korver comp might not even be wishful thinking, but more of a pipe dream. Korver had established a strong track record as a featured shooter by the time he arrived in Atlanta, whereas Tony Snell’s shooting performance has been demonstrably good but in a limited role and with relatively low impact. Korver also has a quicker release than Snell, and has shown off better offensive footwork (particularly running around screens) than Tony ever has. But like Middleton, any enhancement to Snell’s outside game will only make him more valuable and the Bucks a better squad.

Versatile bigs who don’t shoot much (3PAr of 0.200 or less, 3PT% of 33% or less)

Bud-era Hawks Players

  • Al Horford
  • Paul Millsap

Current Bucks Player

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis had the red light on his three point shot for the past four years, and it remains to be seen whether or not the light will change going forward. Giannis is light years better than any other NBA player when shooting near the basket, and while his offensive production could be transformed by adding a three-pointer, his overall impact on the game is more positive when working with shooters around him instead of as a shooter himself. Millsap and Horford both had varied job descriptions when working under Budenholzer, which is an environment that most players might struggle to handle. Giannis is not likely to have that problem, and weaponizing him might focus less on his own shooting and more on leveraging that of those around him.

Fans are confident that the Bucks will be better this season, but it cannot be overstated how much better they will be under Budenholzer. They are going to actually shoot more threes, play faster on offense, and play smarter on defense. The talent on the roster – which is considerable, don’t let anyone convince you otherwise – is finally in a position where their collective talents won’t be ignored, but leveraged. We might even see a scheme that fits the players, rather than players being shoved into a scheme.

Last season, the goal was to win 50 games, and the Bucks fell short. This season, the goal might remain the same, but the league might be shocked at how well the Milwaukee Bucks meet...and possibly exceed that goal.