As bad news buffeted the Atlanta Hawks during the final weeks of the season — Kyle Korver’s back spasms, DeMarre Carroll’s food-poisoning, Paul Millsap’s knee contusion, not to mention Al Horford missing the second half of the season with a torn pectoral muscle — nearly toppling them from the Eastern Conference playoff race, one key factor helped to prevent them from foundering.
First-year coach Mike Budenholzer refused to be drawn into an extended, media-driven discussion on the standings or too much navel-gazing over what ailed his team. Instead, Budenholzer preached the same steadying influences that he did all season: focus on the task, get better.
It makes for boring sound bytes — an aspect of the job that surely is not Budenholzer’s strong suit; nor does he seem to want that to be the case — but in the end, the approach appears to have been a successful one. Back from the abyss, the Hawks are on the verge of clinching their seventh straight postseason berth. The Hawks’ magic number to qualify for the playoffs is two entering Friday, meaning that any combination of two wins by the Hawks or two losses by the Knicks will send the Hawks to the playoffs.
"I think he’s always had an even way that he sees things in general, whether it’s this or other parts of life and I just think that he’s weathered some storms with some periods of times and calendars when they haven’t been winning games," said Philadelphia coach Brett Brown, who worked alongside Budenholzer for 11 seasons as an assistant in San Antonio. "I think what he’s done without Horford is remarkable. He’s done a hell of a job. And so now they’re hanging on that eighth spot with Cleveland and New York chasing them. What I do know is he’ll keep that group together. He’s excellent at keeping a group together."
On several occasions, the Hawks could have easily frayed and fallen into a Philadelphia 76ers-style losing streak. But through Budenholzer’s technical precision — video sessions, teaching in practice and game management — employing a style that, perhaps surprisingly considering the modern NBA, leans more old-school than new, Budenholzer has succeeded.
"We’re really just focused on building our habits and focusing on ourselves and continuing to improve and to build on the system we’ve started to put in in training camp," Budenholzer said on March 31 before a critical win over Philadelphia, at one point losers of 26 straight, that snapped a six-game Hawks’ losing streak, "and if you talk or worry about a lot of external or other things, it takes away from the important things that will help you get what you want. So we’re really just going about our work and going about our day and not changing anything, not talking about a lot of things and just focused on competing every night.
"I know you guys probably don’t believe that, but that’s our approach and I think that’s the best way to proceed."
In some ways, Budenholzer’s approach is like that of Mr. Miyagi. Repetition, repetition, repetition. His task is not simple in that the system he is installing, at least on offense, revolves around concepts and not plays. Each situation could have hundreds of reads off of it. General manager Danny Ferry said the offense has its roots in the famed "Triangle" offense that Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls used to win six NBA titles. Budenholzer, Ferry said, was influential in getting San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich to install the offense when Budenholzer was Popovich’s long-time assistant.
Ferry calls it an "equal-opportunity offense." Installing it has been met with two obstacles, though.
One is that it seems the Hawks have tried to learn it with what amounts to a new cast of characters on almost a nightly basis because of that persistent injury bug; following last Sunday’s win over Indiana, the Hawks improved to 8-1 in their past nine games when Korver, Jeff Teague, Carroll and Millsap were in the starting lineup. Overall, they are 11-22 over their past 33 games but are beginning to get healthy and jell as the season ends, winning four of their past six.
The second obstacle is the way in which Budenholzer’s offense differs so much from the previous system the Hawks ran for three years under former coach Larry Drew.
"These things take time," Korver said. "I don’t know how much time it is. I don’t know if it’s a year, I don’t know if it’s two years. I don’t know what that answer is. But I think if you look at the Hawks, the Atlanta Hawks in general, it’s been a pretty drastic change in style of play in two years. So it’s one thing just to put in a system and put guys in, but it’s another thing when you have to change a lot of what’s been going on.
