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If Mike Budenholzer Doesn’t Make a Change, the Bucks May Do It for Him

Milwaukee’s coach has refused to adapt against Miami, stubbornly sticking to his schemes and falling into a two-game hole. It’s time to start coaching like his job is on the line—because it may be.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Raptors were in the same situation last postseason that the Bucks are in now. They were down 2-0 and needed to change the dynamic of the series. That’s when Nick Nurse moved Kawhi Leonard on to Giannis Antetokounmpo, shutting down the MVP in the Eastern Conference finals and winning the next four games in the process.

Mike Budenholzer needs to make a similar adjustment to dig his team out of a two-game hole against Miami in the second round. Don’t be fooled by the controversial ending of Game 2, which the Bucks lost 116-114. The Heat, despite being far worse in the regular season, have been the better team.

Budenholzer has been outrageously successful going back to his first head-coaching job in Atlanta, where he won 60 games in his second season and got four of his starters into the 2015 All-Star Game. The Bucks also benefited from the Budenholzer spike, going from 44 to 60 wins in his first season, and somehow getting even better in his second, with a 56-17 record and a net rating of plus-9.4.

There were concerns about Budenholzer’s coaching after the Hawks came up short against elite competition in the playoffs, but they could be waved away as the result of running into LeBron James. No longer. Budenholzer now has an MVP of his own in Giannis—and nothing has changed. Nurse outmaneuvered him last year, and Erik Spoelstra is doing it this postseason. It’s almost Shakespearean. The very things that powered his success in the regular season are now leading to his downfall in the playoffs.

Milwaukee is one of the most rigid teams in the NBA, sticking faithfully to the same principles, regardless of who it is facing. It counts on the superior execution that comes with endless repetition of the same attack, ignoring the benefits that come from deploying a more varied approach. That works incredibly well in the regular season when teams don’t have the luxury of game-planning specifically for one opponent, and many don’t have the personnel to compete with the Bucks even if they did. But things change against other elite teams in the playoffs.

Title contenders should be preparing for a run in the playoffs instead of maximizing regular-season efficiency. No one hangs banners for margins of victory in January. Establishing a culture with firm principles on both ends of the floor might have been a worthy goal for a coach in his first season with a young team. But the second year should have been about preparing the team for exactly these kinds of desperate moments in the playoffs. Budenholzer thought short-term when he should have been thinking long. Now the bill is coming due.

The shocking part of what has happened over the past week is just how easy things have looked for fifth-seeded Miami. Milwaukee isn’t applying any pressure or providing any new looks. The Heat players seem so comfortable with the Bucks’ schemes that they could probably switch jerseys and run them themselves.

It starts on offense. The Bucks are using Giannis as a battering ram against a team that has built a formidable wall to stop him. And they aren’t moving well enough off the ball to punish the defense for packing the paint. The Heat, like the Raptors last season, are a well-coached team with the discipline and collective intelligence to stop something they know is coming. The Bucks haven’t shown much of a Plan B. There’s just no offensive creativity when things break down. This sequence in the fourth quarter of Game 2 when Wesley Matthews is trapped on the baseline sums it up:

It’s not all Budenholzer’s fault. Giannis has improved his jumper, but it’s still not a weapon defenses respect in the playoffs. He has to get to the rim to score. He’s averaging 23.5 points on 53.3 percent shooting and 6.0 assists per game in the series, below the eye-popping numbers that will likely earn him a second straight MVP and that Milwaukee needs to overcome its shortage of perimeter playmakers.

There are no reliable options behind Khris Middleton. The Bucks go from a net rating of plus-5.5 in the series with him to minus-12 without him. There’s Eric Bledsoe, whose decision-making and shooting comes and goes, George Hill, more of a spot-up shooter at this stage of his career, and Donte DiVincenzo, who is disappearing at the worst possible time after a promising sophomore season. The decision to let Malcolm Brogdon walk in free agency rather than pay the luxury tax looks worse and worse as time goes on.

All of that makes it more important for Budenholzer to come up with something. He has to create more open looks for Giannis and Middleton, which is difficult against a Heat team with the personnel to switch every screen. The quickest fix is to use the duo in the pick-and-roll to hunt the weakest defenders in the Miami rotation. Even if the Heat can rotate over and cover for players like Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, and Kendrick Nunn, it would still create openings for the Bucks to move the ball and attack gaps.

