Today marks the second anniversary since Mike Budenholzer became the 16th head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks and his impact since coming into the organization speaks for itself.
This isn’t the way Mike Budenholzer envisioned celebrating the second-year anniversary of being named head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks.
In an ideal world, one not ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, Budenholzer and his Bucks could have either been kicking off, or in the thick of a series in the Eastern Conference Finals as they aspired to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974. While optimism has surged about restarting the season, the Bucks and Budenholzer remain on the sidelines.
With all their chips in the middle of the table, so to speak, it’s an especially cruel position for the Bucks and Budenholzer to be in. Particularly as the outcome of this season, good or bad, would have shaped the long-term future of the franchise.
As all Bucks fans have come to grips with, whatever the future holds one way or another, one can’t forget where the Bucks stood before Budenholzer came to town in May of 2018.
Budenholzer’s arrival in Milwaukee brought a new dawn, one that instantly jumpstarted the Bucks into a long-awaited era that all Bucks fans had been dreaming of experiencing for a long time.
With just one 50-win season in over 30 years and an 18-year-long playoff series drought since 2001, the Bucks largely stood as an afterthought both nationally and even in their own market before the majority ownership of Wes Edens, Jamie Dinan and Marc Lasry entered the picture in April of 2014.
The perception of the Bucks slowly began to change from that point forward, and even more so with the ascension of superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, and building the core around him headlined by the likes of Khris Middleton and later, Eric Bledsoe.
But as the Bucks continued to flirt with being a team on the rise to never getting out of their ways of being a middle of the road team under the previous coaching regime, Budenholzer’s entry into the organization instantly catalyzed a franchise that desperately needed a winning pedigree.
Budenholzer’s success throughout his five seasons coaching the Atlanta Hawks cemented him as one of the brightest coaching minds in the NBA, and that came after having logged plenty of experience under legendary San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich for nearly two decades.
It goes without saying that all Bucks fans have been able to see that at work as the Bucks quickly rose to become the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, and all of the NBA, under Budenholzer’s reign.
Crafting a 60-win season last year and standing at 53-12 at the time of the season stoppage, Budenholzer and his staff have delivered two 50-win seasons in back-to-back years, one more than the Bucks had previously had in 32 seasons. As a result of that, Budenholzer currently boasts the best winning percentage of 16 head coaches in Bucks history and it’s not even close, even when factoring the length of respective stints and all of that.
With such glowing success, and the clear identity, principles, and overall system Budenholzer and his staff have created in Milwaukee, all Bucks players have greatly benefited from playing under the two-time NBA Coach of the Year.
It’s easy to point to Antetokounmpo as being the main beneficiary, given that he’s at the orbit of the team’s entire system and foundation. And having that Most Valuable Player award standing on his trophy mantle, with a second one potentially coming on the way this season, certainly reinforces that.
However, the 50-year-old and his staff have done an incredible job of unlocking great players such as Middleton and Bledsoe or Brook Lopez and Donte DiVincenzo, and so many more, to being even better versions of themselves to fit his overall vision. In so many ways, that vision and fit applies from the top of the organization on down as Budenholzer discussed from his introductory press conference in May of 2018:
“The fit here just really felt right. Whether it was with Jon in the interview and the day we had together with his staff, the time with ownership and visiting with them and getting a sense of how important winning is to them, and then sitting and visiting with Giannis and Khris at a breakfast. The longer the process went on, the greater the fit felt.
When you’re building a team — I’ve been a part of building a lot of great championship teams in San Antonio, a lot of success in Atlanta over the last few years — lots of times fit is almost more important than anything.”
Of course, the lone hurdle Budenholzer and the Bucks have yet to knock down is reaching the promised land and fulfilling their ambition of winning an NBA title. Milwaukee’s collapse in the Conference Finals last year increased the urgency within this window, but they looked primed and even more dangerous than they were last year.
Whether they can eventually make good on that pursuit is still currently out of their hands.
Ultimately, one man isn’t solely responsible for ushering in a turnaround like the Bucks have enjoyed under Budenholzer. It takes the work of great and talented players, smart personnel decisions, the kind of which general manager Jon Horst has executed throughout this time, and a little bit of luck for things to fall into place like things have for the Bucks.
It’s been Budenholzer, though, who has been able to put it all together and create a clear winning identity. And it’s why his name will forever be synonymous with this era of Bucks basketball.