If a contender is going to fire a coach, then they need to have somebody better waiting in the wings.
In the case of the Milwaukee Bucks, if a team is going to fire a coach in Mike Budenholzer, who just won 58 games this season and a title two seasons ago, who will that replacement be? Especially for a franchise whose MVP star player is extension eligible come the fall.
The Bucks have a big decision ahead and the early reports are they want to take their time and do it right, with an exhaustive search. (If they fired Budenholzer without a replacement in mind and ready, well, that’s a choice.) The Bucks have the best job available on the market for a coach who wants to win now, but that coach walks in the door to unmatched pressure.
Here are five names to watch as the Bucks look for Budenholzer’s replacement.
1) Charles Lee
Firing Budenholzer may have been easier because the Bucks have the coach-in-waiting on the bench in Charles Lee. He is a long-time top NBA assistant coach who has been a serious candidate for other jobs — he is reportedly in the top three for the Pistons job — and could step right in with minimal disruption. This move brings a new voice to the room without making a radical, overhaul change. The Bucks won 58 games this season and were the No.1 seed, they need tweaks, not an overhaul.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a man who likes his routine and familiarity, he has a comfort zone and often wants to stay in it. Lee fits that mold, he is someone the Greek Freak knows and trusts. That matters. Antetokounmpo’s happiness (and keeping him long-term) matters, and the coaching change directly impacts his work environment. Budenholzer isn’t fired if Antetokounmpo sticks up for him, and the new coach will at least get a nod of approval from the franchise player. Lee would get that.
2) Nick Nurse
If the criteria for a new coach is a proven winner and someone willing to make adjustments — sometimes radical ones — to win, then Nurse is the guy.
His adjustments — and a peak Kawhi Leonard with a deep roster around him — led Toronto to its first and only title. However, he was just let go in Toronto not because he couldn’t get a roster with talent out of the first round, but rather because he couldn’t even get them into the playoffs. Still, Nurse is an innovative coach, and meets the criteria of a proven winner and risk taker. He is a logical choice.
3) Frank Vogel
If we’re listing championship coaches out of a job, proven winners, Frank Vogel has to be on the list. Vogel is defense first, knows how to work with superstars, is relatively egoless, and is willing to adjust and adapt to make things work. He got fired in Los Angeles for his rotations and losing the Lakers’ locker room, but a lot of that falls on GM Rob Pelinka for taking a championship roster and breaking it apart for more offense and Russell Westbrook (look what happened at the deadline when the Lakers got shooting and defense back on the roster). Vogel can lead this team to a lot of wins and maybe another ring.
4) Kenny Atkinson
Like Charles Lee, this is another change in voice without radical change in style — Atkinson was a Budenholzer assistant in Atlanta. He coached the Brooklyn Nets for most of four seasons and helped build them into a solid young core and feisty playoff team, the kind of team Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving wanted to play for. The radical shift in franchise culture that came with those stars saw Atkinson on the outside, but he’s a good player development coach and could step in and do a quality job.
5) Mike D’Antoni
Antetokounmpo is the most dangerous player in the NBA when he is in transition or plays in space and is moving downhill. So why not reach out to the innovator of the pace-and-space offense? D’Antoni is older and out of the league for a couple of years, but if the goal is a change in style and to get the Bucks looking in a new direction, D’Antoni could be the guy. (If the Bucks are going this direction, it likely means significant roster changes as well, as constructed this team doesn’t play slow but they are not D’Antoni fast.)