It isn’t often that a team in a small market such as Milwaukee has the best available coaching job in an NBA offseason.
But it also isn’t often that a team in any market has a talent like Giannis Antetokounmpo.
That’s what makes the coaching search that lies ahead for the Milwaukee Bucks after Saturday’s Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics so crucial for the future of the franchise. Quite simply, this is a decision the Bucks have to get right — or risk losing Antetokounmpo.
This is the nature of today’s NBA, where contracts are shorter and players control their destinies. Antetokounmpo is one of the five or six best players in the world and he doesn’t turn 24 until December. His potential still feels limitless.
But he is already on his second NBA contract. And, with three years remaining before he becomes an unrestricted free agent, the clock is ticking for the Bucks to prove they can contend with him before he has the option to look for that opportunity elsewhere.
Over the next 18 months, the Bucks will have pivotal decisions to make when it comes to what they pay Jabari Parker (or if they should at all), and how they spend what should be a bunch of cap space next summer. But who the Bucks hire as their new head coach not only will inform those decisions, but it will also give them the chance to develop and utilize their roster.
So who should the Bucks hire after firing Jason Kidd midseason then having interim coach Joe Prunty play out the rest of the season? Among the options with head coaching experience: Jeff Van Gundy, David Fizdale, Monty Williams and Terry Stotts, if his tenure with the Portland Trail Blazers comes to an end, as many around the sport suspect it might. There are also plenty of intriguing assistant coaches to choose from, including Utah’s Igor Kokoskov, San Antonio’s Ettore Messina, James Borrego and Ime Udoka, Toronto’s Nick Nurse and Rex Kalamian and Philadelphia’s Lloyd Pierce.
The best choice for this job is also the most obvious: Mike Budenholzer.
Even before officially leaving Atlanta, Budenholzer held meetings with the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks — two other teams in the middle of rebuilding cycles — so it is clear he’s interested in coaching. And if he wants to be in the league next year, it’s hard to see a better scenario than the one he would inherit in Milwaukee.
And, frankly, his acumen is exactly what the Bucks need. The thing that proved to be a hallmark of Budenholzer’s time with the Hawks was his ability to develop and improve talent. That was the case year after year, as “Hawks University” refined one player after another and took their games to a new level.
Milwaukee has plenty of raw talent. Thon Maker showed in the playoffs for a second straight year what he is capable of in short bursts; if he can become a consistent threat, suddenly Milwaukee has a new weapon. Sterling Brown had a strong rookie year as a second-round pick, and could become the latest wing player to grow under Budenholzer following DeMarre Carroll, Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince.
Then there is Antetokounmpo himself, who still has strides to make — specifically in creating offense late in games. Some of that will come with further improvements to his jump shot, but he also needs to be in a system that can take advantage of his gifts.
Of the coaches available, Budenholzer seems uniquely qualified to create it. His Atlanta teams were successful at both ends of the court, including the 60-win team he led in 2015 — and none of those teams had anyone even remotely close to Antetokounmpo in talent.
More generally, there just also needs to be a recognition of the way the Bucks need to play. For example, Milwaukee spent too much of the time failing to push the pace, something that seemed exceedingly obvious with a team featuring so much athletic talent. The difference in Milwaukee’s fast-break points in a win in Game 6 (25) compared with the Bucks’ loss in Game 7 (zero) underscores that.
But, more than anything, the Bucks need someone to come in and instill a coherent vision for how they want to play in the post-Kidd era. The next three years will be the most crucial for this franchise since the end of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s tenure in Milwaukee more than 40 years ago. Succeed in convincing Antetokounmpo that Milwaukee is a place he can win championships, and perhaps the Bucks will add to the title they won with Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson in 1971. Fail, and it might take another 40 years to get another player of his talent level to join the franchise.
Those are the stakes at play here, which is why the Bucks simply have to get this coaching hire right. Luckily for them, though, they have the most appealing job on the market. That should allow them to snag the best coach available.
Mike Budenholzer is that coach. Milwaukee would be wise to find a way to get a deal done.