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Bucks’ epic flameout leads to questions about Mike Budenholzer’s coaching future

The Milwaukee Bucks’ early exit from the playoffs, just the sixth No. 1 seed to fall in the first round in NBA history, has left plenty of questions surrounding the future of head coach Mike Budenholzer.

Only two seasons ago, Bucks staffers and people around the organization felt rising pressure on Budenholzer’s job security after previous postseason shortcomings, however a 2021 championship run ended the uncertainty on Milwaukee’s bench. Now, a stunning 4-1 series defeat at the hands of the Miami Heat, after the Bucks fumbled late leads in Games 4 and 5, has suddenly thrust Budenholzer’s status back under consideration, league sources told Yahoo Sports, as Milwaukee faces several key roster decisions, and assistant coach Charles Lee garners interest from various rival head coaching posts. There will be plenty of internal reflection and conversation following such an abrupt end to what was supposed to be a pursuit of another banner.

Entering this series, even entering Game 5 on Wednesday night, much of the noise surrounding Budenholzer’s standing in Milwaukee seemed to be external and speculative from other corners of the NBA. Bucks general manager Jon Horst is known to hold a close relationship with Budenholzer, having hired him to the position in 2018 and then collaborating for the organization’s first title in 50 seasons. There was no tangible discussion, sources said, on Budenholzer’s footing before the series with Miami unlike in past playoffs. And according to multiple league figures with knowledge of the situation, former Milwaukee owner Marc Lasry, who sold his 25% stake in the franchise to Jimmy Haslam in April, was a leading voice behind heating Budenholzer’s seat during that 2021 postseason run. Lasry later revealed to The Athletic he approached Budenholzer in the locker room following the Bucks’ 125-86 loss to Brooklyn in Game 2 of those Eastern Conference semifinals.

For Milwaukee to ultimately part ways with Budenholzer, who signed a three-year contract extension after the championship that runs through 2024-25, the Bucks will need something more than confidence that his replacement holds greater capability of piloting this roster starring Giannis Antetokounmpo through the postseason. That will, by definition, prove quite challenging. Only two coaches with proven championship pedigree are currently on the market in former Lakers play caller Frank Vogel and former Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, and a new voice is not always a better voice for a locker room.

Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer gestures during the second half of Game 3 in a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Miami Heat, Saturday, April 22, 2023, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer gestures during the second half of Game 3 of Milwaukee's first-round NBA playoff series loss to the Miami Heat on April 22, 2023, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

There is always the potential for a superstar player to demand changes from management, and a perennial MVP candidate such as Antetokounmpo could certainly force Bucks leadership into moving on from Budenholzer. He had the opportunity to blame Budenholzer during an emotional postgame media availability, but Antetokounmpo merely expressed he wished he could have spent more time guarding Heat star Jimmy Butler. “Out of respect, you gotta let the coach make that adjustment,” Antetokounmpo told reporters. “We have our best defender on him. There are conversations with Jrue [Holiday]. Whenever he gets tired, I can take him, but he’s so competitive. He plays so hard. He wants to take the challenge.”

Another keen difference from 2021 is that Bucks assistant Darvin Ham, a known favorite assistant of Antetokounmpo’s, sources said, has since departed the franchise to take the Lakers’ head coaching job.

If a clear crack in Budenholzer’s armor exists, prime among a lack of adjustments was not utilizing Jae Crowder during Milwaukee’s defeat to Miami. Entering an early offseason with timeouts left in your back pocket will generate its fair share of criticism, but the Bucks targeted Crowder for months in the lead-up to February’s trade deadline, eventually surrendering five second-round picks and matching salary to land the veteran forward from Phoenix by way of Brooklyn. That is valuable draft capital for a front office that has already spent plenty of its war chest to build an expensive roster with the intention of competing for a championship. And Crowder is now set to reach unrestricted free agency, while Milwaukee has to primarily consider the futures of starting center and Defensive Player of the Year finalist Brook Lopez, plus All-Star scorer Khris Middleton, who can decline a player option for the 2023-24 season and test the open market.

Lee is one of the three finalists for Detroit’s coaching vacancy. The Bucks assistant interviewed for a latest round of meetings with Pistons brass on Tuesday, sources told Yahoo Sports, before another leading candidate, Pelicans assistant coach Jarron Collins, interviewed once again with Detroit leadership on Wednesday. Former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie, who overlapped with Pistons general manager Troy Weaver when Ollie was a player for the Oklahoma City Thunder, is scheduled to bookend this week’s group of interviews, sources said. Detroit has moved far slower than Houston’s swift approach to naming Ime Udoka as its next head coach, and he never factored prominently in the Pistons’ ongoing process, sources said.

Houston’s search appeared to highlight its own trio of leading candidates, with Vogel and former Charlotte Hornets head coach James Borrego leaving strong impressions on the Rockets, sources said. It seems while Houston had designs on meeting with Nurse, the veteran play caller never entered its interview process in a significant capacity.

The Rockets did make it clear the organization was aiming for an experienced coach for its sideline, one who can hold young players accountable as the Rockets attempt to build from a lottery team into a playoff threat. Owner Tilman Fertitta has labeled this iteration of Houston’s construction as “Phase 2” of the team’s retooling from its past championship window starring James Harden. All three of Fertitta, Udoka and Rockets general manager Rafael Stone mentioned Houston’s bounty of cap space during Udoka’s introductory news conference on Wednesday, and it seems quite apparent the Rockets hold motivations to add significant talent this offseason.

Houston’s long-rumored potential reunion with Harden, the 76ers guard who holds a player option for 2023-24, in addition to the Rockets’ chances at landing other primary free agents and top-billing trade targets this offseason, were repeated themes throughout Houston’s conversations with coaching candidates, sources said. Middleton has been another potential target discussed throughout the Rockets’ coaching search, sources said. Udoka spent time with Harden as an assistant during the All-Star guard’s first season in Brooklyn. And Celtics All-Star Jaylen Brown, whom rival executives are closely monitoring as he becomes extension eligible this summer, has been one of Udoka’s most public supporters after Boston suspended the coach following an improper relationship with a Celtics staffer. The Rockets, sources said, also addressed the idea of including second-year guard Jalen Green, the No. 2 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, as part of a package for acquiring established star talent.

Various coaching figures anticipated Udoka would emerge as a leading candidate in Toronto’s process to replace Nurse on the Raptors’ bench. Toronto, however, plans to undergo a lengthy search that may not conclude until after the mid-May NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, sources told Yahoo Sports, with the Raptors expected to meet with coaches ranging from NBA assistants to NCAA head coaches to play callers with international experience, as well — such as former Raptors assistant and Spanish national team head coach Sergio Scariolo. ESPN reported Thursday that Toronto has already gathered permission to speak with Lee, Golden State assistant coach Kenny Atkinson, Phoenix assistant Kevin Young, San Antonio’s Mitch Johnson, as well as Sacramento assistant Jordi Fernandez, Grizzlies assistant Darko Rajaković and Miami assistant Chris Quinn.

The other personnel change on the horizon is a new lead executive in Washington after the Wizards dismissed president and general manager Tommy Sheppard. The team is not using a search firm to fill the vacancy, sources told Yahoo Sports, as former Georgetown head coach John Thompson III — who has been a Wizards executive since 2019 — acts as the point man for team owner Ted Leonsis. While there have been plenty of rumored candidates, particularly Timberwolves president Tim Connelly — a native of the DC area whom Leonsis targeted before elevating Sheppard in 2019 — the Wizards have yet to begin the process of requesting permission to interview executives from other teams, sources said.