Is Mike Budenholzer the Coach of the Year?
If you would have told any Bucks fan before the season started that at the All-Star break their team would have 43 wins and own the NBA’s best record, they probably would’ve called you crazy. But months later, what may have seemed like a pipe dream has become a reality.
The Milwaukee Bucks have absolutely transformed from an average Eastern Conference team, to a serious NBA title contender. The personnel on the Bucks roster has certainly played a big role in this.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is an MVP front runner, Khris Middleton just made his first All-Star Game appearance, Eric Bledsoe is having a career year, and Malcolm Brogdon has come back strong from injury last season. Coupled with a highly underrated signing of Brook Lopez in the offseason, a sneaky good deal for George Hill in early December, and the emergence of young players like Sterling Brown and D.J. Wilson, the Bucks suddenly have one of the best rosters in the NBA.
While the growth and the additions have been nice, the Bucks biggest acquisition in this transformation from East seventh seed to NBA Finals contender has been their coach, Mike Budenholzer. Budenholzer was hired on May 16th after being let go from the Hawks last season.
It was clear right away he was a good fit for a young but talented roster that featured a superstar and a lot of skilled young players. The core had been put in place over the past couple years, but the Bucks needed someone to help this group take the next step, and general manager John Horst knew coach Bud was the right man for the job.
In a ‘what have you done for me lately’ league, many forget that Budenholzer led the Atlanta Hawks to 60 wins and a number one seed in the East just four seasons ago. That season, he won coach of the year for the first time in his career. Now, just a few years later, he has to be considered the front-runner for the award once again.
In Atlanta, Budenholzer had a lot of solid players from Al Horford to Kyle Korver to Jeff Teague just to name a few. He has found similar talent in Milwaukee, but he also now has a superstar in Giannis, which will admittedly increase any coach’s chances at the coach of the year award.
Nonetheless, Budenholzer has been able to transform Giannis and the Bucks into a truly elite team, and it starts with the offensive system he has in place. The pace of the team has been sped up significantly, as the Bucks rank fifth in the NBA, currently 15 spots better than they finished with last year.
“Let it fly” is what many associate with Budenholzer’s style. The Bucks are attempting 37 three pointers a game, nearly 13 more attempts than last season. Even though they are shooting a similar percentage from downtown as last season, the increased attempts in addition to the pace have led to higher scoring, as the Bucks average 116.9 points per game compared to the 106.5 they averaged last season.
While the offense will always get the headlines in today’s NBA, it really is the defensive system and mindset Budenholzer has brought with him to Milwaukee that has led to such an impressive win total. Last season under Jason Kidd’s staff, the Bucks ranked 19th in the league defensively. Not the worst, but they ran a scheme in which they gave up the corner three at will, and just could not get enough stops when it mattered.
This season under Budenholzer, the Bucks have had a complete makeover despite relatively similar personnel. They are the number one rated defensive team in the league, holding opponents to 43% shooting, opposed to the 47% they allowed last season. Opponents are also shooting the three about two percent lower against them this season, and the Bucks have stiffened in the paint, with two point makes down to 47% from 51% last year.
Coach Bud is all about defense, and if you don’t play it, he won’t play you, no matter who you are. Even All-Star Khris Middleton was shockingly benched in a game earlier this year against the Knicks for a lack of effort on that side of the ball.
Of course, any good defensive possession ends with a rebound, and securing the rock has maybe been the most overlooked change for the team this season. Last year, the Bucks ranked 28th in defensive rebounds, and 29th in offensive rebounds. Predictably, they were dead last in total rebounding in the league.
This season, the Bucks have gone from worst to first, as they lead the league in defensive and total rebounds. Obviously bringing in guys like Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova will help contribute to this, but it’s clear Budenholzer has put a major emphasis on what used to be one of the Bucks biggest flaws.
Budenholzer has done an amazing job with this team, but he faces some stiff competition in the coach of the year race, as many other guys have to be considered. Nick Nurse has done a terrific job in his first year in Toronto, and you have to give Nate McMillan credit for keeping the Pacers afloat even after Victor Oladipo’s injury. Guys like Kenny Atkinson and Dave Joerger certainly have to be mentioned with the surprising years the Nets and Kings are having. And of course you will always have your perennial candidates in Steve Kerr or Brad Stevens.
But Coach Bud has just brought something different and special to this team. Yes, they have one of the most talented players in the NBA, they have several key additions, they have a new arena, and a renewed sense of energy, but Budenholzer is the one who has just put it all together.
There is a buzz about the Bucks that the city of Milwaukee has not felt in at least 30 years, and the league is on notice. A used to be average team whose mantra was eighth seed or bust, has become a legit contender, and their often disappointed fans hope that a championship can be brought back to this city for the first time since 1971.
There are a lot of parts to it, but it’s the hiring of Coach Bud, and the complete turnaround he has brought to this program that stands out above anything. Unless something crazy happens down the stretch of the season, it would be a surprise to not see Budenholzer take home his second coach of the year award in the last five seasons.