Imagine this: a first-year head coach is given a completely different roster than one he helped oversee halfway across the country under different management. Along the way, the best player goes down less than two months into the season and a myriad of other injuries have forced 21 different starting lineups in the 76 games to date. In addition, this is still a roster undergoing major change all the while trying a restless fan-base that has never witnessed a championship in the current city.
This scenario has become a reality over the course of the past eight months for Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer.
Budenholzer is ranked as the 14th-best coach in the NBA.
Budenholzer is a long time disciple of the top ranked coach, Gregg Popovich. After 17 years as an assistant coach under Popovich and helping oversee 4 San Antonio championships, he found himself as the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks almost a year ago with a completely rebuilt roster and coaching staff.
This season has been a struggle due to the multitude of injuries, but the Hawks are virtual locks to make it seven straight seasons in the playoffs. At a record of 34-42 (.447 W-L%) after six straight winning seasons, many may say coach Budenholzer doesn’t deserve as high a rating as 14th in the league, but I think it’s a perfectly acceptable ranking. Previous Hawks teams trudged through offense with occasional movement and lax passing. A heavy isolation reliance created a ceiling below championship level that the Hawks would never be able to overcome.
In like a ray of light, coach Budenholzer brought over a similar pick and roll heavy offense that has propelled the Spurs yet again to a top NBA record in 2014. Despite a middle of the pack offensive efficiency ranking, look no further than the best assist/field goal made ranking and second best assists per game ranking to confirm the installment of a new flowing offense.
He has kept the Hawks focused all season long, enough to pull themselves from a listless 14 out of 15 game losing slide spanning February and March. Most No. 8 seeds wouldn’t be able to rebound from a spell like that and dispatch the admittedly disoriented Indiana Pacers, who are looking to secure the 2nd seed in the East.
The defense will come with a healthy frontline next season but also with the presumptive arrival of two 7-footers in Lucas Nogueira and Mike Muscala. With a season of normal injury luck and growth from the young players on the roster, the sky is the limit under coach Budenholzer.
His lack of a track record is the only reason any spot higher than 14th would be unwarranted, but in time fans may realize that the Hawks have found a true coaching gem in Mike Budenholzer.