The team that flailed in the playoffs in 2019 is beautifully executing a similar redux. The Bucks have fallen apart in less than a week and it has nothing to do with the fanless bubble- despite its sterility- and it has nothing to do with social justice, voting, and boycott angst- though BLM does weigh on the mind. The Milwaukee Bucks are doing exactly what the Atlanta Hawks did five years earlier. As I said, it’s not a surprise.
The Hawks had the best record in the East in 2014-15. They won 60 games. When the postseason rolled around they beat the Brooklyn Nets and the Washington Wizards. Then they were annihilated in the ECF. They were swept. They barely put up a fight. They were roadkill. The difference, however, between that Hawks team and this Bucks group of underachievers is that the Hawks didn’t have a top-5 player. They didn’t have a superstar. The Hawks rolled out a lineup of Jeff Teague, and Al Horford and Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver. Good players but no one to fear, no one who defined his generation. So when LeBron James came into town with the NBA Finals on the line, he and Kyrie Irving slaughtered the Hawks. It was expected.
Milwaukee though was supposed to be different because of Giannis Antetokounmpo, a once in a generation player. Giannis will win the MVP and MVPs usually do special things in the playoffs. But he hasn’t been the same Giannis and that was before the ankle injury. His team has withered in the face of his mediocrity. Fear the Deer is getting beat the same way they were beaten last year in the playoffs. The Heat are playing a man’s game and the Hawks err Bucks are exposed for their lack of mental toughness and physical grit.
Both Milwaukee and Atlanta have one very similar thing in common besides their comeuppance in the playoffs. They have been coached by Mike Budenholzer.
Budenholzer is a nice guy. He’s a coach players love. He is a particular kind of human. But he can’t get talent to the next level because he refuses to adapt when what he is doing isn’t working. He has had three chances to get to the NBA Finals and twice Coach Bud has stumbled his way into failure. (Digression #1: You want to know why black coaches get annoyed. Because the Mike Budenholzers of the world get prime jobs and yet they can’t rise to the occasion while black coaches get crappy jobs and aren’t afforded the opportunity to coach a Giannis.)
Budenholzer has failed with above-average talent and he has failed with superior talent. The concept he instills is brilliant. He is of the Popovich tree and the Bucks do Spurs like things. They move the ball. They are selfless. They have a perimeter attack. They have a dominant forward. Iso play isn’t the Bucks thing. But problematically, they don’t have a player with an offensive repertoire that kills in the playoffs. They don’t have a bread and butter. There is no go-to move in the Khris Middleton arsenal. Budenholzer won’t adapt. He looks at the playoffs as more of the same. And Giannis has flaws. He still doesn’t have a bunch of moves and his free throws are inconsistent.
(Digression #2: Khris Middleton was awesome in Game 4 but was MIA in Games 1-3. It’s the bio. He’s not extraordinary in any one thing he does and he checks out mentally when under extreme duress.)
|Playoff Misery for Mike B.||PPG Differential from Reg. Season||FG% Differential from Reg. Season||Rebounding Differential from Reg Season||Assist Differential from Reg. Season|
|Atlanta Hawks 2015 ECF
|Milwaukee Bucks 2020 ECSF
In addition to paralysis (of the offense), Milwaukee has to deal with an even bigger issue. How unhappy is Giannis? Does he want to stay in Milwaukee or will he willingly walk into a better basketball situation in Miami with Jimmy Butler, or Toronto with Pascal Siakam.
Budenholzer has been here before, not just underperforming, but with a star player having an injury and perhaps making the decision to check out. In the playoffs of 2000, Mike Budenholzer was an assistant to Gregg Popovich. In their first-round series, Tim Duncan had an injury. Gregg Popovich didn’t play Duncan even as they were in desperate straits against the Suns. The Spurs were the defending champs but they lost the series to the Suns and in response Gregg Popovich, when asked why he didn’t play Tim Duncan when Duncan had been cleared to play, Popovich reminded folks he cared more about Tim Duncan the person than Tim Duncan the athlete.
(Digression#3: Duncan was set to leave the Spurs for Orlando in 2000 free agency. Orlando had amassed a super team with Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill. Tim Duncan was a foregone conclusion. But Doc Rivers, coming off a COY award, and feeling himself, told Duncan in the free-agent interview families didn’t travel with the team. Duncan returned to San Antonio)
Aware of how fragile the alliance is between star player and franchise, Budenholzer can nurture Giannis’ frustration, aware of the long game. The point is to keep Giannis in town, even if Budenholzer doesn’t have the chops to succeed in the playoffs. Winning is secondary to Giannis signing a free agent extension or a free agent deal with Milwaukee.
If Budenholzer can accomplish that he will have succeeded at giving Milwaukee both stability and a superstar, even if playoff success is a long way off.