The case for and against Sixers hiring Mike Budenholzer as head coach originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
Three seasons after hiring Doc Rivers, the Sixers are searching again for a head coach.
Thus far in our series on Sixers coaching candidates, we’ve looked at Nick Nurse, Monty Williams, and Mike D’Antoni.
We’ll next examine the case for and against hiring Mike Budenholzer to replace Rivers.
The case for Budenholzer
A longtime assistant for Gregg Popovich’s Spurs, Budenholzer got his first head coaching opportunity with the Hawks, won 60 games in his second season, and was named Coach of the Year. He received that honor a second time in 2019 for another 60-win season, this one with the Bucks.
Current Sixers general manager Elton Brand was a veteran forward for Budenholzer in Atlanta.
“(Budenholzer) really treats everyone the same, very fair in his coaching style,” Brand told Slam in 2015. “It’s about the team, and the team only. If a guy is open, you pass him the ball — that’s the culture around here and the team we have buys into it. It’s fun to play like that on offense and then it translates to defense.”
P.J. Tucker is another Sixers connection for Budenholzer; Tucker was a key trade-deadline addition for the 2020-21 NBA champion Bucks.
Giannis Antetokounmpo was already an All-Star when Budenholzer took the Milwaukee job, but he didn’t yet have a playoff series win. Under Budenholzer, he became a two-time MVP and experienced deep playoff success. While Antetokounmpo is unique, Budenholzer certainly understands coaching a dominant player who demands immense defensive attention like Joel Embiid.
Though Budenholzer generally likes to stick with his core schemes, he deserves credit for his willingness to implement major changes with the aim of making his high-level team a tad more likely to win big playoff games. For the 2020-21 season, Milwaukee shifted from using a five-out offensive system to moving a player into the dunker spot.
“You have to take advantage of every part of the court and we’ve been good, but maybe it’s another part that we can force teams to defend,” Budenholzer told The Athletic’s Eric Nehm. “Another part for teams to be aware of and create more opportunities for us by doing it.”
After the Celtics shot 22 for 55 from three-point range in a blowout Round 2, Game 7 win over Milwaukee last year, the Bucks entered this season with a much greater emphasis on limiting opponents’ three-point attempts. With Brook Lopez as their dependable defensive anchor and rim protection the top priority, the Bucks were a bottom-five team in defensive three-point rate each of Budenholzer’s first four seasons, per Cleaning the Glass. They were fifth in the 2022-23 campaign.
Overall, Milwaukee finished fourth in defensive rating and earned the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed with 58 victories.
The case against Budenholzer
Luck plays a sizable role in any NBA playoffs.
With that said, the Bucks’ incredibly narrow 2021 second-round series win against the Nets stands out as being especially influenced by fortune. In Game 7, with James Harden playing through a Grade 2 hamstring strain, Kevin Durant’s foot-on-the-line jumper with one second left in regulation tied the game. Milwaukee won in overtime. It also didn’t hurt that Antetokounmpo was unfathomably great in the Bucks’ title-clinching Game 6 win over the Suns — 50 points, 17 for 19 at the foul line, 14 rebounds, five blocks.
Following their championship, the Bucks couldn’t meet expectations in the next two postseasons. Like the Sixers this year, they held a 3-2 series lead over the Celtics in 2022 before dropping the next two games. And though the back injury Antetokounmpo suffered in the Bucks’ playoff opener against the Heat was a significant obstacle this season, Milwaukee lost Games 4 and 5 to the East’s No. 8 seed with him on the court.
Along with Miami’s tenacity and Jimmy Butler’s greatness, both of those games featured poor late-game execution by the Bucks. They blew a 15-point lead in Game 4 and squandered a 16-point lead with just over 10 minutes remaining in Game 5. For a team with championship experience, Milwaukee’s inability to regain control or find any way of quelling the Heat’s momentum was glaring. Some of that falls on Budenholzer, who did not call timeouts in Game 5 both at the end of the fourth quarter and end of overtime.
It is notable context — and, clearly, far more important than basketball — that one of Budenholzer’s brothers tragically died during the series.
From the Sixers’ perspective, the team will need to holistically evaluate Budenholzer’s extensive track record — plenty of regular-season success along with a mixed playoff résumé that includes a title — and weigh that against other quality candidates.