Preparing for Giannis Antetokounmpo kept Mike Budenholzer up at night.
“It was miserable coaching against him and I’m so happy to be (saying), ’34’s on my team?'” Budenholzer said, referring to Antetokounmpo’s jersey number. “That’s like really cool.
“He’s a nightmare to coach against, to game-plan, to figure out how you can keep him away from the basket.”
No need to worry about that anymore. But Budenholzer’s experience with building strong defensive teams in Atlanta should come in handy for Milwaukee.
The 48-year-old Budenholzer went 213-197 in five seasons with the Hawks. Budenholzer was named the NBA coach of the year in 2015, when he led the Hawks to a franchise-record 60 wins and an appearance in the Eastern Conference finals. The Hawks held foes to 97.1 points per game and 36 percent shooting that season.
Atlanta went an Eastern Conference-worst 24-58 this season. But they were rarely blown out, losing 21 games by fewer than 10 points and only seven by 20 or more points.
Atlanta is rebuilding. Budenholzer now takes over a team moving into a new downtown arena that is in position to challenge for a top-four seed in the East next year — especially if it can play more consistent defense.
“I think with the individual talents we have in Milwaukee … I think one of the words I used in the interview process was, ‘How can we unlock this talent defensively?'” Budenholzer said. “I just think there’s so much to work with.”
Start with the 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo, whose length and athleticism make him a threat on both ends of the floor. Khris Middleton has grown into a good two-way player, while Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon provide toughness at point guard.
The Bucks are coming off a 44-win season and third playoff appearance in four years. They also allowed 106.8 points a game and had problems with rebounding and defending the 3-point line, and coach Jason Kidd was fired at midseason.
In Budenholzer, they got an experienced coach with a track record of developing players and a resume that traces back to a 17-year stint as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs. San Antonio won four NBA titles while Budenholzer was there.
“Finding the right person, the right fit for this team … to help this group take the next step was paramount,” general manager Jon Horst said. “Ultimately after going through the process, it was clear that Bud was the right guy to do that.”
Budenholzer said players would be able to understand his defensive principles quickly, which would help in “freeing them up to be great on that side of the court.”
The details are still being worked out. He’s barely been on the job for five days, and he’s hoping that most of his staff from Atlanta follows him to Milwaukee. Budenholzer hasn’t even met the whole team.
But he has had breakfast already with the Bucks’ two best players, Middleton and Antetokounmpo. Building a solid relationship with Antetokounmpo, especially, might be his one of his most important tasks for now.
“And those conversations, I look forward to having with Giannis and listening to Giannis too. He’s a smart player,” Budenholzer said. “I think together, he and I will probably push each other. But I look forward to pushing him. He believes it, I believe it. He’s going to get a lot better.”
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