Mike Budenholzer’s Complicated Legacy with the Hawks

(And how staying in Atlanta could set the record straight)

Recently, reports surfaced that Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer had interest in vacant coaching positions in Milwaukee and Phoenix. It’s understandable why he would want to go coach either one of these teams; both have what look to be future superstars (Giannis Antetokounmpo for Milwaukee and Devin Booker for Phoenix) and intriguing young role players. Under Budenholzer’s leadership, either one of these teams could make major strides in the coming years. If anyone knows how to maximize talent, it’s Coach Bud.

However, in order to cement his legacy and ensure that he is looked back upon fondly in Atlanta when all is said and done, Budenholzer needs to stay with the Hawks. Let’s take a closer look at just how both the coach and his team got here, and why his staying here is so vital not just for the franchise, but for himself.

It all began in San Antonio…

…As many NBA success stories do. Budenholzer spent 18 long seasons with the Spurs, working his way up from being a video coordinator to becoming one of Gregg Popovich’s most trusted assistants. Like many Popovich disciples, Budenholzer was coveted by several NBA teams after his decision to leave San Antonio at the conclusion of the 2013 season. He ultimately chose Atlanta as his destination.

Budenholzer’s first season with the Hawks, the 2013-14 season, was full of ups and downs, with the Hawks struggling to stay around .500 for the entirety of the year and finally clinching a playoff spot in the final days of the regular season. However, it was in Atlanta’s first round 1 vs 8 matchup against the Indiana Pacers that Budenholzer would truly show his elite coaching ability.

The Pacers had more talent than the Hawks at almost every position, but Budenholzer implemented an ingenious scheme that minimized Indiana’s talent and maximized Atlanta’s. He chose to use Pero Antic (remember him?) and Paul Millsap as pick-and-pop tools that would force Indiana to move their rather immobile big men (David West and Roy Hibbert) out of the paint. This opened up driving lanes for Jeff Teague and also gave Kyle Korver wide open looks from the outside. Atlanta surprised the NBA world and gave the top-seeded Pacers everything they could handle before bowing out in 7 games. It was clear, however, that Budenholzer was here to stay.

As any Hawks fan can attest, the 2014-15 season simply felt magical. Budenholzer utilized a scheme centered around ball-movement and moving without the ball in order to lead a team that lacked a traditional “superstar” to a franchise record of 60 wins. Simply put, the Hawks’ offense was poetry in motion, and they garnered national praise because of it. The incredible season earned Budenholzer the Coach of the Year award.

It was in the playoffs that Atlanta’s problems began to be exposed. Yes, injuries did play a major role. However, the excuse didn’t really apply that year because Atlanta’s second round opponent, the Washington Wizards, played half the series without their best player, John Wall. After squeaking by Washington, Atlanta faced Cleveland, who was playing without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving for the majority of the series. However, Cleveland had a certain player named LeBron James, who proved Atlanta’s flaw: they had no true star; no one that could take over late in a playoff game when the offense broke down. Needless to say, Cleveland won the series in four games. Still, the season was a success and no one could doubt Budenholzer’s ability as a coach.

Following the 2015 season, Budenholzer was promoted to president of basketball operations after the controversial exit of one Danny Ferry. This is where Budenholzer’s legacy gets complicated.

The Post-2015 era…

…Has been a failure. And although Budenholzer was part of the reason that Atlanta reached the heights it did in 2015, he is also a major reason why it is now competing for the top pick in the NBA Draft Lottery.

Budenholzer’s partnership with GM Wes Wilcox made for one of the more unfortunate front office teams in recent memory. Immediately following the 2015 season, Atlanta traded its first round pick in exchange for New York Knicks guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. The rationale was that players like Hardaway could help provide more scoring and playmaking in the playoffs when the offense wasn’t clicking. It’s hard to say now whether this move was a good one or not. Hardaway had a rather underwhelming first year in Atlanta but picked it up in his second year, eventually becoming one of the leading scorers on the team. However, following a disappointing playoff series, the New York Knicks once again acquired Hardaway via a ridiculous 4 year, $71 million offer sheet. Obviously, Atlanta chose not to match it and the Hawks now have nothing to show for the 2015 draft pick they gave up.

