Underperforming in playoffs isn’t new to Mike Budenholzer teams, but this time it may cost him

Mike Budenholzer is on the hot seat.
Mike Budenholzer is on the hot seat.
Image: Getty Images

With the NBA Playoffs looming later this month, and due to the perceived attainability of this year’s championship, there’s a growing list of people out there who could be held accountable for coming up short.

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That’s not to say that Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer is definitively on that list, but as The Athletic reported today, a lot is riding on this pending playoff run, for which he will be held responsible.

“There’s significant pressure on Budenholzer entering this postseason,” the report from Shams Charania and Sam Amick notes. “And while the team dynamics are very healthy at the moment, with players happy with the coaching element and an internal confidence that they are the best team in the East, sources say Budenholzer is likely gone unless there’s a deep playoff run.”

If nothing happens to Budenholzer following this season, including not getting an extension, he’d enter the 2021-22 as a lame-duck head coach due to making over $7 million next season, the last of his four-year deal. The Bucks finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference through Budenholzer’s first two seasons, at 60-22 in 2018-19, then 56-17 last year. But in the playoffs, the Bucks only turned that into one Eastern Conference Finals appearance two seasons ago, losing to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors in six games. Last season, they were memorably punked by subsequent Eastern Conference champion Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat in five games during the Conference Semifinals. Not only did they lose to the fifth-seeded Heat in five games, but the Bucks trailed 3-0 to begin the series, and their only victory came in overtime of Game 4, 118-115.

Budenholzer was criticized for his lack of playoff adjustments, which Charania and Amick also noted:

“Sources say there was a great deal of frustration aimed at Budenholzer that hasn’t been forgotten. The perceived lack of adjustments was a focal point, with Budenholzer himself admitting that coaching mistakes had been made along the way.”

It’s something that’s followed Budenholzer since his time with the Atlanta Hawks. You may not remember, but Budenholzer was the Hawks head coach from 2013 to 2018. His run included four consecutive trips to the playoffs — a streak ended during his final campaign — and their most notable effort was the 60-win 2014-15 Hawks, who were swept by the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers during the Eastern Conference Finals. The Hawks were the adorable regular-season story that produced four All-Stars (Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, and Kyle Korver), played amazing team basketball, and yet not one person outside of Atlanta seriously thought they’d go to The Finals.

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Whether it’s directly his fault or not, Budenholzer has a career pattern of leading underachieving playoff teams. Today, he has a two-time MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who will make $228 million over a five-year period beginning next season, along with All-Star caliber teammates in Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday (but not Eric Bledsoe). As Giannis has demonstrated in their last two games, both wins over the Brooklyn Nets, the arguable NBA Championship favorites can’t stop Milwaukee’s best player. And, although James Harden is still out with a hamstring injury, he ain’t exactly the Giannis stopper either.

Budenholzer is out of excuses, and the Bucks won’t need any to part ways following an underwhelming playoff run this time around. Currently, they’re in the third slot in the East with seven games to go. They’re four games ahead of the New York Knicks and 1.5 behind the Nets. If they remain at three, they’re currently in line to face the same Heat team; and though they’re not as magical as last year, they’re still extremely dangerous.

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In their first match-up this season, the Bucks killed the Heat 144-97 on December 29. The very next game, the Heat made adjustments and won, without Butler, 119-108. They’ll even face each other on May 15, the second to last game of the season for each team. If it isn’t Miami in round one, the Hawks and Boston Celtics are nearby, which would be better for Milwaukee, and for Budenholzer, considering how warm his seat is.