The Milwaukee Bucks were expected by many to take another leap forward in the 2017-18 season with Giannis Antetokounmpo's continual rise as one of the best young players in the NBA, a deep roster and a front office that has proven to be both smart and aggressive in improving the team. That leap did not happen.
Instead, the Bucks dragged their feet to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, exited in the first round of the playoffs and fired head coach Jason Kidd along the way. They finally found a long-term replacement for Kidd this week and the man they chose could be the key to getting them over the hump and into the top tier of the conference.
In comes Mike Budenholzer, formerly of the Atlanta Hawks. ESPN reported on Wednesday that he has reached an agreement to become the Bucks' next coach, replacing interim coach Joe Prunty.
Budenholzer and the Bucks appear to be a great fit. Milwaukee has become progressively worse on defense in each of the past three seasons despite having a roster that should lend itself to that end of the floor. Antetokounmpo is a turnover-inducing force and he is surrounded by capable defenders like Malcolm Brogdon, John Henson and Khris Middleton.
Budenholzer coached the Hawks for five seasons. During the first four, when they made the playoffs each year, his Hawks ranked no worse than 14th in the NBA in defensive rating and they were top-6 in three seasons from 2014-15 through 2016-17.
When Atlanta was at its best under Budenholzer, it was because of their defense. In 2014-15, when they won 60 games, they were fifth in points allowed and sixth in defensive rating. The next season, when they won 48 games, they were sixth and second in those categories.
Budenholzer had some talented teams in Atlanta, and got them to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015, but these Bucks may ultimately have a much higher ceiling with Antetokounmpo in the mix. Budenholzer coached several All-Stars in Atlanta, yet none were on the level of Antetokounmpo, an MVP candidate.
Antetokounmpo has a chance to be one of the very best players in the NBA and transcendent stars often make the difference in the playoffs. Budenholzer's Hawks teams were always limited by the fact they lacked superstars that could take over games offensively. Now he has one.
Milwaukee now has a chance to be major factors in the East, but their roster needs some work. Outside of Antetokounmpo, they have considerable talent but will probably need another star to contend for championships. What they have is only so impressives compared to the Sixers and Celtics, in particular. Philly has two budding superstars and Boston has more talent overall. They are best set up to control the conference in the long-term future.
The Bucks, like the Wizards and Heat and other teams, are hoping to join the ranks at the top of the Eastern Conference. By hiring Budenholzer, the Bucks have improved their chances.
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