"I think it takes a little bit longer because you have other habits, you have other mindsets that maybe you’ve been in. Not that they were wrong but that’s just what was being run so there’s habits that have to be broken, so that takes focus. Daily focus and to break a habit you have to do the same thing over and over again and I think he’s done well. He’s done a really good job."
Recently, some comments that Ferry made drew notice when he prioritized long-term goals over the short-term success of slipping into the playoffs as the eighth seed this season. The truth is that this season represents the first stage in a long-term building plan with Budenholzer and his way of coaching as one of the most integral pieces. In terms of initial progress, Ferry cites the fact that the Hawks rank second in the league in assists per game. Looking forward, Ferry said the Hawks will start next season in a more advanced mode than they did this one.
"I think next year we’ll have a corporate knowledge coming into the year," he said. "Our core group of our guys will obviously be back. We should walk into next season and the first practice next year having a common language, having a common understanding of how we want to play and that will obviously put us in a better spot."
He conceded when prodded that the Hawks will be "way ahead" of where they began this season.
Were it not for the injuries, the Hawks’ progress this season might be reflected better in their record. Coaches hate to make an excuse of injuries, but for the Hawks they are a reality. At one point, three of their centers — Horford, Antic and Gustavo Ayon — were sidelined. The injuries have elongated what already was a steep learning curve.
"I do think that that there’s just a little bit of a challenge in the mix of guys who are on the court at certain times," Budenholzer said, "and we’ve, partly due to injuries and partly due to wanting to grow and build our group, we’ve had different combinations out there and we’ve even been playing Mike (Scott) and Paul and a five-man together so when you start changing up the combinations there’s a big difference between playing the wing and playing the big and we’ve been having some of our bigs play the wings when we’ve been injured and I think it would be unfair to think they’re going to make that kind of adjustment and pick up all the subtleties and all the nuances of the system so that was — I don’t want to say it was wholly induced because of the injuries — it was partly because of injuries and it was partly because we’re still trying to build this thing up."
In attempt to create a system-based team — or "program," as Ferry likes to say — the Hawks also are making a departure from their previous leadership in another way. The NBA, at its essence, has two kinds of two coaching models. Let’s call the first the "Jason Kidd," or former player, model. This is one in which the coach has a group of superstars and has to manage egos and is often a former player. In Kidd’s case, he went straight from playing to the bench with Brooklyn. In some ways, former Hawks coach Larry Drew fell into his group.
Then there is the new wave of coaches who did not play major college basketball or play in the NBA. Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau attended Salem (Mass.) State. Indiana’s Frank Vogel played at Division III Juniata (Pa.) before becoming a student manager at Kentucky under Rick Pitino and graduating with a biology degree while playing for the Wildcats junior varsity program.
Budenholzer, who played Division III at Pomona College in California, fits this mold. These coaches went through the school of hard knocks and spent years learning the game before stepping into NBA head coaching roles. Thibodeau, a long-time assistant, did not earn his first head coaching job until he was 52.
These coaches also happen to be teachers.
"I think film work is invaluable in our league and, at least, with our team in particular," Budenholzer said. "I think that we found time in the film room as valuable or more valuable than practice time. But we’ve got a really smart group, a group that’s probably a little more veteran. We still have a lot to work on and a lot to improve. But day by day and a lot of film work has kind of been our approach."
Korver said Budenholzer’s breakdowns are "really productive and really good."
For such a system to succeed, a team has to have the right personalities. It has to have players who are open to coaching and, to a degree, smart. That’s why San Antonio’s system works with Tim Duncan and why Millsap has flourished in Atlanta and become an All-Star.
It’s probably also why, in addition to his onerous contract, Ferry had to shed Joe Johnson, a volume shooter. Johnson’s style would not have fit in an "equal-opportunity system." It’s also why the Hawks did not offer a contract to the head-strong Josh Smith despite his obvious talent. How many times did Drew say he did not mind Smith shooting 3-pointers as long as they came within the flow of the offense, which they so often did not? For obvious reasons Ferry did not come out and say those players were not coachable and would not have fit Budenholzer’s system.
