Can Mike Budenholzer Exploit the Bucks’ Defensive Potential?
How does one game-plan against a 6-foot-11, 23-year old Greek Freak? This is a question new Milwaukee Bucks head coach, Mike Budenholzer, struggled to answer when he faced Giannis Antetokounmpo in years prior. “He’s a nightmare to coach against, to game-plan, to figure out how you can keep him away from the basket,” Budenholzer said about Antetokounmpo in his introductory press conference earlier this summer. Now, with Giannis on his side, Budenholzer feels relieved. “It was miserable coaching against [Antetokounmpo] and I’m so happy to be (saying), ‘34’s on my team?’ That’s like really cool.” The young superstar in the making has shown flashes of defensive greatness with several DPOY-worthy performances as he gets better and better each season. But can a defensive-minded coach like Budenholzer help Antetokounmpo – and the whole Milwaukee Bucks roster – take the next step on defense?
Mike Budenholzer is an experienced individual. He was an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs for 17 seasons (1996-2013) learning from one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, Gregg Popovich. He also coached the Atlanta Hawks for the past five seasons, making the playoffs in all but the 2017-18 campaign. This was the season the Hawks started a rebuild after losing all of the core players from their 2014-15, 60-win team. But during the four seasons that his Hawks made the playoffs, they showed steady improvements and were consistently atop the NBA in Team Defensive Rating rankings. The 2014 Hawks, the first Budenholzer-led team in Atlanta, had a modest 106.4 defensive rating, good for 14th in the league, according to Basketball Reference. Their rating elevated to 103.1 in 2015 and 101.4 by 2016, the 2nd best mark in the NBA that season. After Al Horford left the team that summer, the Hawks were still solid on defense. They posted a 105.7 defensive rating which ranked as the 4th best in the league.
Of course, the Hawks were below average on defense this past season as the team was mostly filled with young, inexperienced players. Still, they were the no. 21 ranked defense in the league which is pretty impressive considering the quality of talent the team had. It is safe to say that Coach Bud is a great commodity to have on your bench if you want good team defense.
Budenholzer was clearly not in for a rebuild in Atlanta and now gets one of the most promising rosters in the league. And the biggest difference from this Bucks team he inherits, compared to his past five Atlanta teams, is that he has more capable two-way players to work with, to some extent. Not to discredit the talent both Al Horford and Paul Millsap showcased during their Hawks tenures, but as good as they were on the defensive side, they were also offensively limited compared to the immense ceilings that Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Malcolm Brogdon have. All of these guys have shown what they can bring to the Bucks’ table on offense but have yet to prove they can be a consistent, cohesive defensive unit.
But, this is exactly why the Bucks brought Budenholzer on board. Milwaukee has a lot of individuals with great defensive capabilities that have not been able to put things together as a team on that side of the ball. Budenholzer acknowledged it saying, “I think with the individual talents we have in Milwaukee ... I think one of the words I used in the interview process was, ‘How can we unlock this talent defensively?’ I just think there’s so much to work with.”
Look at what he did in his Atlanta days. He turned mediocre and average individual defenders into solid, smart team defenders. Led by two interior anchors capable of switching and taking on smaller matchups in the perimeter, the likes of Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague could still have an impact on defense even when they were not (and are still not) good individual defenders. Those two anchors in Atlanta were Millsap and Horford. Their teammates knew what to do and weren’t defensive liabilities thanks to the Budenholzer’s system and the commitment from his defensive anchors. Giannis can for sure be one of those anchors for Coach Bud in Milwaukee; and while John Henson struggles a bit on the perimeter, he has proven to be a capable rim protector and inside presence aided by Antetokounmpo prowling around the paint.
It is almost impressive to see how bad the Bucks were as a team on defense in certain games. The team was clearly doing something wrong because things were not working out despite their immense potential. This is the reason why after a disastrous month of December in which, according to NBA Stats, Milwaukee allowed 109.4 points per 100 possessions, the front office had seen enough and decided to fire Jason Kidd. Who knows if this was the main reason for his dismissal? Kidd was already in the hot seat by that time, and the team clearly needed a change. They decided to give Joe Prunty a shot as the interim head coach until the end of the season. By then, Budenholzer had parted ways with Atlanta and quickly became a target for the Bucks’ front office.
Besides adding Brook Lopez (one year, $3.38M deal) and Ersan Ilyasova (three year, $21M deal) via free agency and drafting Donte DiVicenzo with the 17th pick, the roster is pretty much the same as it was last season. The most interesting question to be answered by opening night is: who will Budenholzer choose as the starter at the center position for the upcoming season, especially considering how good John Henson was for the Bucks last year? Lopez appears to have a clear edge on Henson thanks to his more varied offensive skill-set, but look at the following 2017-18 season comparison of both players’ stats, courtesy of Basketball Reference:
Also, Henson was part of Milwaukee’s best defensive lineup from this past season. The five-man unit of Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Henson had a 102 defensive rating (with a plus-11.4 net rating) over 23 games and 224 minutes of action. That lineup featured the three best defenders the Bucks had last year, which also happen to be their plus-minus leaders: Bledsoe (plus-2.7), Henson (plus-2.2), and Giannis (plus-2.0). So, Coach Bud certainly has a hard decision to make on whether or not to keep Henson in the starting lineup.
At the end of the day, Budenholzer is an improvement over Kidd and Prunty. And while there is a chance that the results of this coaching change may not be felt by the end of next season, one can only be optimistic about the future in Milwaukee. “Finding the right person, the right fit for this team ... to help this group take the next step was paramount,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst said. “Ultimately after going through the process, it was clear that Bud was the right guy to do that.”