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Mike Budenholzer Takes The Fall For The Bucks’ Playoff Flameout

2:41 PM EDT on May 5, 2023

Head coach Mike Budenholzer of the Milwaukee Bucks looks on against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena on April 04, 2023 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

One week after the Milwaukee Bucks were bounced from the playoffs by the eighth-seeded Miami Heat, the team fired head coach Mike Budenholzer. In his five seasons in Milwaukee, Budenholzer led his team to a title in 2021 and won his second Coach of the Year award in 2019 for a 60-win season.

Whether you find the news shocking or expected depends on how much weight you put into Budenholzer's success versus his faults. NBA figures like Steve Kerr and Damian Lillard have expressed their disappointment with the decision, which is certainly a reactive one. From January to March the Bucks put together a 16-game win streak, the longest of the season, and made a number of stylistic tweaks to a defensive scheme that had been vulnerable to hot three-point shooting. Budenholzer juggled a long recovery timeline for Khris Middleton (who only played 33 games), the reintegration of Joe Ingles from a torn ACL, and a thin bench. The Bucks won 58 games and earned the top seed in the East. Milwaukee played tough, relentless basketball, built around the idiosyncracies of the best and oddest player in the world.

They also played their way all the time, with an uncommon stylistic rigidity. For better and for worse, Budenholzer's tenure in Milwaukee has been defined by an unwillingness to be reactive and make in-game adjustments to counter his opponents' schemes. He famously held his timeouts in reserve. There's a certain harmony to this strategic outlay: Your players know how things will be every game, and everyone knows what their job is no matter what the situation is. The Heat showed everyone the downside of this strategy. If the opposing coach is hitting you with weird Kevin Love lineups, surprising amounts of Duncan Robinson, and weird wrinkles like an inverted Bam Adebayo-Jimmy Butler pick-and-roll, maybe switch up the coverages. Budenholzer was thoroughly outcoached in the series, an ugly truth that he even underlined when he admitted he screwed up late and should have called a timeout at a crucial juncture. Combine this awful series with the Bucks' uninspiring half-court offense, and the case for firing Budenholzer is rational.

It's also worth taking into consideration what the Bucks and Budenholzer were going through. Giannis Antetokounmpo hurt his back 11 minutes into Game 1, missed two games, and was clearly limited in the final two games he did play. Any team will struggle without its best player in the playoffs, especially one like Antetokounmpo. Separate from that, Budenholzer experienced personal tragedy when one of his brothers was killed in a car crash before the start of Game 4. From a more humane perspective, an unfortunate injury and a horrific family emergency could have factored into an unexpectedly early playoff exit, and the case for retaining Budenholzer is equally rational. NBA owners don't tend to use that perspective much.

Ultimately, the Bucks' failures were his, even if they hoisted the trophy with him two seasons ago. Recent history suggests that the worst thing an NBA coach can do for their job security is win a title. Nick Nurse, who won a championship with the Raptors in 2019, was fired last month when his team's campaign ended; unlike Budenholzer's top-seeded Bucks, the Raptors were flailing all season. Frank Vogel won the 2020 title with the Lakers, and he was fired the day after the disastrous Season of Westbrook concluded. Spoelstra, Steve Kerr, and Gregg Popovich have shown that there is a real value in having continuity. Budenholzer might not have been a guy of that caliber, but the Bucks may soon find that it's harder to replace him than they think.

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