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Abe Beame once saw Greg Popovich give a sommelier a history lesson on 1970s Eastern European rock and its influence in subverting Soviet principles.
The greatest coaching job that I’ve ever seen was done by Greg Popovich in the late aughts. Until that point, the San Antonio Spurs had found a niche as the league’s boring, old school villains. They had Bruce Bowen, one of the dirtiest assholes that has ever gently nudged his leg under a jump shot in an attempt to sprain an ankle; back to the basket bigs like David Robinson and Tim Duncan, and a philosophy that aimed to slow down the ball and grind their opponent to pulp.
But Popovich saw the times were changing. Mike D’Antoni’s Suns revolutionized NBA offense and shot selection, what constitutes a good shot and how many of them to take. With the MVP Steve Nash driving a supercharged offense, The Suns had been a dumb Stern suspension shy of knocking off San Antonio and perhaps upending the league a decade early. And rule changes were coming to allow freedom of movement and promote offense and scoring. The future favored 7 Seconds or Less.
And so Popovich completely remade how San Antonio played, and armed with an incredible team building job he performed along with his General Manager (and team president and CEO and whatever other title he holds these days), R.J. Buford, by 2014 the Spurs had nearly won back to back NBA championships, playing a completely new and beautiful brand of ball-movement focused basketball. The Spurs always made the right pass, always hit the open shot, and made a middling espresso sipping weirdo like Boris Diaw appear like the second coming of Pete Maravich.
What impressed me about Popovich’s facelift in San Antonio was it showed flexibility. In our lives as well as our jobs, change comes hard, increasingly so as we age. Phil Jackson, for instance, is an example of a brilliant basketball mind who couldn’t escape spreading the gospel of the triangle, regardless of its relevance to the modern NBA or the roster fit. Pat Riley still runs the Heat like a fat camp. But Popovich made the Belichickian move to coach to the players he had, to the times he found himself in, and he pulled off a wild revolution of culture that somehow was also the perfect embodiment of that original culture.
But Popovich didn’t act alone. On his deep bench of assistant coaches that have gone onto make the league in their image, was a kid who had worked his way up from video assistant. He assisted on the Spurs bench from 1996 through 2013, collecting four rings and left just shy of a fifth. His name is Mike Budenholzer.
Budenholzer is from Holbrook, Arizona, three hours outside of Phoenix, where it sounds like there’s little to do but design perfect plays out of timeouts and attempt to find the true value of Pi. His demeanor is generally calm and emotionless, which fits what you’d expect from a stereotypical analytics coach. With his Germanic pink hue and Math-lete demeanor, Budenholzer looks like an alcoholic who has never had a drink. He speaks fluent bumper sticker. Consider Budenholzer’s 95 Theses For Giannis, his Avatar: “I have visions of big shots at the end of games,” he says, “where he’s driven against a mismatch and gotten to the basket and forced help and made the right read and hit someone for a wide open three.” Like Jim Morrison on ayahuasca in the Mojave Desert. Truly inspirational stuff.
First there was his rise to glory in Atlanta. Budenholzer inherited a team with a few strong players, but no stars, and an assemblage of flawed role players. He quickly turned them into a unit of efficiency maximizing automatons, racking up regular season wins and regularly finishing amongst the top five in defense and offense. Atlanta made the playoffs every year but his last (in 2018). Here’s a highlight package of Budenholzer coaching during the Hawks’ miraculous, out of nowhere 60 win season in 2014-2015:
But every year, the cloak of competent excellence that made Atlanta teams look formidable during the regular season would fall away. Suddenly, they’d appear like the frail collection of talent they always seemed on paper. Most often, Budenholzer’s foil was LeBron, but also the last gasp of the Pacers as a true contender, and, uh, the Wizards. Playing the percentages suddenly skewed, even with up to a seven game sample size. Is there some kind of flaw in this system? Could it be its architect? As Billy Beane once said, “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs”.
But onto Milwaukee then. Uninterested in the rebuild in Atlanta, Budenholzer inherited a team with promise that had yet to capitalize on its league breaking potential. They were long and rangy, playing fierce, positionless, evolutionary basketball, teasing the NBA with what was to come. In Giannis and the bones of the team he inherited, Budenholzer finally had personnel commensurate to the mostly unrealized potential of the religion he’s evangelizing.
