Mike Budenholzer is an odd spot. The Atlanta Hawks have the worst record in the Eastern Conference as of this writing, the team has committed to a long-term rebuild, the Hawks’ coach doesn’t have the front-office power he once had, and a new Sports Illustrated NBA mock draft had Michigan State star Jaren Jackson Jr. going to the Hawks at the No. 3 spot. Jackson would be fine in Atlanta, he would probably mesh well next to John Collins, and the Hawks will still be in prime position to be the worst team in the Eastern Conference again next season. Should any of this sound appetizing to a coach who won sixty games just a few seasons ago and waited almost twenty years to get a head-coaching gig in the NBA?
So it should come as no surprise that Budenholzer -- along with Doc Rivers, who, according to my very brief Google search, is already being linked to every potential head-coaching vacancy in the League -- is reportedly interested in the Bucks' job. For one, they still have Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Hawks do not. They also have Eric Bledsoe, Tony Snell, Jabari Parker, Thon Maker, Khris Middleton, John Henson, Malcolm Brogdon, and even Jason Terry because he’s apparently decided to play professional basketball for the rest of his life. The Hawks have made more G-League call-ups and assignments this season alone than every other NBA team has made ever. Seriously. Just ask Josh Magette, who hasn’t been able to look away from his phone for even a millisecond this season.
But then you think about Brett Brown in Philadelphia. He, too, left the comfortable situation in San Antonio and trusted a different process. Unlike Brown, though, Budenholzer won quickly and won a lot. Budenholzer didn’t have to be patient. Now? He’s where Brown was a few years ago, coaching a team with interesting pieces, a revolving door of G-League prospects, and hoping the process in Atlanta isn’t as painful as it had to have been for Brown in Philadelphia.
Brown has never had the same kind of power that Budenholzer previously had in Atlanta, but he did lose the man who hired him in Sam Hinkie. Now, the Colangelo family runs things, and you could have easily seen a scenario where the Sixers parted ways with Brown before now. Everybody would rather have their own guy. These situations are routinely awkward and seem to rarely work, but the Sixers are the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference right now. They’ve won fourteen-straight games. They’re the hottest team in the East and it’s somehow not absurd to think that with a healthy Joel Embiid this team could reach the Finals.
Budenholzer has been there before, his entire starting five was voted NBA Player of the Month at one point, he won Coach of the Year, and he was the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Nobody saw that 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks team winning sixty games before the season began, and nobody saw the Sixers putting it all together this fast in 2017-18. The year prior to that sixty-win team, Budenholzer’s club won just 38 games. The year prior to this fifty-win Sixer team, Brown’s club won 28 games.
This is what makes sports fun.
This is also what makes Budenholzer’s future so interesting. He’s already proven he’s a great head coach, so teams like Milwaukee should be blowing up his phone, and the Bucks have to nail this next hire. Antetokounmpo is 23 now, Parker is a restricted free agent this summer, and did I mention that just last summer there were already reports of “the clock is ticking” on building a winner around the Greek Freak? No pressure. The Bucks can’t bank on another unknown like Jason Kidd -- everybody knows Budenholzer is a good NBA head coach.
Perhaps what makes the Budenholzer-to-Milwaukee rumors so intriguing is the team’s wing depth -- Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Brogdon, Snell, Parker -- and his experience getting the most out of guys like that. Taurean Prince is casually dropping 33/8/5 lines down the stretch this season, Kent Bazemore has developed into an above-average wing under Coach Bud, DeMarre Carroll got paid, and then, of course, the Kawhi Leonard days in San Antonio. The Bucks may not have enough on the roster to ever get them to the Finals, but Budenholzer would get them the closest.
But what if the NBA Gods are big Travis Schlenk fans and Luka Doncic or DeAndre Ayton falls into the Hawks’ laps in the top-3 of the draft? Is that enough to calm Budenholzer’s nerves about the future of the club? If they land Ayton or Doncic, how could he leave? If they land Jackson Jr. or Colin Sexton, how could he stay? Right now, there is no Embiid or Ben Simmons or Markelle Fultz on this roster to get Budenholzer amped for the future. But this summer, there could be. But there’s also already one of those in Milwaukee and he seems destined to win at least one MVP trophy in his career.
In Milwaukee, Budenholzer would win a lot, he’d maximize the Bledsoe-Snell-Middleton-Giannis-Maker core, he’d finish in the top-4 in the East as long as Giannis is on the team, and they’d be right there with Toronto, Boston, Washington, Indiana and Cleveland for the foreseeable future.
In Atlanta, he’ll continue to lose a lot, he’d develop Collins, Prince and friends into reliable, valuable NBA players, and he might even stumble into the Hawks’ first franchise player since I was in diapers.
Easy choice, right?