The Milwaukee Bucks Are Taking a Tremendous Risk With Head Coach Mike Budenholzer’s 3-Year Extension

Fresh off an NBA championship, the Milwaukee Bucks made the decision to extend their head coach for another three years. Mike Budenholzer and the franchise agreed to the new deal to keep the former Spurs’ assistant in the captain’s chair through the 2024-25 season. But Bud’s job was far from secure only weeks before he led the team to its first title in 50 years. One postseason run can mean the world to a franchise, but Milwaukee needs to recognize the tremendous risk it’s taking by extending Budenholzer.

As the Atlanta Hawks’ head coach, the 52-year-old developed a reputation for being an excellent regular-season coach who struggled in the postseason. That carried over to his first few seasons in Milwaukee before he finally pushed the team over the hump. But Budenholzer still has a longer resume of playoff failures than playoff successes.

Mike Budenholzer and the Milwaukee Bucks agreed to a three-year contract extension

Milwaukee Bucks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer, who received a 3-year contract extension with the team, embraces Giannis Antetokounmpo after Milwaukee won the 2021 NBA Championship.
Milwaukee Bucks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer embraces Giannis Antetokounmpo after defeating the Phoenix Suns in Game Six to win the 2021 NBA Finals. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Budenholzer’s job in leading the Bucks to the 2021 NBA Championship earned him this extension. That being said, he has long been considered a coach unwilling to make adjustments. Sticking with your principles and a scheme you believe in is admirable until it turns into borderline stubbornness. But Bud — fully aware his job was on the line — finally made those adjustments during last year’s playoffs. That led to a title and now the extension.

Budenholzer led a team devoid of a superstar to the conference finals while he was the head man in Atlanta. The team had players like Al Horford, Paul Millsap, and Joe Johnson, but no legitimate All-NBA caliber player. That 2014-15 team won 60 games, entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and Budenholzer was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year. Still, the Hawks fell short of a championship. That was the start of a trend that carried over to his job with the Bucks.

Budenholzer was widely expected to be fired just weeks before winning a championship with Milwaukee

Under coach Bud, the Bucks had the best record in the NBA in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. Milwaukee lost in the Eastern Conference Semifinals both years. The team’s head coach was under the microscope for the same reason he was in Atlanta — a lack of playoff success.

Common sense says Budenholzer was about to be fired when the Bucks fell down 2-0 to the Brooklyn Nets in this past year’s semifinals. Another great regular season followed by a third consecutive playoff disappointment would have put his job in jeopardy, at the very least. But James Harden got hurt, and then Kyrie Irving went down. Milwaukee recovered to force a game 7, but had Kevin Durant’s foot been an inch shorter, the Bucks would have lost to Brooklyn. Instead, the team advanced, eventually to the NBA finals.

The team once again fell behind 2-0, this time against the Phoenix Suns. The questions surrounding Budenholzer resurfaced. But then Giannis Antetokounmpo went nuclear and almost singlehandedly won Milwaukee and his head coach a championship. Had things not broken right for the Bucks and the team exited the postseason early once again, Budenholzer would have likely been fired rather than extended.

Milwaukee needs to be sure running it back with Budenholzer doesn’t make the franchise complacent

No team lucks into a championship. The Bucks earned their title. That can’t be taken away, even if it carries an asterisk. The 2021 postseason ended up being a war of attrition, and Milwaukee was the healthiest team and had the best player in the end.

But it’s important to remember that had things not played out that way, someone else would be running the Bucks and Budenholzer would be searching for a job elsewhere. The franchise needs to be careful not to become complacent just because their head coach led them to one championship. Budenholzer’s playoff failures still outnumber his playoff successes.

Bringing back Bud was a foregone conclusion after Milwaukee won the 2021 title. But the organization is walking a tight rope. The front office has to give Budenholzer credit for the postseason adjustments he finally made, but it also needs to acknowledge the fact that he’s only done it once. If things start to stagnate as the Bucks shoot for back-to-back titles, Milwaukee needs to avoid becoming complacent and holding onto Budenholzer for too long just because he brought the organization a championship.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.

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