Since we’ll talk a lot about Budenholzer’s system, it would be helpful to identify what that system is/*was prior to last season’s stunning dismantling by the Heat, and this season’s subsequent revisions. It is built on two pillars of ideology. The Bucks play “passive” defense. They allow threes, but lock down the interior with the fearsome duo of Giannis and Brook Lopez, upgrading the cogs once occupied by Paul Millsap and Al Horford in Atlanta. They are two of the best backline help defenders in the league, and have effectively sealed off the opposing rim.
They never switched, dropping off their defenders and allowing them to shoot, but never to pass them. The strategy feeds the three-happy league’s instincts, baiting teams to take the easy out and fire away from deep, and those teams were more than happy to oblige as the Bucks’ defense rating continued to drop (a good thing). Budenholzer revealed the simple but fairly novel insight that the three is an efficient shot because it’s worth more, but the further you move from the basket, the lower your shooting percentage, and no defense has forced shot averages from further distances than the Bucks the last two years. This also prevents trips to the free throw line and offensive rebounds. They are essentially playing the Don’t Pass Line on D, playing the percentages and betting that the house will eventually win. And over the past few years, the house has won, a lot.
On offense, Budenholzer finally unlocked Giannis’ freak potential. He opened up the Bucks by pumping their three point shot selection, not just how many (much more), but where to shoot. They employed the traditional Moreyball strategy of 3s and shots at the rim, bringing the Bucks average 2 point shot distance 2.5 feet closer to the basket, while greatly limiting their midrange attempts.
Budenholzer famously employed “5 Out” sets, with the entire offense strategically spaced around the perimeter, rather than a once more common alignment like 2-3, or something that places what might’ve been a traditional rim destroying big man like Giannis or Brook Lopez at the basket, jockeying for position every possession in yesteryears. Instead, Brook makes a beeline for the corner when the Bucks are breaking.
With the Bucks and their defenders spread to the corners of the half court, (and trading out plodding old school paint cloggers like Greg Monroe for one of the best stretch 5s in the recent history of the relatively new skillset, Brook Lopez) Giannis is given the keys to an elite weaponized system with max room to operate, driving, kicking, and destroying at will. Here’s Giannis dismantling the Thunder defense in the midst of his MVP season:
Budenholzer also preaches pace, demanding the Bucks charge off the rebound, making the Greek unstoppable when he shifts gears, moving downhill. The results speak for themselves: Giannis’ usage went soaring, he’s a steadily improving playmaker, he’s won the last two MVPs with a DPOY to boot, and Mike Budenholzer has won Coach of the Year twice. If it ended today, Giannis’ limitless potential guided by Budenholzer’s dogma has already made for a historic combo. But despite another incredible season, Giannis won’t win a third. And this is where it gets tricky.
The seduction of the system coach is alluring. It’s the promise that through innovative strategy, discipline and rigor, a team can elevate itself above and beyond its talent. Budenholzer certainly has a system that gets results. He’s a kind of basketball card counter. (And this is why I desperately wanted him to fill the Knicks coaching vacancy that ended up going to David Fizdale the summer he wisely went to Milwaukee) But the question remains, can that system, and the unshakable belief in it, be enough to win an NBA championship?
When I was a kid, the Yankees had a coach named Buck Showalter. He was a great coach; he still is. But he’s something I like to think of as a starter coach, it’s a type of coach I’ve recognized time and time again across sports. He can bring a group of young players together, teach them fundamentals, teach them how to win, but for that team to make the leap to the next level, he has to go. Maybe his shtick wears thin with repetition, maybe it’s a symptom of the modern athlete, maybe he never found the right situation, maybe there’s just something about high stakes, high pressure situations that these coaches just aren’t good at managing. After doing the work of bringing together the pieces that would become the ’90s Yankees Dynasty, Showalter was replaced by Joe Torre, about as different in energy and temperament as they come.
One thing you notice about Budenholzer is he doesn’t pass the eye test as a modern head coach in the NBA. The division for most of this analytics era of basketball is the front office is staffed with the DePodesta types, while the Art Howes rove the sidelines. That is to say, NBA coaches are people who conceivably look somewhat athletic, or charismatic in some way, shape or form (with the exception of combed over life insurance salesman Tom Thibodeau). These coaches have a fluency, sometimes a super fluency in analytics and strategy, but they also look like they have a feel for the game, a handle on their players. But Budenholzer would look more at home with a t-square and a graphic calculator than a clipboard and a paternal arm on Khris Middleton’s shoulder. Here’s a telling clip of coach pacing the sidelines on a night when the Bucks weren’t executing against the Raptors:
The Atlanta Hawks recently fired Lloyd Pierce, a coach who certainly does pass the eye test and seemed like a nice enough guy, but had lost the trust of his players and that handle on the team. He was replaced by Nate Macmillan, about as sturdy an old ball coach as you’ll find, and the Hawks promptly went on a win streak that launched them into serious contention for a higher seed in the East. When you listen to Hawks fans talk about the difference, they say he’s not doing anything radically different with the Xs and Os, it’s little shit. How to deal with players. Slight tweaks to rotations. A timeout to staunch the bleeding at the exact right time. It’s small, ineffable touches at the margins that turned a middling team, however briefly, into a good one.
