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The Redemption of Mike Budenholzer, Part I: The Ascent

In the first of this three-part series, we look at the start of Bud’s Milwaukee odyssey

Budenholzer PC Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Has there been an NBA head coach in recent decades who has had as unique of a journey while coaching a single team as Mike Budenholzer? If so, I’m welcome to hearing why, because most coaches who undergo what he did are fired and the memory of their tenure tossed aside. As we Bucks fans bask in the glory of the franchise’s first ring in fifty years, I think it’s prudent to heap a mountain of credit on Bud, particularly after how many fans derided him. Before we belly up to the table and eat a plate of some delicious and championship-flavored crow, though, let’s take a look at how we got here. What follows are my own recollections and retelling of Bud’s path from great regular season head coach to NBA championship head coach. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy it.

At the end of his Atlanta tenure, Bud was viewed as one of the league’s best handful of coaches, widely praised for taking a star-less Hawks team to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015. There they were easily swept by the LeBron-led Cavs, but there’s no shame at all in that for a second-year coach, particularly after a 60-win regular season. He also gained a player-friendly reputation and seemed to be one of those coaches able to get the most out of his roster (much like his coaching mentor), regardless of its talent level.

That year, he deservedly won the first of his two Coach of the Year awards and established himself as an up-and-coming star on the bench, strengthened by his pedigree as a long time assistant (and even former player, back in college) of Gregg Popovich, who if you ask me is the best NBA coach of all time. From the start of Pop’s tenure in 1996, Bud was on the sidelines as an assistant, and before leaving in 2013 had arisen to lead assistant. He missed out on San Antonio’s most recent ring the following season, but Bud already had four dating back to 1999.

The above was my limited impression of Bud upon his hiring in Milwaukee. I thought him to be a great head coach, likely one of the league’s top five. Like a sizeable chunk of Bucks fans, I was quite thrilled to see him hired. Of the head coaching vacancies that offseason, Milwaukee’s was perhaps the most plum strictly because of Giannis’ presence. Bud notably chose the Bucks over the Raptors (this didn’t look so good a year later) plus non-contenders (at the time) in the Suns and big-market Knicks. This was a major coup for the franchise and in a way, their best free-agent signing ever (apologies to Greg Monroe).

I was not alone in thinking he was Milwaukee’s version of Steve Kerr to Jason Kidd’s Mark Jackson. After Kidd’s firing in January of 2018, while the Hawks slid down the East standings, I wondered aloud to some friends if perhaps they would let Bud walk in favor of greener pastures as they began a rebuild. In the spring, I began really hoping for him as I saw reports (forgive these being sourced from Gery Woelfel, but even a dead clock is right twice a day) suggesting he may move on. He even took interviews while still technically employed by Atlanta. In early May I got my wish, and I saw this as the final piece in the championship-contending equation alongside a Big Three of Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Eric Bledsoe (how things have changed!) To myself and to my future colleagues here, this was a great fit. Bud could win 60 games but never had the star power in Atlanta to get to the Finals, and now he has Giannis... who hadn’t even won an MVP yet!

My expectations to begin what would become the breakthrough 2018–19 season were realistic, not immodest, but in hindsight quaint! Lest we forget: the team had not won a postseason series since 2001; after falling to a banged-up Celtics team the previous spring in 7 games, that was obviously the franchise’s first priority. Beyond that, I hoped for 50 wins and perhaps a Conference Finals appearance, or at least a competitive second-round series. I figured the Bucks, as they constructed entering that season, were reasonably likely to get the 4 seed. This would garner them the respect they hadn’t yet achieved around the NBA and among Wisconsin sports fans who long ignored them.

Recall that the Bucks began the year with 7 straight wins. Coming into the nationally-televised Boston rematch a couple of weeks into the year, I felt confident that my preseason expectations were appropriate. There were some fits and starts as the season started out—notably Khris Middleton being benched for OT in New York—but there were more feel-good moments: smoking the Warriors on the road, making it rain in Denver on a SEGABABA that ended a West Coast trip, winning convincingly in Boston... and that all happened before Christmas! Still, the Bucks did not reclaim sole possession of the East’s 1 seed until beating the Raptors on January 31st. After clamoring for a more modern NBA offense for years, they were letting it fly at a Rockets-like rate, even if they weren’t making that many. They were giving up a lot of threes on defense, but very few were from the corner, unlike in previous years under Kidd. One Nikola Mirotic trade a few weeks later and my expectations ratcheted up to a Conference Finals berth. As they coasted through the rest of the regular season while beating the likes of Houston, Boston again, and the Sixers on the road, getting to the doorstep of the NBA Finals felt like the only way to validate all the regular-season hype.

When they began dismantling Boston in the second round that May, I began to think they really had a shot at the Finals—since I had not taken Toronto very seriously to that point. Once they went up 2-0 to those Raptors while the Warriors awaited the return of an injured Kevin Durant as they swept the Blazers, I thought the Bucks could actually win it all despite their lack of deep playoff experience. One didn’t have to squint to envision a ring going to a team who had run roughshod over the entire league en route to 60 wins, plus had won 10 of their first 11 playoff games. Bud’s first mantra in Milwaukee (Play Random is the new one, I guess) of Let It Fly was everywhere.