In free agency of 2015, the Hawks let Demarre Carrol walk but managed to resign Paul Millsap. Carrol had an injury-riddled year in Toronto, but his departure forced Kent Bazemore to become a starter, when he is really cut out to be more of a 6th man option. Although Bazemore only averaged a point less than Carroll had in a starting roll, he still didn’t provide the same defensive prowess that Carroll had.

All in all, you could make the argument that the 2015 offseason was not terrible for a first-year GM. After all, Atlanta did retain its best player, Paul Millsap, and no one at the time being could have predicted that Hardaway would receive that kind of a contract offer in the years to come.

The 2015-16 season is where real problems started to occur. It was evident after the first month of the season that something was different about this Hawks squad. They couldn’t seem to recapture the magic they had the year before. At the trade deadline, Atlanta had stumbled to an underwhelming record of 31-24 and it was clear that there were far better teams (Toronto, Cleveland, etc.) than them in the eastern conference. At that point, it would have been smart to trade Al Horford. Atlanta was likely not going to compete in a series against Cleveland either way in the playoffs and Horford was a soon-to-be free agent. It also may have been smart to trade Jeff Teague given the growing competition between he and Dennis Schroder in terms of playing time and winning the starting job. However, Budenholzer elected to keep his core intact and Atlanta was swept by Cleveland for the second straight year-this time in the second round.

The 2016 offseason went about as bad as it possibly could have gone. In a controversial move, Budenholzer and Wilcox agreed to terms with Dwight Howard. This move was clearly influenced by the way that Cleveland battered Atlanta on the boards in their playoff series. Also in that offseason, Budenholzer and Wilcox chose to resign Kent Bazemore to a four year, $70 million contract. While Bazemore had played fairly well as a starter in the previous season, he was not worth anywhere near that kind of money, and Atlanta would have been much better off letting him walk. In fairness, Atlanta did trade Jeff Teague in exchange for the pick that turned out to be rising star Taurean Prince. However, there can be no denying that the 2016 offseason was a failure on the part of Budenholzer and Wilcox.

The following season was depressing, in a word. Atlanta’s offense consisted primarily of lazy Dwight Howard post-ups and stand-and-watch basketball. Sharpshooter Kyle Korver was traded midway through the season to the Cavaliers. Budenholzer did the best with what he had, but there was not much he could do with the position he had put the team in from his job as a GM. It was truly astonishing to see how much the Hawks had fallen in just two years. Atlanta won just enough to secure a playoff spot and lost in 6 games to the Washington Wizards.

Now What?

Mercifully, Budenholzer and Wilcox were relieved of their duties just weeks after the series loss against the Wizards. Budenholzer remained coach. Now, Atlanta seems to have a more competent GM in place in Travis Schlenk. Schlenk wisely elected to blow up the roster last season and now the Hawks sit at the bottom of the NBA spectrum, currently hoping that some ping pong balls emerge in their favor for the NBA Draft Lottery.

Now, Budenholzer is reconsidering his future with Atlanta. As previously mentioned, it is understandable why he would want to go to Phoenix or Milwaukee; both appear to be on a more positive trajectory than the Hawks.

However, if Budenholzer wants to ensure that he is positively remembered by the city of Atlanta at the end of his coaching career, he should stay. Yes, he was responsible for the greatness of the 2015 60-win Hawks. However, he is also major a reason why the Hawks are in their current predicament, due to his shortcomings as a General Manager. If Mike Budenholzer stays in Atlanta throughout the rebuilding process and leads these young Hawks back to the playoffs in the coming years, his coaching tenure here would come full-circle. He would be forgiven for his mistakes as a GM and would no doubt be remembered positively when all is said and done.

However, if he decides to leave now and join a squad in a better situation than Atlanta, many fans would understandably see him as a coward; a captain bailing on the ship.

Look, I get it. The NBA is a business and Budenholzer will make the decision that is right for himself and his career. The morally right thing is not always an object in these kinds of decisions. However, Budenholzer has a chance to set the record straight and go down as one of the more positive figures in Atlanta sports history if he chooses to stay.

Your move, Coach Bud.


Jackson Stone


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