Mike Budenholzer, the new coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, was speaking to basketball’s most tantalizing new star, Giannis Antetokounmpo, about a plan for the future.
He’s nearly 7 feet tall, with arms that seem to stretch sideline to sideline and are covered in chiseled muscles. He dribbles like a guard and looks like a center. He’s a two-time All-Star and a trendy pick to win the most valuable player award this season. He won’t turn 24 for another month.
Budenholzer was named the Bucks coach largely because management believed he could fully unlock Antetokounmpo’s potential, a belief that’s already been confirmed in the NBA’s first month.
The Bucks are the only team to beat Toronto, while their only losses have been in Boston, in Portland and Saturday afternoon at Staples Center to the Clippers in overtime. And Thursday night, the Bucks beat the stuffing out of the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors in Oakland.
The plan, it’s working. But before it could, Budenholzer had to sell it to his best player.
When the two men spoke this summer about Budenholzer’s vision for the Bucks, the player with the 13-letter last name asked a three-letter question.
“My first question to him was ‘Why?’” Antetokounmpo told the Los Angeles Times. “Why are we going to play this way?”
Antetokounmpo wasn’t professing loyalty to the way things used to be. The Bucks had made three consecutive trips to the playoffs, but they also had three straight first-round exits. He just wanted to fully buy in, and to do that, he had to understand it.
So Budenholzer got to work, painting a picture of a free-flowing offense with tons of three-point shots and tons of trips to the rim, all revolving around Antetokounmpo.
“Every coach has a philosophy, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to play under that philosophy. He said we’d have a lot of open threes, that he was one of the best coaches to provide open looks, corner threes,” Antetokounmpo said. “And I said, ‘OK.’ And he said if that happens, you’re going to have more driving lanes, more gaps to make plays. And, the way we’d play would be kind of easy.”
So far, they’ve made it look that way.
Milwaukee looks every bit like an early season title contender. After Thursday’s win against the Warriors, the Bucks lead the league in net rating, the difference between points scored per 100 possessions and points allowed per 100 possessions. They’re second in offensive efficiency and third in defensive effeciency. No other team is in the top five of both categories.
“We just move the ball, move our bodies,” Antetokounmpo said. “Whoever is open, shoot the ball. Whoever, is not open, make a play. And I think it was easy to adjust and pick it up from day one.”
Under Jason Kidd, the Bucks were allergic to the three-point line, never finishing higher than 24th in the league in three-point attempts during Kidd’s tenure — a time that coincided with an explosion of three-pointers everywhere else in the league.
“We knew change was coming after last season,” Bucks forward Khris Middleton said. “And I thought guys did a good job of keeping an open mind and trying to learn something new, trying to take grasp of it.”
The three-point line is greener than their jerseys. Under Budenholzer, the team is taking more than 40 a game after shooting a hair less than 25 last season. They’re making 15 a night, almost twice as many as last season.
They’re faster (fifth in pace) and doing it in a brand new downtown arena in some of the best uniforms in the NBA.
“There’s so much excitement in Milwaukee right now. Fans are excited about the team. We’re excited about the season,” Antetokounmpo said before Thursday’s game against the Warriors. “We’ve been playing good basketball. This is the 11th game of the season, and it feels like it’s the first, like the season hasn’t even started. It flows so easy.”
Antetokounmpo is averaging 25.6 points and 12.9 rebounds. Middleton’s been rock solid, scoring more than 19 a game. Three other players are scoring in double figures. Everyone who plays regular minutes is averaging more than two three-point shots a game, “whether they should be shooting them or not,” as one rival NBA source put it.
So, why? Why are they winning, why are they shooting? Why are they looking like a legitimate threat to the Warriors, playing with length, pace and space?
It all traces back to the conversation Budenholzer had with Antetokounmpo.
“The great thing about Giannis is that he’s like a sponge. He’s someone who is on a constant quest to learn and grow and get better,” Budenholzer said. “I think sometimes it’s overstated, but it’s different for him, a different way of playing. It’s learning different spots to attack, a different pace. I told him how I thought it could be great. It could be great for him, but it would help him raise the guys around him and making everyone surrounding him even better. In theory, it lifts everyone up.
“I tried to paint that picture for him.”
And maybe, just maybe, it might end up being a masterpiece.