Posted Aug 7, 2013 11:10 AM
If Mike Budenholzer wasn't comfortable in his own skin and wasn't well prepared for the task ahead, the prospect of what he's facing as the new coach of the Atlanta Hawks might have rattled him.
But you don't spend nearly two decades in the championship bubble that is the San Antonio Spurs and not gain a measure of unmatched confidence in the NBA.
Sure, the Lakers have won in the same fashion during that two-decade stretch, and other teams have popped on and off the championship radar during that time. But no one has done it as consistently and with the same internal continuity as San Antonio. And Budenholzer, Gregg Popovich's self-proclaimed "right-hand man" for so much of that time, brings an edge to training camp that some of his first-time contemporaries wish they had.
We're going to find out whether the "Spurs Way" works without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili at the controls. Budenholzer takes over a Hawks team that had its roster gutted by free agency at the end of last season and will work with a largely new cast of characters. It's a roster he helped craft alongside his good friend and former co-worker in San Antonio, Hawks general manager Danny Ferry.
That relationship with Ferry is what helped lead Budenholzer, who had turned down countless opportunities to leave the Spurs over the years, to the Hawks.
"Having someone I can trust and work with, who sees the game the way I do and who wants to work collaboratively was a huge part of why I wanted to be here," Budenholzer said. "Someone to hear all of my crazy ideas, someone who to argue with and who will argue back at me, and we can agree or disagree and it's not the end of the world, all of that is critical for me. Ownership here is really strong and with Danny's influence, all of those are the things a coach should want in an opportunity."
It certainly didn't hurt that the Hawks had basically a blank slate -- Al Horford, Lou Williams and John Jenkins were the only players with guaranteed contracts for the 2013-14 season when free agency began on July 1 -- to work with. After years of being intimately involved with the team-building process in San Antonio, Budenholzer knew he needed the same sort of input with Atlanta if he was ultimately responsible for the team's performance.
"The $30 million in cap space, the flexibility that creates, made this opportunity really attractive," Budenholzer said. "I knew I could help build the team from the Draft and in free agency, but I also wanted to be able to have input on putting this group together. And that was the case."
The Hawks fortified the roster with a number of moves, none of which would be considered offseason home runs. They added Paul Millsap to replace Josh Smith and veterans Elton Brand and Gustavo Ayon to solidify that rotation. They also re-signed Kyle Korver, drafted point guard Dennis Schroeder and acquired the Draft rights to center Lucas Noguiera and got second-year shooting guard Jared Cunningham (from Dallas). Restricted free agent Jeff Teague signed a four-year, $32 million offer sheet with the Milwaukee Bucks, which the Hawks matched. That gives Budenholzer another young point guard to work with, much as he did with Parker years earlier.
"Bud is going to be great for Teague and their point guards because he's been in there shoes and been doing this for years," Parker said during The Finals, when Budenholzer's move was first announced. "He was always in my ear and always on me about making the [changes] to my game that needed to be made. I'm going to miss him being here every day. He's going to be great for that team and franchise."
The Hawks missed out on the big prizes (and their top targets) of the summer: Dwight Howard (Houston Rockets) and Chris Paul (Los Angeles Clippers). So the big-name sizzle the Hawks were hoping to add never happened.
Budenholzer doesn't exactly bring the name-recognition hype other candidates might, but he more than makes up for that often useless trait with a wealth of experience that few assistant coaches could match. He not only served as Popovich's lead assistant during a four-for-five championship run in San Antonio, he also has an extensive scouting and film work background, including serving as the advance scout for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team.
Ferry wanted a coach who was more substance than style, more hard work than hype. He got that in Budenholzer, a coach whose basketball IQ is matched only by his world-class pedigree. And as coach, Budenholzer was determined to find players with the same traits this summer.
"We wanted to put together a group that is really, first and foremost, great competitors," Budenholzer said. "You have to have guys that will compete every night, every possession. Bringing in a guy like Paul, a guy with a really high basketball IQ, and how hard he plays, was big. In Paul, and Elton and Gustavo Ayon, we feel like we're adding guys who check all of those boxes and will play together as a group. They're better as a group than they are individually."
That said, there is still the issue of that 18-inch slide from the lead assistant's chair to the coach's chair that has to be managed. And no amount of watching and learning on the job will change that. Budenholzer might have learned from a master in Popovich, who handpicked Budenholzer for this life years ago when he recruited him to play at Pomona College. But he has to craft his own style and create a niche for himself in a league filled with dynamic personalities and accomplished coaches.
Based on his experience working with both men, Popovich believes the Ferry-Budenholzer combination could be a powerful one for the Hawks ... provided they stick to the fundamentals that have helped the Spurs thrive.
"If everybody feels empowered that they can, without fear, give their opinion on something and it doesn't affect their position," he said, "now you have something powerful working for your organization and now those ideas are out there and they can be taken and they can be used and we don't give a damn where the idea came from. I know Bud and Danny will do it exactly the same way."
Even after working in the collaborative environment used in San Antonio, where a group of nine or 10 people (coaches, executives, owners, scouts, video guys, etc.) would discuss and debate any number of team-related topics, Budenholzer assumes a totally different role in the Hawks' war room.
"As a head coach you have to think about the entire group with every decision you make," he said. "Up and down the line, front and back, it has to be about the entire group and the bigger picture. As an assistant you have lots of ideas and suggestions that might be perfect for that moment and time, but you don't think through all of the ramifications down the road. As a head coach it's about being conscious of the whole group and what's best for us long term. And that's on and off the court."
Life off the court might actually be a tougher transition for Budenholzer this season than anything he'll deal with inside the Hawks' hoops cocoon. He'll adjust to a new team, franchise and city while his wife, Mary Beth, and their four children remain in San Antonio this year.
"I'll adjust quickly," Budenholzer said, adding that the initial conversation about leaving San Antonio after 19 years was filled with mixed emotions all around. "There is some excitement and nervousness and sadness, particularly from the family. They're really excited for me but a little nervous about what lies ahead and what the future holds. But the idea of leaving that cocoon and home base ... naturally, there is some uncertainty there. But I couldn't be more excited and I'm looking forward to what we're going to build here in Atlanta."
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