If you look at the recent history of the league, there are many Showalters and several Torres. From Doug Collins to Phil Jackson, from Del Harris to, uh, Phil Jackson, from Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr. The starter coaches have similar traits, fire, philosophy, they are teachers and builders. The coaches that win the rings are more serene, confident, hands off, also with belief and system, but more philosophical about them, more inclined to defer to the player. I have no clue if these qualities are indicative of the team’s eventual success, if the two “types” of coaches are symbiotic in building a winner (can one exist without the other?), but it’s a theory that poses a daunting question: What kind of coach is Mike Budenholzer?
The Bucks and Budenholzer have essentially solved the regular season, smashing historic records, racking up advanced stat superlatives, and lapping the league on a near nightly basis…….. until the playoffs start. Playoff series are different from regular season games. There’s up to seven of them. You have your opponents full attention, and for the most part this results in a coach cat and mouse game of adjusting and adjusting to that adjustment then adjusting to that adjustment’s adjustment. But Budenholzer has been notoriously unwilling, or unable to make really any adjustments at all.
He’s dogmatic to the point of stupidity. His belief in his system seems to be so spectrumy rigid, he’s entirely willing to go down with the ship year after year, hoping that maybe next year his perfect theorem will perform how it’s supposed to. When he has occasionally attempted to adjust on the fly, the tweaks appear to be the opposite of everything Budenholzer stands for, acts of arbitrary desperation, not anything rooted in observable logic or reason. His adjustments against the Heat last year failed miserably. They were bad ideas in the room before they got to the court, and as the split ocean liner’s two halves sunk into the ocean, Budenholzer responded with an audible “LA LA LA”, hunched over, eyes closed tightly, with his fingers plugging his ears.
Perhaps the Bucks are a victim of their own success. When the regular season is so easy, is it any wonder they struggle with adversity? Perhaps it’s simply a matter of repetition, and a more battle tested team will finally overcome their playoff struggles with a few more bites at the apple. But with expectations and pressures this great, will that ultimately matter for Budenholzer’s future in Milwaukee if it doesn’t happen very soon?
Hearing loud overtures from his critics, and possibly to save his job, this year has been different. Deciding they needed to level up, and the way to do so was trading depth for higher quality top end players, the Bucks traded much of their short term draft future and the corpse of Eric Bledsoe for Jrue Holiday, and what could’ve been a huge value add with Bogdan Bogdanovich, in a botched deal that may be the difference between another early round disappointment and a ring.
On court, the Bucks are actually switching on defense, and have introduced another layer of unpredictability into their offense, adding a Dunker Spot along the baseline. The twist is the dunker isn’t necessarily some super athletic big who’s planted by the rim because that’s all he can do, a la Deandre Jordan, but simply whoever is first downcourt. This creates chaos for defenses, suddenly forced to shift whoever (a player presumably smaller and less adept/effective at rim protection) is guarding, say, Jrue Holiday to make a rapid decisions related to help as the play quickly unfolds and the defense is down a man used to “building a wall” at the free throw line for Giannis. It’s frankly, like most Budenholzer innovations, a brilliant strategy. The question is, in the playoffs, when Eric Spoelstra finds something that shuts it down or frustrates this pivot in some way, will the Bucks and Budenholzer be able to respond in time, or will he scream in a locker room bathroom mirror washing his hands till they bleed?
The problem with any system is it can be learned, both by its proponents and by those who would dismantle it. Find yourself across the sideline from a Nurse, or a Spoelstra, or a Popovich, and you have to be dynamic. Maybe not necessarily to dismantle the core of the thing you made, but what to do when it’s essentially solved by the other team, like say, when Kawhi switches onto Giannis. You have to be able to introduce deviations, surprises, things to create instability and uncertainty in your opponent and take advantage to win a game, or a series, or a championship. To make changes in real time when things aren’t working.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. But you get the impression Mike Budenholzer would call that a belief in core values. If he’s right, the Bucks will answer every question this offseason and win the championship they deserve by every conceivable regular season advanced metric we have. If they don’t, Mike Budenholzer’s season will end, yet again, like this: