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Profiles in Coaching: Grading Mike Budenholzer

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

The fates of NBA head coaches are hopelessly intertwined with the abilities and personalities of their players. For that reason they usually only get attention for performance on the extreme ends of the spectrum – utter disaster and chest-beating success. But that perspective ignores a creatively rich middle class of coaches grinding away in relative anonymity. Here at Hickory-High we fancy ourselves as the bane of relative anonymity and so for the next few days we’ll be looking at these leaders, both lauded and ignored, for our Profiles in Coaching series.

(Statistics as of December 16, 2013)

If there’s one thing that irritates me more than anything else in the world of NBA coaches, it’s coaches without a distinct style or plan. It seems like a basic gripe, but it’s an aspect of an NBA coach that, to me, separates the great ones from the Jason Kidd’s, just kidding, but seriously.

Take, for example, Tom Thibodeau and Don Nelson. Any diligent NBA observer would be able to tell you how each coaches team will play and what those two coaches style looks like. The names are synonymous with their style.

Thibodeau, toiled in the assistant coaching ranks for years and finally got his chance to fully apply his principles to the Chicago Bulls. What happened was a revolution of sorts as the Bulls went from a mere playoff team to an elite, number one seed, Eastern Conference Finals-bound team.

They got there because of Thib’s defensive schemes, the way he taught defense and the way his players bought into his defense. There was no “rah-rah” “Thibs got to know us as humans” narrative, no, Thibs went in, constructed a scheme and made players stick to his plan, his concept and his coaching style. When we hear the Phoenix Suns yelling “ICE” from the sideline, we think Thibs. When we see a team forcing the ballhandler away from the pick and towards the baseline, we think of Thibs. It’s not a fun system, but it’s a system.

Nelson’s “Nellieball” is so clearly defined, it’s become a punchline. Some laugh at the style, say it doesn’t work in this situation or in the playoffs or whatever, but I don’t believe it is something to be ashamed of, it’s something to take a measure of pride in. Sure, “Nellieball” had it’s issues and it sometimes didn’t fit its roster’s structure, but dammit at least Nelson had a plan and stuck with it. We’re still waiting for Anthony Randolph to excel in the system, but, hey, it’s a system.

That brings me to the subject of this piece, Atlanta Hawks Head Coach, Mike Budenholzer. I made mention of Thibodeau earlier in the piece for a distinct reason. Budenholzer and Thibodeau had similar paths to the big seat on the NBA bench.

Budenholzer, like Thibs, spent years on an NBA bench, only to finally get the chance to spread his wings this summer as the newly-hired coach of the Atlanta Hawks. In taking the job with the Hawks, Budenholzer was replacing Larry Drew, a coach who took Atlanta to the playoffs in his three years at the helm but was only able to get them past the first-round once (2010-11).

Drew is one of those coaches I mentioned in the opening paragraph that seem like fine motivators of men but really don’t seem to have a plan for what to do as head coach. When Drew was hired by the Milwaukee Bucks this offseason, he claimed his coaching style was to play uptempo, to get the ball moving:

We want to be up-tempo, we want to attack, but we want to be intelligent.

Sure, sounds good! I just don’t think that’s actually what Drew preaches, or if he does, he has a huge issue getting it across to his team. During his tenure in Atlanta, the Hawks ranked 13th, 23rd and 27th respectively in Pace.

It sounds good to preach a style in interviews and press conference but it you don’t act on it, it’s nothing but lip service.

Enter Budenholzer. During his introductory press conference, Budenholzer explained his coaching style:

“It starts with being good defensively. That’s got to be a priority. We have to build the habits and we have to make that part of our identity. If we want to be good, we have to be good defensively. Then I think there’s a system offensively that has evolved and grown that I’m very comfortable with that I want to bring with me. It starts with pace and playing with a high pace, ball movement, people movement, playing unselfish, organized and attacking. We want to be good or great on both ends, and I think the defensive end will lead into our offense. There’s a cycle that’s part of basketball. I want to be great on both ends and start with a defensive identity and have that carry over to our offense.”

Alright, there’s a lot for us to sink our teeth in. First off, I love seeing a coach so adamant about their style. It lets the players, fans and organization know there’s a plan in place. They key, however, is acting on that plan. You could argue Drew had a plan by saying he loves uptempo ball, but frankly if there’s no evidence of your plan being put into action: do you really have a plan or are you just good at saying the right thing at the right time?

The good thing about Budenholzer’s quote is we can pinpoint exactly what his philosophies are, exactly what he professes to be his coaching style and exactly what he expects out of his team. Let’s see how he’s done so far, we’ll do this report card style.

“Being good defensively”: C+

Budenholzer makes a point that being good defensively is the priority for the Hawks and his coaching style. Right now, that’s bearing out to an extent, the Hawks defensive efficiency of 101.5 is slightly better than last years 101.8 but ranks them just barely in the top-half of the league (14th). The previous two seasons, the Hawks ranked 10th and 6th in points allowed per 100 possessions, so while the Hawks are still “good” defensively, Budenholzer hasn’t exactly had a Thibodeau or Popovichyan revolution on the Hawks defense. They’ve been fine but not great, we’ll give him a C+ for now.