Game 3 of that Eastern Conference Finals was a franchise turning point to be sure: a double-overtime slogfest (the Bucks shot a putrid 37.3% and 31.8% from deep) on the road that was the difference between going up 3-0 essentially locking in a Finals birth and increasing uncertainty about the series’ outcome. Milwaukee played from behind until tying it late in the fourth but really couldn’t buy a bucket when they had the chance to take the lead: their only lead all game was just two points, happening early and briefly in the second OT period. The Bucks lost but were still up 2-1. We all know what happened next.

That game wasn’t just a turning point for the Bucks, though, it was where my doubts about Bud were sown. Looking back at text conversations from that time with friends after Toronto took a 3-2 lead several days later—after Fred VanVleet became a dad and went supernova from deep—we discussed how much of their failure could be blamed on the scheme. At the time I said “I saw this coming. No defense allowed teams to jack up more threes this [regular] season. It’ll bite you in the ass every time. A bad strategy for postseason defense. Van Vleet was wide open. Every time.” In concurrence, my fellow distraught Milwaukee fans expressed opinions like: “yeah they needed to do something different with that—it is a weird strategy when you base your offense on threes but want your opponent to shoot threes” (emphasis is my own).

On the heels of a dispiriting and ominous Game 5 loss in Milwaukee that felt like a death knell, Toronto entered the pivotal Game 6 on their home floor hitting a manageable 36.5% of their 3PA, though 28% of them were wide open. On the other end, the Bucks did not once shoot above 32.3% from three in any game that series until Game 6, in a harbinger of playoff runs to come. This was a Bucks team that had the league’s best defense in the regular season, but I firmly believed you could not give good teams that many open threes, especially when you weren’t hitting them yourselves.

In Game 6, they managed to shoot 35% and building a 15 point second-half lead that Toronto immediately cut to 5 in just a minute and a half, snatching the lead away for good under 3 minutes later with what ended up being a 22-3 run. The season had nose-dived from the good vibes of just a week before and I had a lot of places to point fingers after that choke-job (let’s be honest here, it was): Giannis mightily struggling from the line starting in Game 3, Giannis barrelling into Toronto’s wall of defenders only to get stripped or picked off after passing it far too late, Nikola Mirotic going so cold he got benched, Eric Bledsoe doing anything on offense... these were the big ones with the players. Nearly all of them were guilty of ball-watching and rotating too slowly on defense, made painfully obvious by Toronto draining wide-open threes, with too many in the corners.

Just as much as the players’ shortcomings, though, I noticed Bud’s as well. A few voices began calling Bud a regular-season coach and the Bucks a regular-season team. Around this point, I heard chatter about how Atlanta fans found him too slow to adjust and too stuck in his ways. The zone-drop was his bread and butter down south but as had happened before, Bud was tardy in going to a switching defense and did not revert to it often enough I had just seen this in action as I saw the Bucks’ defense being carpet-bombed to oblivion by VanVleet, Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry, and Norman Powell. Meanwhile, the Bucks seemed perfectly content to leave those shooters wide open behind the arc for multiple games by doubling big men down low and/or overhelping on drivers. I could handle being beaten by Kawhi Leonard, but all those guys making nearly as big (or bigger) of an impact on the series was infuriating. How could Bud let those ancillary Raptors be the cause of their demise? As good as your regular-season defensive scheme was, how can you be so stubborn to stick with it when it’s being shredded at the season’s most critical juncture?

I already knew that even though their offense was the Association’s third-best in the regular season, it had (and still has) a lot of shortcomings in the halfcourt. While many rightfully pointed to the Bucks’ struggles making open shots as the main reason they lost, my concerns went deeper. I bristled at people dismissing opponent shooting performances as “outliers” or flatly stated that the defense wasn’t the, or even a problem at all in the Toronto series. I couldn’t hand-wave those defensive performances away and in my opinion, the only place to direct blame for this was to Bud.

This is all to say that my concerns about Bud started perhaps earlier than most Bucks’ fans, way before anyone made Twitter avatars or #FireBud was trending in Wisconsin. In just a little over a calendar year, I went from thinking that Bud was the franchise’s missing piece to a title to wondering if he was capable of leading a team to the NBA Finals. While it would have been foolish to can him after a season (I never gave firing any thought before 2020)—especially one in which they exceeded my expectations so thoroughly, even though it ended sourly—I believed I may have put my faith in the wrong person as a fan. I entered 2019–20 with a bit more unease than would be expected from your average fan of a team coming off such a successful season.

I’ll continue along that vein in Part II, but in the meantime, what do you remember were your impressions of Bud during that first season? Be honest: were you as optimistic as I was (or at least in the ballpark) or were you already calling for his head after the Toronto series?