EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Why Suns coach Mike Budenholzer might do what Frank Vogel couldn’t

May 17, 2024, 4:33 PM | Updated: 4:48 pm

PHOENIX — Phoenix Suns head coach Mike Budenholzer played to a frustrated fan base Friday.

Naturally, the Holbrook, Arizona, native was emotional speaking on his return to his home state. He name-dropped Suns legends and bowed to Al McCoy on arrival.

He may have disappointed his dad, former Holbrook High School coach Vince, when he was asked about how to pronounce his name (he goes by Boo-denholzer to his dad’s preference, Bud-enholzer).

Mike definitely did not disappoint his dad when speaking on what Vince taught him.

“I’ll say that he taught me you press, you play fast. And those are my two biggest things,” Mike said. “He wants to always know why I’m not pressing — and you got to play faster.”

Putting the resume and nostalgia aside, Budenholzer’s predecessor promised to play the same way and failed. Frank Vogel said at his media day that the team’s identity would be about outplaying opponents. The Suns would play hard-nosed defense and then run.

Phoenix didn’t do that. The effort was tepid to flat-out poor. The Suns finished 13th in defensive rating and 15th in pace. Roster constraints played a large role in that.

So did Vogel, who failed to reach Suns players, including and beyond its Big Three of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal.

Budenholzer spoke glowingly about all of them on Friday. As did Vogel.

“They’re kind of junkies. It’s been fun to visit with Devin and Brad and Kevin. It’s going to be crucial (to build relationships with them) going forward,” Budenholzer said.

“Those conversations are private and they’re important to me. I think the honesty that particularly those three guys have had with me and shared with me, it’s been great. I hope they know they have a coach who is going to listen to them, values their experience, their knowledge. … I would just say super healthy conversations, very respectful both ways.”

President of basketball operations and general manager James Jones explained why the move to fire Vogel was about timing. He also ultimately laid blame on Vogel, because he saw “inconsistency in our competitive nature.” As in, the coaching change was as simple as reaching its players, the Big Three and beyond.

“We needed to improve in a lot of areas. By and large, we just felt the timing to shift was right,” Jones said. “We moved quickly to Bud just because when we look at our roster and what our roster needs, he fits it. I’m a competitive guy. … Throughout that process (of hiring Budenholzer), Bud must have said ‘competitive’ 95 times in two minutes.

“I thought that was an area of our team where we could be better.”

Perhaps in the background, he meant that the timing of chasing titles in short windows forced a move.

For sure, Budenholzer will be judged on results immediately, as was Vogel. But here are three more boxes the former checked beyond nostalgia, resume and name recognition that might indicate there’s a chance he succeeds where Vogel did not.

Mike Budenholzer would like a point guard (and more roster diversity)

Ah, yes. The Suns’ leaders last season did not find — and continually downplayed not having — a ball-handling specialist.

So, if Suns fans needed to cleanse their palate, Budenholzer gave them something crisp and ice cold.

“The conversations have been great and there’s no doubt we have to look at the whole roster and talk about point guard,” he said Friday. “I’m sure it’s a hot button here, whether it’s with you guys, the media, the players, front office. We need to think about it. We need to be able to play without one. We probably need to have one.

“We need to be versatile. We need to play different ways: bigger, smaller. I think the point guard position has a place.”

That lands in a fine grey area that’s short of naming an unknown new player as the starting point guard.

But it reopens the imagination that the Suns will look to form multiple identities after they last year failed to land on even one that began with a team culture.

Suns sound focused on building out depth

Reports of unhappiness about roles or failing to offensively optimize Phoenix’s stars flowed when Jones and owner Mat Ishbia spoke after the season ended, as they said they were still deciding Vogel’s future.

Budenholzer, however, is worried less about those players than he is about building around them.

“I hope that James and Josh (Bartelstein) and Mat (Ishbia) know that I actually think my most important job is to make those (role) guys better, to make those guys the best that they can be,” Budenholzer said. “With a ton of respect to Devin and Kevin and Brad, I feel like I know what I’m going to get from them every night.

“It’s vitamins, it’s day-to-day work. It’s giving (all players) time to work on their craft, work on their body, film, giving them confidence. … It’s a huge priority for us as a coaching staff.”

Budenholzer said embracing expectations is necessary. Talking about championships “is cheap,” he added.

Player development across the roster is his purpose, but that includes getting buy-in about why and how individual work can translate to team success.

Maybe expecting the Big Three play better as a collective will be easier when those role players improve.

“Like all teams, you can’t win with three players,” Jones said on Burns & Gambo. “They shoulder a huge load. It’s the rest of our team, guys 4-15. They’re going to be the ones that move the needle for us.”

Jones also made sure to call rumors of breaking up the Big Three “great for TV.”

Fixing the spacing

The Suns finished 21st in three-point attempt rate in 2023-24, not surprising with Booker and Durant leading the way from the midrange.

Phoenix’s offense looked clunky with unimaginative sets, passes into multiple sets of arms and the lack of role-player depth.

The Suns somehow finished fifth in three-point shooting at 38.2%. Yet they consistently lost the math battle because they couldn’t produce volume from deep.

Spacing out opponents was problematic, even with snipers like Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon on the roster.

Budenholzer has been labeled a spacing guru thanks to building out a Bucks teams led by non-shooter Giannis Antetokounmpo and a Hawks squad with stretchy bigs like Al Horford and Paul Millsap before that. The coach’s explanation about why he emphasizes threes also helped explain how he will approach that buy-in.

“There’s going to be philosophical approaches to how we practice every day, how important shooting threes is and the spacing and all the value in all the things that come from being a high-volume three-point team,” Budenholzer said. “I’m going to work with the whole group to help them embrace it, understand why it’s important to us.

“… How do we win? There’s no doubt that these guys will know: I think threes are a part of it. But we’re going to do it from Day 1.”

Vogel would agree. It’s on Budenholzer to walk the talk that Vogel didn’t.

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