MILWAUKEE — In less than a year since taking over as head coach, Mike Budenholzer has totally transformed the Bucks.
They went from being one of the worst defensive teams to the best in the NBA. They rebound at a high level, they don't foul and they punish opponents with a potent offensive attack built on points in the paint and letting three-pointers fly.
After years of up-and-down play, the Bucks were consistent on their way to recording the best record in the league. They lost two games in a row just onceand won the season series against every Eastern Conference foe. Budenholzer's schemes, love of efficiency in all aspects of life and individual development – known as "vitamins" – are hallmarks of his philosophy that have paid dividends since the day he arrived in Milwaukee last spring.
At this point, though, all of that is as obvious and well known as Budenholzer's facial contortions on the sidelines. Those are the reasons why Budenholzer was selected by his peers as the National Basketball Coaches Association Coach of the Year on Saturday.
“If you look at the standings, the job he’s done is just tremendous," Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, a former Budenholzer assistant, said earlier this month. "It’s not even a race."
But there's more to Budenholzer's impact than meets the eye.
It's not just X's and O's, Budenholzer's vitamins, or let-it-fly mantra that have revamped the Bucks ahead of schedule. He's changed the team's culture with encouragement, honesty and a healthy – if unexpected – reliance on surprise and fun.
“The culture this year has been amazing," Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said. "Coach Bud did a great job just putting a great culture together, bringing a great atmosphere, making everybody have fun.”
Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer talks to forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. (Photo: Brad Rempel, USA TODAY Sports)
Fun and Budenholzer don't always go in the same sentence. You wouldn't necessarily have made that connection when watching a mid-March game in New Orleans when the Bucks got off to a slow start and Budenholzer spent the first quarter red-faced and stalking the sidelines like he was coaching in the NBA Finals. A branch off the coaching tree of Gregg Popovich, Budenholzer doesn't commonly exude a vibe of fun and excitement in press conferences, either, instead offering the same steady, focused personality on a daily basis.
But behind closed doors, Budenholzer has kept things lively with his players on the court and in team gatherings. Antetokounmpo, searching for the right English phrase, went as far as calling Budenholzer a "party animal." Other players didn't go that far, but they agreed with the implication.
“He has a great energy about him and it’s absolutely contagious," center Brook Lopez said. "It trickles down. It brings the right feel to the team. …
“He just has a level of intensity about him. I think intensity’s the right word, but it’s not in-your-face, that kind of intensity. It can be fun at times and can give you the right feeling of wanting to go out there and do something. He has a great way of motivating people.”
A day before meeting Detroit in Game 1, Bucks center Brook Lopez downplayed the hype and pressure as the No. 1 seed
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
On a Friday in January – the day before a game against the Orlando Magic – the Bucks got on the bus in their practice gear for a scheduled session but didn't go to a gym. They instead rolled up to the University of Central Florida where Budenholzer had set up a flag football game for the team and staff.
On the eve of the Bucks' final game of the regular season, Budenholzer led the film session that usually precedes practice. When the players opened the film room doors, they found the gym had been set up for Wiffle ball. When he got up to bat, Budenholzer hammed it up, pointing to the balcony across the way and telling onlookers up there to be ready.
“I don’t think I ever played Wiffle ball or flag football in the middle of a season," Bucks all-star wing Khris Middleton said. "He just knows when to pull it back a little bit, he knows when to ramp it up to keep guys loose, keep guys entertained and keep them going.”
It hasn't been all fun and games with Budenholzer, though. He's also set up a culture where no one is immune from his ire.
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Antetokounmpo has been called out during games and at practices. Middleton was benched for the fourth quarter and overtime of an early December loss to the New York Knicks. Eric Bledsoe became the object of Budenholzer's anger during a February game in Chicago for lack of effort, something that came after Budenholzer dove on the floor in the locker room to show what kind of intensity he expected from his team.
Generally speaking, the players like how he does that, too. Budenholzer's style is to demand consistency from everyone, including himself. He doesn't tiptoe around tough subjects, either, choosing a straightforward approach to both praise and censure.
"You want a coach to get on you – not all the time – but he also lifts you up at the same time," Bledsoe said. “He don’t bash you to the media. He’ll say how he feels and what happened in the game, but he’ll take accountability himself. He comes into film sometimes saying, ‘It’s my fault, it’s not always you guys’ fault. As coaches, it’s our fault, too.’ ”
It helps, too, that Budenholzer set a foundation of encouragement early in training camp. He arrived in Milwaukee with ideas on how to elevate the Bucks from mediocre to great but didn't install it unilaterally.
He sought input from his players and wanted to get to know them. He empowered everyone to shoot, defined their roles clearly and gave them the tools to succeed in those roles. Throughout camp, players raved about Budenholzer's supportive nature as everyone adapted to the changes.
Then, when criticism inevitably came, there was a bedrock of respect that helped diffuse any potential issues.
“It started at the very beginning," Middleton said. "He wants to get to know you. I think that’s how you determine how to coach people in different situations. First, you have to get to know them, earn their respect then go from there.”
Budenholzer's influence on the Bucks will continue to play out as long as the Bucks remain in the postseason, even though most of the fun will give way to total focus.
The Bucks now know when to work and when to play. They know when to lock in and when to let loose. Most importantly, they know how to play as a unit while maximizing everyone's individual talents.
Sometimes, it takes a basketball team playing flag football and Wiffle ball to learn those things.
"I think something that’s very special about our group that hopefully maybe is an advantage for our group, the way they genuinely care about each other, the way they genuinely get along," Budenholzer said. "I certainly believe it; I think a lot of people believe that what happens off the court carries on the court vice versa. Anything we can do to foster that we believe in it.”
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