What’s happening on defense for the Bucks is less excusable from a coaching perspective. Everyone in the NBA knows what Milwaukee wants to do. Bud drops his big men in the paint to protect the rim at all costs, even if it means conceding open 3-point shots. The formula worked to perfection in the regular season, when the Bucks had one of the best defenses of all time. But it has turned into Swiss cheese in this series, with Miami averaging 115.5 points on 46.1 percent shooting. The Bucks’ defense is designed to give up the exact shots the Heat want to take. Miami doesn’t have to do anything complex to create open 3s for Robinson, who is shooting 44.6 percent from 3 on 8.3 attempts per game this season. This is too easy:

Budenhozler has started to make some adjustments. Milwaukee is switching more of the screens involving Miami’s perimeter players. But there doesn’t seem to be much logic to when and where the Bucks do it, and to who. It’s like what happened in Game 5 against Toronto last season, when the Bucks began switching Brook Lopez on to Kawhi Leonard, an adjustment which predictably failed. Lopez cannot be left on an island against someone like Kawhi or Jimmy Butler. If the normal scheme that protects him on defense doesn’t work, then a different one has to be created. You can’t just pretend that he can do something that he can’t and expect that to work.

The reverse is true, as well. There’s no reason to play smaller personnel upfront if you aren’t going to use them to defend the pick-and-roll more aggressively. There was one possession in Game 1 when Marvin Williams was being used as a small-ball center, and he picked up a three-second violation because of how far back off a screen he was dropping against Goran Dragic. That’s a cargo cult adjustment—using different personnel in the same scheme that doesn’t work for them instead of taking advantage of their skill set to play a different one. It has the appearance of an adjustment without the substance of one.

There are logical inconsistencies everywhere on defense. Miami closed out the first two games with the same five players: Dragic, Herro, Butler, Jae Crowder, and Bam Adebayo. If the opposing coach wanted to hide his worst defender against that lineup, they would put him on Crowder. But Budenholzer has the Defensive Player of the Year on him! Giannis is an elite help-side defender in most situations, but the value of that skill goes away when his initial assignment is shooting as well as Crowder is in this series (36.8 percent from 3 on 9.5 attempts per game). Helping too far off a dangerous shooter is risky, if not downright foolish. There are a million different things that Giannis could be doing on defense at the end of games. His coach has somehow managed to give him the one assignment that turns him into a net negative.

Look at this possession in the fourth quarter of Game 2. Budenholzer has Bledsoe on Butler, even though Bledsoe is too small to provide enough resistance on his drives. And he has Giannis on Kelly Olynyk, a stretch big man. You can already guess what happens next. Butler beats Bledsoe off the dribble, Giannis comes over to help, and Olynyk gets an open 3:

To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, Budenholzer needs to stop asking what his players can do for his system—but ask what his system can do for his players. Using Giannis to defend the opposing team’s primary ball handler might not fit within the context of his preferred defensive scheme, but that’s missing the point: Giannis can guard every player in the league. Not even trying to use him against Butler, who scored 40 points on 13-of-20 shooting in Game 1, is like tying both hands behind your back and then being surprised that you can’t open a door.

Budenholzer is treating Giannis like a sacred cow. A coach doesn’t have to use his players in specific roles on defense. He can put them on anyone he wants on the opposing team. The positions are made up anyway. NBA players are professional athletes—they will be able to adjust if their role changes.

Kawhi guarded Trey Burke, Luka Doncic, and Kristaps Porzingis at various points in the Clippers’ first-round series against the Mavs. Doc Rivers moved him all over the floor and shuffled the other four defenders around him until he found the best possible matchups. That’s all coaching is at a certain point in the playoffs: admitting when you’re wrong and scrambling to figure something out.

Sometimes you can’t even do that much. Sometimes there’s no tactical adjustment that can save you. You just have to ride your best players as much as you can and hope to muscle your way into a solution.