“Then I think there’s a system offensively that has evolved and grown that I’m very comfortable with that I want to bring with me. It starts with pace and playing with a high pace” : A-

The offensive system Budenholzer is referring to, the one that’s evolved and grown and he is comfortable with is what the San Antonio Spurs and Popovich are currently running. The system emphasis a quick pace, corner threes, efficient shots either from downtown or in the restricted area. It’s been preached and adapted on a number of NBA teams recently and the Hawks are the next in line.

I want to, however, focus on the last portion of this quote, specifically the high pace. We saw earlier this was a point of emphasis for Drew (naturally, his Bucks are 26th in Pace this year) and we see it again with Budenholzer. The difference? Budenholzer isn’t just saying it to say it, there’s a clear upgrade in the Hawks PACE, as Atlanta has gone from 13th in the league (94.72) to 10th (97.64).

“Ball movement”: A-

Ball movement has been the Hawks calling card this year and credit has to go to Budenholzer and also the emergence of Jeff Teague as a top point guard in the NBA. Currently, the Hawks rank 2nd in the league in AST/TO ratio after finishing a respectable 5th last season. Atlanta also ranks 2nd in team assists per possession (0.248). The only team higher than them? Yeah, you guessed it — Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs.

The Hawks of recent vintage have been a good team in regards to ball movement, surprisingly even with Josh Smith. Budenholzer isn’t reinventing the wheel with this Hawks team but there’s definitely an emphasis being played on continually excelling in this department.

“People Movement”: B+

Coaches could talk about their until their blue in the face but with the emergence of SportsVU data via NBA.com/stats, we can finally prove it! Man, 2013 is a great time to be alive. What bears out through SportsVU’s Player Tracking is that the Hawks are one of the better “people movement” teams in the league.

Five of their players receiving over 25 minutes per game ranked in the top 100 as far as distance traveled per game (~160 players total). Kyle Korver led the Hawks at 2.5 miles per game, good enough for 23rd in the league. Paul Millsap closely followed at 2.3, with bruiser Al Horford at 2.2, Teague at 2.2 and a huge surprised for Budenholzer this season, DeMarre Carroll coming in at 2.1.

“Playing Unselfish”: A-

I could have lumped this into the ball movement category but I’m sticking with the theme here, so it gets it’s own spot. As mentioned in the previous section, this isn’t a revolution Budenholzer has began in Atlanta, they’ve been a team not afraid to share the ball. The narrative about the offensive black hole that is Josh Smith just doesn’t hold up statistically. He takes horrible, inefficient shots, but he’s not a Rudy Gay-esque hole.

This year, the Hawks rank first in both two-pointers and field goals overall made via assists. Last year, they ranked 3rd in two-pointers via assists and first in field goals overall made via assists. What this tells us is Budenholzer isn’t changing anything dramatically but he’s kept Atlanta focused on a tremendous asset.

“Organized and Attacking”: B

I hate to continue bringing up Teague in this piece and ignore how great Al Horford has been but when you say “attacking” one Hawk comes to mind for me — Jeff Teague.

(To be fair to Horford here’s a sweet aside courtesy of Hickory-High.com’s very own Kyle Soppe: The Hawks are 5-1 when Al Horford records a double-double, 7-2 when he scores at least 20 points, and 3-0 when he does both.)

Teague reinvented himself this season and has become one of the NBA’s best attackers, currently ranking 5th in the league in Drives per game at 9.2. Teague also finds himself in rare air, ranking 12th in the league on points per game off drives at 5.4. Teague’s not the only one getting rich off his drives, his Hawks teammates benefit tremendously, evident by Teague ranking 4th in team points off drives at 10 points-per-game.

Final Thoughts

Budenholzer has done well during his first 24 games at the helm. Atlanta stands at 12-12 but given the Eastern Conference’s abysmal start to the year, they are firmly in the 3rd seed. On it’s face, there isn’t much progression there, both Drew and Mike Woodson had the Hawks hovering around the 3-5 seed annually, but it’s easy to tell something feels different with Budenholzer.

For one, Teague has taken a huge step forward and has become something those Hawks teams never really had. Moreover, Horford appears to finally be reaching his incredible potential. Millsap has been a nice addition but his name has been including in numerous rumors, most notably moving to Houston for disgruntled Rockets center Omer Asik.

More than anything, the Hawks don’t “feel” like they’re in NBA hell. They feel like a team that could make the playoffs, but still have room to build for the future. You didn’t have that with Drew and Woodson, you had teams built for the first round of the NBA playoffs and coaches will no ability to coach them past that point. With Budenholzer, a ton of roster flexibility and a potential lottery pick from Brooklyn.

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