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Tom Oates: Mike Budenholzer perfect coach at perfect time for Milwaukee Bucks

February 17, 2019

Timing is everything in sports and no one understands that better than first-year Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer.

“I feel like we joined the Milwaukee Bucks organization at the perfect time,” Budenholzer said Saturday at the NBA All-Star Game media day in Charlotte. “The facilities, brand new arena that’s just — it’s incredible. The fans there, the energy in our arena, it’s off the charts. New practice facility, a roster that’s in a great place, ownership, front office — everything is just really, really set up to have great success. I feel fortunate to be the coach there.”

Everyone connected with the Bucks should feel the same about Budenholzer, who was the right coach at the right time to help the team take a step similar to the one the Milwaukee Brewers made last summer. Forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is in a three-way race for the NBA’s MVP award and general manager Jon Horst will get more than a few votes for league executive of the year, but it is Budenholzer who is most responsible for elevating the Bucks from a low-level playoff team last season into one with the NBA’s best record (43-14) at the All-Star break.

On pure numbers alone, what the Bucks have accomplished is staggering. They are the first Eastern Conference team to have the NBA’s best record at the All-Star break since 2009-10. They are the first team in franchise history to be 29 games over .500 at All-Star break, breaking by one the mark set by the 1970-71 NBA championship team. Their 9.8 scoring differential in games is among the best in league history, including the 1970-71 Bucks. They are the only team in the league that hasn’t lost two games in a row.

But it is what those numbers suggest that is even more important, and that’s where Budenholzer’s sound philosophy and ability to get players to buy into it shows up the most.

The Bucks protect their home court, have winning road trips and avoid losing streaks, all signs of a team that plays consistently. They’ve won more games by double digits than any team in the NBA, showing they don’t play to the level of the competition. They are fourth in the NBA in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency, which points to a team that has accepted what Budenholzer is selling.

“Guys are doing a great job right now of buying into our program, our style, and competing,” said forward Khris Middleton, who will join Antetokounmpo in today’s All-Star Game.

That’s the biggest difference in the Bucks this season. Everyone gets along, everyone accepts his role, everyone plays unselfishly. An NBA locker room is a difficult place to gain a consensus opinion, but Budenholzer has succeeded in doing just that.

“I think we’re just trying to encourage everybody to play unselfishly, to move, move the ball, move each other, player movement, stuff like that,” he said. “And if you’re open, take advantage of it. And everybody play with a lot of confidence. So I think all up and down the roster, everybody kind of understands how we want to play. I think everybody’s reaping the benefits of it.”

After learning under San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and succeeding (at least until the roster was broken up) during a five-season stint in Atlanta, Budenholzer was the best coach on the market last summer. He was also the perfect coach for the Bucks, and not just because he radically changed the offense and defense. Truth is, those were changes any coach would have made.

Everyone knew the Bucks had to flood the lineup with outside shooters to space the floor so Antetokounmpo would have plenty of room to slash to the rim or deal in the low post. Everyone also knew that the trapping defense of former coach Jason Kidd, while good in theory, was awful in practice and a more workable approach was needed.

Horst acquisitions such as center Brook Lopez and guards George Hill and Pat Connaughton added to the outside shooting. Forward Nikola Mirotic, acquired at last week’s trade deadline, will further strengthen the perimeter shooting.

But Budenholzer’s preferred offensive style, which is heavy on player movement and 3-point shooting, dove-tailed perfectly with the talent on hand. The Bucks have spaced the floor so well that Antetokounmpo has become one of the NBA’s most dominant players, one who leads the league in dunks by a wide margin and averages 6.0 assists per game.

Defensively, Budenholzer’s simpler approach — protect the rim and run people off the 3-point line — has turned the Bucks into a defensive dynamo on most nights. Tellingly, the effort on defense and on the boards is much improved.

Budenholzer has shown a deft touch with players as well. At his urging, Antetokounmpo has become a powerful team leader. He also brought out the best in Middleton and guard Eric Bledsoe by tweaking the offense to fit their versatile offensive games.

The best coaches have a vision of how to play the game and the ability to get their players to understand and execute that system. Budenholzer has done that and now the No. 1 seed in the East is the Bucks to lose.

“We certainly felt like we could compete with anybody in the East, compete with anybody in the league,” Budenholzer said. “You have to have confidence. You have to have belief in yourself and your team. There’s a lot of that in our locker room.”

The coach is a big reason for that.