Milwaukee didn’t get out of the first round of the playoffs last year. Denver didn’t even get into the first round of the playoffs, its postseason hopes thwarted by a loss in the last game of the regular season.
As such, few may have seen this coming.
The perk of getting to coach the All-Star Game goes to the staffs of the teams with the best records in the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference two weeks before the matchup — which this year meant the Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer and the Nuggets’ Michael Malone got the jobs.
So for only the second time in the last 35 seasons, the All-Star coaches are people who weren’t participants in the previous year’s NBA playoffs. Malone missed by a game, and Budenholzer was coaching Atlanta to a 24-58 record. Yet on Feb. 17 in Charlotte, Budenholzer and Malone will be front and center with their chance to strategize for one night with the best players in the world.
“I feel like me and Mike are cut from the same cloth,” Budenholzer said. “We want to be good defensively, and the players are pretty damn good offensively.”
Budenholzer will coach Team Giannis, picked by his Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. Malone will coach Team LeBron, picked by Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James.
Some coaches will faux gripe about going — Golden State’s Steve Kerr did a mock celebration when he realized that Malone had edged him out for the job, because now he’ll get to go on vacation for a few days instead of having to do some work — but there’s a real sense that this means a great deal to both Budenholzer and Malone.
The Bucks have gotten to the 40-win mark faster than all but three teams in the 51-year-old franchise’s history. And all Malone has done has improved Denver’s record every year that he’s been there.
“Any time you can represent your team, your city, your fans at the All-Star Game is an honor,” Malone said. “Our staff deserves a ton of credit. They work their butts off. Very thankful for everything they do for me every single day.”
The last time there was this sort of odd couple — no playoffs as head coaches one year, All-Star coaches the next — at the league’s midseason showcase game was 2008, when New Orleans’ Byron Scott and Boston’s Doc Rivers had the honors. That was the season where the Celtics went on to win the NBA title after a 66-win regular season, a 42-win improvement from the year before thanks largely to the addition of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to a core that already had Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo.
The next-most-recent such instance was 1984, and that matchup between Utah’s Frank Layden and Boston’s K.C. Jones is really only a technicality since Jones was in his first season as head coach and was a playoff-bound Celtics assistant for several years prior.
“It’s a pretty cool opportunity and honor, especially when the team and the players have put you in this position,” Budenholzer said. “Organizationally, for this to be our first year working with the front office, working with ownership, it’s a pretty cool honor. A lot of good things are happening in Milwaukee. Us going to the All-Star Game, it’s just representative of everything that’s happening in our city.”
The 2018-19 Bucks and Nuggets aren’t all that different, roster-wise, from their 2017-18 editions.
That only adds to the intrigue of how Budenholzer and Malone are finding their way over to Charlotte.
The teams’ best players this season are pretty much their best players from last season, sans for Milwaukee’s addition of Brook Lopez. Milwaukee’s best pickup, quite frankly, was Budenholzer, who parted ways with the rebuilding Hawks by mutual consent when last season ended. And the Nuggets are better simply because they’ve been tougher in the toughest moments — they were 12-11 last season in games decided by five points or less, and held a 13-3 mark in such games this season entering Friday.
“If you miss the playoffs two years in a row by one game … you don’t want to put yourself in that same situation again,” Malone said. “We are a young team, second-youngest roster in the NBA. We’ve had a ton of injuries. But the motivation and the pain of losing and coming up short, I think, has motivated all of us.”
The Bucks have motivation as well, coming off a Game 7 loss in the first round to Boston. That led to the team going out and getting Budenholzer, who has seemed like the perfect fit from Day 1.
Budenholzer has coached the All-Star Game before, back in 2015 with Atlanta. He said he wants to enjoy this one more.
“His ability to be flexible, to be creative, to build a relationship with our guys and really everyone in our organization has created this dynamic and this culture of togetherness and excitement and fun,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst said. “You’ve got a superstar in Giannis that fits, I believe, a superstar coach in Mike Budenholzer.”