EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Mike Budenholzer’s pedigree a match for Suns. Is his accountability?

May 10, 2024, 11:35 AM | Updated: 11:49 am

The Phoenix Suns have to feel like they got their guy. While the Valley waited a week-and-a-half after an awful season of basketball came to an end for a decision to be made on head coach Frank Vogel, it appears Phoenix was not spending all of that time just evaluating his future, but also that of his replacement Mike Budenholzer.

Less than 24 hours after Vogel’s firing was reported and official, Budenholzer is expected to become Phoenix’s new head coach, rumblings that began immediately after the Vogel news dropped. The timing suggests the Suns wanted to have their succession plan in place. No extended search like the norm and no circus like the Roy family.

It is logical, to a point. Budenholzer has the best resume of any head-coaching candidate. His stops with the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks include a Coach of the Year honor from each. He’s won north of 55 games four separate times, been to the conference finals three times and won a NBA championship in 2021.

After the Suns tried a defensive mind to offset the offensive strengths of the roster, they are matching a strength with a strength. Budenholzer is one of the better offensive minds around and his head over this process has surely already been swirling with creative ways to maximize a Big 3 of Bradley Beal, Devin Booker and Kevin Durant.

But will they listen? No one can say for certain after the way last season went. The disconnect in the locker room and the relationship the coaching staff had with the players resulted in a spiritless and styleless brand of basketball.

Budenholzer is more direct than Vogel. There is more oomph to his “my way or the highway” tone. But will the players keep on driving? He’s still not the type of authoritative, commanding leader envisioned as next in line.

If the players get there with Budenholzer, a statement we should acknowledge as ridiculous and something that should be a nonnegotiable, this will be a very good team in the regular season that will set itself up for success in the playoffs.

Budenholzer got the most out of a trio of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. He can do the same for the Suns’.

His biggest challenge coming in beyond buy-in and belief will be the dynamic between Beal and Booker. An under-discussed storyline for Phoenix was how those two never progressed as a backcourt and duo. No sense of chemistry formed in sharing lead ball-handler duties, with the only development coming when Beal was dubbed the “point guard” in January, a move that read like Vogel’s poor attempt at catering to Beal and making him feel more involved.

Budenholzer will get the ball back in Booker’s hands predominantly, a good start to building what has to be at minimum a top-three offense in the league and should hold the standard of anything other than the best as a failure. Booker regressed as a player for the first time in his career last season and the biggest concern for the whole franchise coming out of it is how much of that was the situation itself and how much of it was something else. It is very likely it was the former and that he bounces back in a major way.

There is a track record of this working for Budenholzer. Jeff Teague, Dennis Schroder, Eric Bledsoe and Jrue Holiday have been his four lead guards, none of which you’d describe as a “true point guard” the Suns have nauseatingly been told at will they need in order to get where they want to be. That is not the case. They just need the right system and Budenholzer is a good match to carry it out.

That will have to be built around Durant. The greatest scorer of all time is still the best one in the NBA, thus, everything in the offense should utilize what he does well. Again, Budenholzer will do this. The off-ball motions and screens that open up Durant in the midrange areas will be far more prevalent, as will three-man actions using the gravity the trio commands to open up each other, a benefit we practically never saw for the previous Suns team beyond the first play of each half. That should awaken Suns ball movement from its slumber.

What’s unclear is how much Durant wants to do all that schematically beyond the on-ball role, isolations in the midpost and matchup hunting. Presumably, he’s cool with it. We’ll find out soon enough either way.

Phoenix will at long last catch up with the NBA trend and take more 3s. On a Bucks team with a superstar that is a bad 3-point shooter, Milwaukee under Budenholzer still maximized the math. For the percentage of its shots from 3-point range, the Bucks during his tenure ranked third, fourth, 12th, sixth and fourth, per Cleaning the Glass.

The answer here is not to stop taking midrange shots entirely and Budenholzer is going to say the same. It is some of what those three guys do the best. The diet is just going to have to be healthier in that regard.

What Budenholzer will have to figure out is if he can craft a potent offensive mix without a reliable defense. As Eric Nehm noted for The Athletic on Friday, a differentiator in this situation will be Budenholzer developing this offense without the backbone of a great defense. Budenholzer’s prime teams in Atlanta across a three-year run finished fifth, second and fourth in defensive rating before Milwaukee topped the charts in his first two seasons there.

Vogel’s biggest achievement in Phoenix was showing the capabilities of this current roster defensively. While the numbers from the Suns’ first-round sweep will tell you otherwise, they had very good stretches on defense in the series. The extreme slippage over small spurts was what did them in, as usual. Can Budenholzer unlock consistency there too?

Budenholzer comes with his faults. For those of you that were not fans of Monty Williams, hold on tight as Nehm detailed in May 2023 that Budenholzer deployed a “rigid” system on both ends and was often criticized for his lack of adjustments in the postseason. Antetokounmpo himself publicly spoke on the latter issue.

Honestly, though, those are problems for the Suns and Budenholzer to work through when they get there. If Budenholzer does what he normally does, which is put together an excellent regular season campaign, that will be the successful building block this group so desperately requires. The Suns wasted last season’s offering to establish continuity in Year 1 of this roster, a process that will truly begin next year. Actual signs of cohesion along with a whole lot winning will go a long way.

Empire of the Suns

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