That’s what Nurse is doing in his second-round series against Boston. He cut his rotation to the bone in games 2 and 3 with no goal beyond staying alive. The most shocking part about the way Budenholzer manages his team is his refusal to do the same. Look at the minutes distributions for their respective teams in the second round. One of these coaches is coaching for his life. The other is treating it like he’s on a back-to-back in mid-January:

Playoff Minutes Distribution

Milwaukee Minutes Per Game Toronto Minutes Per Game
Milwaukee Minutes Per Game Toronto Minutes Per Game
Giannis 36.1 VanVleet 40.7
Middleton 35.1 Lowry 40.5
Hill 31.1 Anunoby 39.1
Bledsoe 31 Siakam 38.2
Lopez 29.9 Ibaka 24.9
Matthews 27 Gasol 24.4
Williams 21.4 Powell 18.4
Connaughton 18.8 Davis 9.1
Korver 13.4 Boucher 6.3
DiVincenzo 10.9 Thomas 4.4

Kyle Lowry played 46 minutes in Toronto’s miraculous Game 3 win on Thursday. Giannis played 34 minutes in Game 4 against Toronto last season, 39 minutes in Game 5, and 40 minutes in Game 6. Those extra 8-10 minutes can be the difference between winning and losing a playoff series. Not only is that more playing time for your best players, it is less for your worst ones. The Bucks have a net rating of minus-30.0 in the 10 minutes that Kyle Korver and Pat Connaughton played together in games 1 and 2; the Bucks really shouldn’t be playing either at all.

Budenholzer doesn’t play his best players enough in the playoffs. Giannis, Middleton, and Brogdon had a net rating of plus-27.5 in 94 minutes together against the Raptors last season. If Nurse was their coach, all three would have played north of 40 minutes with their season on the line. That’s what he did with Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam on Thursday night. Budenholzer sees things differently. This is what he told Eric Nehm of The Athletic last season: “I don’t think playing Giannis 44 minutes is a solution. If we can’t win with Giannis at 40 or 40.5 [minutes], then Toronto deserves it.”

He’s acting like a strategy that opposing coaches use all the time is completely inconceivable and somehow unsavory. To be sure, it’s harder to play Giannis extended minutes when he’s struggling with foul trouble like he has been against Miami. But that doesn’t mean as much as his coach thinks. Budenholzer is allowed to be cynical. The NBA does not want to foul out Giannis in a pivotal playoff game. The refs won’t punish a coach for playing the future face of the league more. He can dare them to not give a superstar a favorable whistle.

Budenholzer is treating a playoff series like a gentleman’s duel in Victorian England when it’s more like a Hell in the Cell cagematch. He’s like the title character of Hamilton, who thinks he can point his gun in the air during a duel and convince his opponent to not shoot him.

Budenholzer gave an even more troubling quote to James Herbert of CBS Sports in March when asked about making adjustments in the playoffs: “We kind of do what we do, and hopefully it’s good enough.”

That’s not the mentality that a championship coach should have. Look at the 2018 playoffs, when Tyronn Lue led an undermanned team to the NBA Finals. LeBron’s versatility was the key to their success, but Lue had to find a different lineup around his superstar to close out each of their first three series, and played LeBron all 48 minutes in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Boston. The way that Cleveland played in the 2015 Finals, when it was ravaged by injuries and started Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov upfront, is completely different than how it played in 2016, when it went small and beat Golden State at its own game. The only principle the Cavs had in their second stint with LeBron was do whatever it takes to win. Everything else was negotiable.

Lue had an appropriate sense of urgency in 2018. LeBron ended up leaving in the offseason. There was no tomorrow for Cleveland. It’s time for Budenholzer to take the same approach in Milwaukee. The stakes could not be higher. The barbarians are at the gate. Every team in the NBA will chase Giannis if he becomes a free agent in the summer of 2021. There’s no guarantee that he stays, especially if the team doesn’t win a title.

The Bucks haven’t had a player as good as Giannis since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who left in 1975. They may never get a player as good as that again. Budenholzer will almost certainly never coach someone like that again.

Windows to win titles in the NBA are very small. Rivers won one in 2008 and lost in the Finals in 2010. He’s been waiting a decade to get back. Do you think if he falls behind in a series that he’s going to stick with the same schemes, play Kawhi the same amount of minutes, then throw up his hands if it doesn’t work and say: Oh well! I guess the other team deserved to win.

The scariest part for Milwaukee is that surviving against Miami is only the second step to winning a title. It will have to beat two more teams who are just as good as the Heat, if not better.

The Bucks need more from their coach going forward. He needs to proactively make adjustments headed into each series, and then quickly identify what is and isn’t working. They need Budenholzer to coach as if his job was on the line. It should be, given the stakes. If he’s not going to coach with the necessary level of urgency, the Bucks need to find someone who will.