Milwaukee Bucks Media Day at Fiserv Forum on Monday.
Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
When it comes to their roster, the Milwaukee Bucks aren’t going to look vastly different in 2018-’19.
Giannis Antetokounmpo will still be doing otherworldly things with the ball in his hands and the team on his back. Khris Middleton will continue efficiently shouldering a big load at both ends, Eric Bledsoe will be asked to create opportunities on offense and anchor the perimeter defense and the team will count on an array of supporting players reprising their roles while demonstrating improvement.
The Bucks made moves to shore up their team during the off-season with a few personnel additions that even general manager Jon Horst admits might not be all that sexy. Those transactions netted veterans Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova and Pat Connaughton to provide spacing on offense and competence on defense as well as rookie Donte DiVincenzo to add guard depth and a gritty, winning mentality.
But ask anyone during the team’s annual media day on Monday and it was clear which addition is expected to move the needle most.
Sitting in Fiserv Forum, the crown jewel of the Bucks’ rebuilding and rebranding efforts over the past few years, new coach Mike Budenholzer, 49, was hailed by ownership, Horst and players as the missing piece that could help lift the product on the court to the level of the team’s other state-of-the-art construction projects.
“With Bud and Giannis, I truly feel like we have a path,” Horst said.
“With Giannis you can pick a style of play, you know the type of players that fit, the type of culture we want to create in the locker room. To have a coach that feels so strongly about the style of play that he’s had success with and seen success as an assistant coach and a head coach, for us, I feel like we have a direction and a path that we can really follow that can take us to success.”
It’s no secret that Milwaukee’s previous coaching situation left something to be desired. Jason Kidd helped spur Antetokounmpo’s development over three-plus seasons and played a large role in resurrecting the Bucks from 15 wins in 2013-’14 to reaching the playoffs the next season.
However, the Bucks’ on-court success never matched the franchise’s perceived level of talent, leading to Kidd’s ouster in the middle of last season with the team floating around .500. The team was then entrusted to Kidd’s top assistant Joe Prunty, who was well regarded by players as an assistant and teacher, but was out of his depth as a first-time head coach, especially in the playoffs when matched up against Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens.
For much of the past four years, the Bucks appeared to have the talent on paper to put forward a tenacious defense and a formidable offense, but that never came together on a consistent basis. Milwaukee’s defense, after a strong first year under Kidd, floundered near the bottom of the league each of the past three seasons. The Bucks’ offense found a high level of efficiency but operated a lot more inside the three-point arc than most teams in the modern NBA.
The hope with Budenholzer, a long-time assistant under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio as well as a proven head coach in Atlanta where he was coach of the year in 2015, is that the pieces will finally together to unlock the potential of this Bucks team.
“I think the one obvious difference around the team is that Bud has a system,” Bucks co-owner Wes Edens said in what could be considered a shot aimed at the previous coaching staff. “He has a system that he plays, he has players that he wants to play in his system. You can see it in the practices, you can see it in his approach to the game and I think that’s a material change.
“I think that it’s had great success in the past and let’s hope it has great success here.”
While all the praise and positivity were being sent his way, Budenholzer did his best to pump the brakes. He’s just not wired to get caught up in expectations or projections.
As boring as it may be, he says people in Milwaukee will quickly learn that he’s obsessively focused on the day-to-day, a stance commonly shared by those in the coaching fraternity. That’s what his coaching and system are based on, which is something he hopes to impart on his players when training camp opens on Tuesday.
“If you’re doing that I think with the roster and the talent we have put together we have very high expectations for ourselves,” Budenholzer said. “Obviously, it’s been a playoff team and we’d like to be better. We’d like to improve and have greater success in the playoffs and embrace that. I think the players all know that and feel that.”
When it comes to Budenholzer’s system, everything is going to be predicated on defense, especially being great at transition defense. Last season, the Bucks were among the best teams in the NBA at limiting fast-break points, mostly because they essentially gave up on offensive rebounding to get back on defense. When they did face transition, the Bucks often looked disjointed.
Budenholzer will be looking for more out of this year’s squad. He’ll demand mental discipline and a competitive streak out of players if they want to be on the court.
“Can we be a committed defensive team but also do we have the basketball intellect and IQ to do what’s best for that night and being able to adjust within a game or in a quarter or coming out of timeouts?” Budenholzer asked. “They’re going to hear me talk a ton about defense.”
When it comes to offense, Budenholzer’s system is based on unselfishness, ball movement and player movement and emphasizes three-point shooting and spacing. In attending the team’s voluntary practices over the past month, he hasn’t done much coaching but has monitored the action and talked independently to players or gotten teaching points out to them through assistants.
Some of those discussions have included talking to Bledsoe about the importance of moving the ball early with the knowledge he’ll get it back. Budenholzer has emphasized to Antetokounmpo that he needs to work on trusting his teammates more instead of falling into the trap of trying to take on whole teams by himself.
“The way we’re going to play this year is going to be free,” Antetokounmpo said. “A lot of pace, a lot of passes, a lot of playing on the catch, playing on the go. It’s not more isolation and five guys staring at you playing one against five. It’s basically everything within the rhythm and the flow of the offense. I think it’s amazing, I think he’s an amazing person and hopefully this thing can work out.”
Outside of X’s and O’s, Budenholzer and his assistants have already made a positive first impression on multiple players. Antetokounmpo gushed about the assistant coaches available at the Sports Science Center at virtually all hours. Middleton praised Budenholzer’s schedule, which emphasizes efficiency and players taking care of their bodies.
“He has a schedule for us every day, which I like and appreciate,” Middleton said. “We’re 30 minutes on the court probably before practice or after practice. He wants us to get our work in and find ways to fit our games into his new system, which I think is great.”
Of course, everything is sunshine and rainbows on media day, before official practices have started, before players experience a drop in minutes, before the real challenges of the regular season. The challenge for Budenholzer and the Bucks will be to begin jelling together in earnest on Tuesday and translate their training-camp time into a successful campaign.
“He’s undefeated,” Edens said with a smirk. “We all love undefeated coaches. That’s a good place to start.”
Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry talks during media day about the team’s rapid progression from a leaky practice facility to a new arena.
Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel