OK, I’ll do it. The notion that Mike Budenholzer lacks the wherewithal to make adjustments on the fly or from game to game in the NBA playoffs was always a tired and lazy criticism. It is the American pastime to second-guess coaching decisions — it is the sports equivalent of the joy audience members have in ridiculing the bad singer on American Idol or the craven power-hungry losers on Survivor. The programming serves the self-satisfying ego of the viewer by offering a few fleeting moments of superiority. The same dynamic works in sports with sports radio, the 24-Hour Hot Take TV Industry, and much of the color commentary in-game focused on the mistakes made by the coaches and players. And when the drive to feel superior to someone on TV can combine with the beehive mentality of jumping on an establishing bandwagon for some good ole confirmation bias feedback loops, the makings of conventional wisdom form. It is not uncommon for this conventional wisdom to be flat wrong that is beside the point. Flattering the ego of the individual presenting the Hot Take is the medium and the message.
I don’t know how good of a basketball coach Mike Budenholzer is. I am not qualified to assess his tactical decisions. I also lack the inside knowledge regarding what his realistic options were at hand when a chance in tactics was perhaps needed. But I did take careful notes of the adjustments he made in the 2021 postseason which ultimately led to his Milwaukee Bucks winning the NBA title. I’ll identify a few.
(1) Played his best players for more minutes in the playoffs. A common criticism Budenholzer received during the NBA playoffs in the bubble last year was that he was not playing his Big Two of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kris Middleton's higher minutes. In Games One-Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Miami, Antetokounmpo averaged 37.9 minutes per game before getting injured in Game Four which completed the Heat’s four-game sweep. Middleton averaged 39.2 minutes per game in those four games. This critique is always troublesome for outsiders who lack the inside knowledge regarding how comfortable the player is in playing extended minutes. Interestingly, Budenholzer appeared to give Antetokounmpo the green light to take himself out of the game in this postseason. Perhaps that was seen as a necessity since Antetokoumpo was playing through injuries?
Despite acquiring Jrue Holiday in the offseason to give his team a Big Three, Budenholzer did play those stars for longer periods in this postseason. Antetokounmpo averaged 40 minutes per game in the Brooklyn Nets series before average 39.8 minutes per game in the NBA Finals. Middleton averaged 42.5 minutes per game in the NBA Finals. Holiday averaged 41.7 minutes per game in the Finals. Predictably, I recall seeing some who criticized Budenholzer for not playing his stars enough last postseason now blame him for overworking his Big Three in these playoffs. Once the conclusion is determined (Budenholzer Bad!), the most important thing for some becomes confirming one’s prior assumptions.
(2) Break the Giannis defensive wall by putting the ball in Middleton’s hands. Much was made of the defensive strategy that the Miami Heat deployed last year where they positioned three or four players into a wall-like formation to take away Antetokounmpo’s driving ability. In theory, the Bucks “adjustment” is simply for Antetokounmpo to drive-and-dish to an open shooter behind the arc to punish the tactic with 3-pointers — but the shooters need to make shots. It is hard to blame Budenholzer for shots not falling. However, this might be an offensive strategy that works better during the regular season rather than during the pressure of playoff basketball (see the James Harden Houston Rockets).
Budenholzer’s adjustment in the playoffs this season was to take the ball out of Antetokounmpo’s hands as the primary ball-handler and let Middleton dictate the offense. Not only did Middleton thrive in this role with clutch baskets, but it allowed Antetokounmpo to crash the glass for second-chance scoring opportunities.
(3) Pairing Bobby Portis with Antetokounmpo. Budenholzer did this early in the playoffs but got away from him in the Nets series since Portis was a liability on defense. But after falling behind 0-2 to the Suns in the NBA Finals, Coach Bud got back to getting Portis on the court with the Greek Freak. Portis was a three-point shooting threat that Phoenix had to respect. As opposed to when Brook Lopez or P.J. Tucker is on the court when Budenholzer could give Antetokounmpo stretches of the game where he was surrounded by four shooters to create more space for him to drive to the hole. When coaches like Ty Lue make elementary adjustments like this, they are lauded as geniuses.
(4) Pick-and-roll defensive subtleties. It seemed like it was June of 2021 when many in the analytics community were introduced to the concept of drop coverage defense against pick-and-rolls. Rather than engage in a full-on switch to combat the offensive team’s pick, drop coverage has the switching defender accept the new defensive assignment but play off the ball. This move temporarily takes away a driving lane or a cut by the picker while giving time for a potential switch-back. But the drop does give space to the ball handler for an open jump shot. Chris Paul punished this tactic in the opening game of the Finals with his great mid-range game. It was a fascinating development to watch many in the analytics community calling the 2-point midrange shot the worst shot in basketball now blasting Budenholzer for a defensive tactic that lulled the opposition into taking this very shot. OK, whatever. Brook Lopez is an outstanding defensive player on drop coverage. Rather than completely abandoning this defense, the Bucks had Lopez just not drop back so much and play a step or two closer to the potential CP3 jumper to offer more resistance — and hand closer to the face. Paul was never as effective on these shots the rest of the series.
(5) Deploy Holiday to start defending Paul in the backcourt. A question the Bucks’ brain trust had entering the NBA Finals regarded how to use Holiday as their best on-the-ball defender. Should he draw the assignment against Paul or Devin Booker? In Game One, Holiday defended Booker — and Paul had his big game. In Game Two, not only did Budenholzer switch assignments, but he had Holiday begin his defensive assault on CP3 as soon as he got the ball in the backcourt — forcing the veteran to exert more energy just to get into their half-court offense. Within three games of this tactic, Michael Wilbon was reduced to making excuses for his self-proclaimed best friend regarding a secret injury that we must not know about.
These adjustments are just from my notes. I am sure there is more than those with a more sophisticated knowledge of the game appreciated. But coaches should not necessarily be judged on the adjustments they make. Sometimes the best tactical decision is to resist the urge to abandon ship on the strategies that have succeeded in the past. And every adjustment comes with a tradeoff. The Bucks led the league in defensive free throw rate in the regular season and the playoffs. That was not an accident. It was by design. Drop coverage on pick-and-rolls helps to lower foul rates since it is disincentives the player with the ball to drive the lane. Shooting midrange jump shots are less likely to draw fouls. And when your team is so dependent on Antetokounmpo, perhaps ensuring he does not get into foul trouble is a smart tactic? I don’t know if drop coverage on pick-and-rolls is better than switching with tight coverage or even not switching and fighting through the pick. I do know that if Wilbon or any of the other ankle-biters on the bandwagon want to criticize a tactic, they should at least engage the argument regarding why the tradeoff from the adjustment does not make things worse.
Unfortunately, the notion that Budenholzer does not make adjustments will likely continue. Zombie narratives continue even after championships. But, those who continue to make the argument do serve a public good by telling on themselves.
Best of luck — Frank.