However, when he is discussing the personalities of the players he has assembled for Budenholzer’s first year team, you can read between the lines.
"Bud and I are on the same page in that we want competitors with character," Ferry said. "I think both of those things put us, put the organization, in the best position to succeed, be consistent and, hopefully, achieve higher goals. Competitors that have character, you don’t have to trick into every night, night-in-and-night-out, how are we going to get them to play hard tonight? They’re going to play hard. They compete.
"Guys that are unselfish are going to make the extra pass so those are certainly things from the very start, when Bud and I sat down and we talked to you guys at our press conference, those were going to be tenets of how we were going to do things and decisions we would make. Guys would fit. It makes our front office more effective because we have a clearer identity of what we want. I think that gives us an advantage. We have a system and we’re going to play a certain way. We want certain types of guys. You can pare down your list of who fits into that pretty easily or — I don’t want to say easily — you can pare down your list to make your job a little more easy."
And when you have those kinds of players, it makes it easier for a coach to crack the whip. During timeouts when things are not going the Hawks’ way, Budenholzer can be seen pointing an accusing finger at players. His face will redden. While the exact nature of the situation has not become public, Budenholzer clearly had no qualms about benching veteran Lou Williams for an extended period in March.
Ferry said he thinks Budenholzer has earned the players’ respect. That was evident in comments Carroll made in supporting how Budenholzer handled Williams’ benching to get the most out of Williams in the last few games.
"He gave us some old-school beatdowns," 14-year veteran Elton Brand said of Budenholzer’s style. "Had a few of those tongue-lashings and beatdowns, absolutely. But, like I said, that’s what you want from your leader. He just wants us to rise to the occasion."
While Budenholzer’s sideline demeanor is visible to the fans and media alike, he knows how to strike a balance. That dynamic is at work behind the scenes.
"I think Bud has a great balance of he’s intense … but he also has a lighter spirit to him where he can joke," Korver said, "and he has a really good balance to all that. I think one of the best I’ve ever been around, if not the best."
That mix of when to crack the whip and when to use a gentle touch is something Budenholzer, as a first-year head coach, admits he is still learning.
"I mean, it’s always best when it comes from the players," he said. "I think they listen to each other as teammates and if a teammate is in some way — and there’s lots of different ways to lead, it’s not just chewing a guy out or getting on him or whatever, sometimes it’s putting your arm around him, sometimes it’s encouraging them — in an ideal world the leadership, or a significant amount of leadership, is coming from their teammates and from the players and the locker room. But I think as a coach we have a leadership role also to create a competitive spirit and environment where they know that’s what’s most important to all of us and to hold them accountable and I think, obviously, you need both.
"You need leadership in the locker room from players and, as a coach, that’s one of my greatest challenges is to be a leader and I can and will continue to grow as a leader and as a coach."
At a certain point, coaching is not theoretical. It’s about wins and losses or else they get fired. Perhaps Budenholzer’s predecessors, Drew and Mike Woodson, and their bosses as general managers, Billy Knight and Rick Sund, placed more of an emphasis on winning now, as opposed to building for the future. To be fair, Woodson at the end, and then Drew, inherited more mature rosters than Ferry’s work in progress that Budenolzer is working with in Year One.
Ferry is pleased with the way Budenholzer has done both in terms of the system-based play and also in improving on a daily basis. The playoffs, then, should the Hawks clinch a spot in the coming days, will be gravy.
"I think he’s stuck true to those things through adversity of the injuries we’ve had," Ferry said. "Obviously, losing Al early was hard. It was compounded with multiple injuries over the last six weeks and (we) continue to just try and play a certain way and build an identity for him as a coach and how his teams are going to play and I think he’s done a nice job with it."