MILWAUKEE — Three core principles came to the front of Mike Budenholzer’s mind from his 17 years as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs:
“Treat people well, care about them, invest in them — good things will happen.”
Now the head coach of his own championship contender, Budenholzer is too focused to reminisce about his tenure in the Alamo City. Yet subconsciously or not, the lessons learned through four championships and 13 consecutive 50-win seasons have seeped into the identity of his Milwaukee Bucks.
Even on the surface level, there are some easy comparisons to draw between these Bucks and the Spurs of old. Both teams are anchored by a superstar power forward coupled with harrowing halfcourt defense, unselfish ball movement, and a determined ‘next man up’ mentality.
Their similarities echo far more beyond the court, where hard work, professionalism and commitment fuel them to league-leading records in what the NBA would consider an underdog market. Budenholzer credits much of these two programs’ success to their focus on the quality of character.
“You want to have great people, great players with high character who are also great players [and] hopefully have a level of consistency and professionalism to your approach every day, just trying to get better every day,” Budenholzer said.
When you look beyond the court, you’ll find a basis of mutual respect between the Bucks’ players and coaches. Oftentimes, players mention a high standard of professionalism in how the team operates. Everyone works hard and contributes something different, which has presented Milwaukee with a lot of ways to win despite managing stubborn injuries all season long.
That approach was a driving factor for Jae Crowder in deciding to play for Milwaukee. When speaking to the media after a Feb. 26 victory against Phoenix — the team he was dealt from following a lengthy trade request and holdout — Crowder expressed his gratitude for how the Bucks conduct themselves.
“We don’t have any bad apples in the group. It’s a great locker room, a great working environment, and I just think we’re all focused on the same goal —trying to be the best team we could be,” Crowder said.
This is the same way that Spurs President and head coach Gregg Popovich handles his teams. For decades, he’s discussed how important it is for people to get over themselves and operate as a group if they want to yield positive results. That’s part of what drew him to Budenholzer early in his career.
Budenholzer’s evolution with the Bucks is no surprise to Spurs’ Popovich.
Popovich and Budenholzer narrowly missed each other on the Pomona-Pitzer men’s basketball team. Months before Budenholzer began his freshman year in the program, Popovich left their coaching staff for his first opportunity in the NBA.
After college, Budenholzer averaged 27.5 points per game as a rookie for a basketball club in Denmark but eventually returned to the States. He contacted Popovich, who was an assistant under historic coach Don Nelson. Popovich offered him a role as a video coordinator and immediately saw something special.
“After the first couple [of games], it was like ‘Jesus. This guy is amazing.’ He just understood everything. It didn’t matter what I gave him, he got it,” Popovich recalled.
When it was time for Popovich to take over in San Antonio, Budenholzer was one of his first calls. They endured an injury-ridden 17-win season in 1997 and landed the No. 1 pick that became Tim Duncan.
From then on, the Spurs established themselves as a perennial title contender with five Finals appearances in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and finally 2013 — Bud’s last season before taking his first NBA head coaching job with the Atlanta Hawks. Two seasons later, the Hawks earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and Budenholzer was named Coach of the Year for the first time in his career.
“It’s in his bones,” Popovich said of Budenholzer’s coaching ability. “He’s got a good sense of humor, he’s straightforward, he’s honest, he feels it, so the success has come as no surprise to me.”
As the Hawks motioned toward a rebuild and the Bucks approached a crossroads, Budenholzer found his way to Milwaukee in 2018. In the five seasons since, no coach in the NBA has as many wins as he does (263). While his deep grasp of the game’s Xs and Os added a level of intrigue, it was Budenholzer’s ability to elevate the team’s culture that appealed to the Bucks’ ownership:
“After a thorough coaching search, it was clear that Mike was the ideal choice as we enter into a new era of Bucks Basketball,” a 2018 statement from Bucks owners Wes Edens, Marc Lasry and Jamie Dinan read. “Mike has demonstrated the ability to lead and communicate, and understands what it takes to build a winning culture.”
The NBA’s cyclical nature rears its head in unexpected ways. Many of the greatest success stories throughout league history are largely based on fundamental values and a unified approach both on and off the court. For organizations like the Bucks and Spurs, league-leading seasons have come when they invest in people with talent, character, and control of their ego. It made Budenholzer and Giannis Antetokounmpo a natural fit.
Early in his time in Milwaukee, Budenholzer drew from his prior experience to create something new. Antetokounmpo was already growing into the player he is today, but he was still far from the peak of his abilities. Budenholzer had a front-row seat for a star big man’s ascent to legend status by coaching Duncan, and leaned on that experience to help Giannis early into their relationship.
“My first year with [Budenholzer], he used to sometimes tell me stories about — he called him Timmy — and how Tim Duncan operated with his teammates,” Antetokounmpo said. “But he hasn’t told me another story in a long time.”
The Bucks averaged 54 wins in each of the last five seasons and accumulated a laundry list of accolades in the process. Together, they brought Milwaukee its first NBA title in 50 years and are back to compete for another one this postseason.
There’s no need for the Bucks’ coach to keep telling stories of his past when the team is preoccupied etching its own story into NBA history.
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