Suns resemble Budenholzer's Hawks more than his Bucks

The Phoenix Suns got their man in Mike Budenholzer, and they more closely resemble his Atlanta Hawks team than the Milwaukee Bucks who won a title.
Boston Celtics v Milwaukee Bucks
Boston Celtics v Milwaukee Bucks / Patrick McDermott/GettyImages

New Phoenix Suns' head coach Mike Budenholzer may be best known for his stint with the Milwaukee Bucks, but it was his first head coaching gig with the Atlanta Hawks that stands out as his most impressive work.

Those Hawks teams, despite lacking a superstar, were able to register a 60 win season, make the playoffs four straight years, and reach one conference finals. The structure of those teams, aside from the lack of star power, was much more similar to the current Suns roster than Budenholzer’s Bucks teams.

If the Suns find it difficult to make sweeping roster changes this offseason, then Budenholzer's first job can serve as a roadmap on how to build a successful team with the kind of personnel both teams employ.

Like the current Suns, the Hawks were a small team that relied on their big men to handle a large part of the playmaking.

Both Paul Millsap and Al Horford regularly eclipsed 3 assists per game during the Hawks best years, while Jusuf Nurkić averaged 4 per game this year.

Unlike the Suns though, the Hawks consistently employed a traditional point guard, but only once did one of their guards eclipse the 6.9 assists per game mark that Devin Booker registered this season. Both teams clearly favored the committee approach to playmaking. 

Amazingly, the Hawks were even smaller than this Suns team, with Millsap and Horford both being shorter than Nurk and Kevin Durant. Despite that, they didn’t play at a break-neck pace; they’re average pace ranking in their three bests years (2014-16) was 11th. This year's Suns weren’t fast relative to the league either, ranking 15th in pace.

What the Hawks did do, and what Bud needs to get the Suns to do regardless if they run it back with this squad or not, is shoot a ton of 3s. During his full tenure coaching the Hawks, their average ranking in 3s attempted was 8th. The Suns were a lowly 25th this season. 

The Hawks achieved that ranking without a stretch five to bolster those numbers. Bud hadn’t yet perfected the 5-out style of ball that he later used in Milwaukee, in large part because Horford was just beginning his evolution as a shooting big man. He attempted under 1 3 per game in his first two years under Bud, before jumping to 3.1 3PAs in his final season with the Hawks. 

That gives the Suns some hope that they could increase their 3 attempts without Nurk or another center being a threat from beyond the arc. Instead, that uptick is going to have to come from everywhere else on the roster. 

The Suns, with their continued slow pace and higher volume three point shooting, would turn into a powered up version of those Hawks teams, at least on offense. Those teams always had a plan, stuck to it, and rarely exhibited the kind of disconnet the Suns did at various points this year.

They ran into trouble in the playoffs when they faced more talented, star-laden teams, but that isn't something the Suns would have to worry about. With star power of their own, they're not facing the talent gap that Bud's Hawks dealt with in the playoffs. Add in Bud's system, and they would be a dangerous offensive team.

However, the Suns would still run into a host of problems on the other side of the ball that should ultimately discourage them from emulating those Hawks teams. 

Part of the reason the Hawks were able to play small effectively was because the entire league was going smaller. Old-school bigs were being phased out, leaving no one to punish small ball. That has changed.

In the last decade there’s been an influx of dominant big men, as well as a trend towards teams stockpiling bigger wings. The Suns, with KD at the four playing next to three guards in the starting lineup, are too small for today’s game.

Even it the game wasn’t trending towards bigger lineups, the Suns are lacking the defensive players that made the Hawks so successful. Both Horford and Millsap were great defenders, each having made all-defensive teams in their careers.

Next. 3 reasons Mike Budenholzer will succeed with the Suns. 3 reasons Mike Budenholzer will succeed with the Suns. dark

Nurkić is not that level of defender, or even close to it, as we saw this season. Nor do the Suns have any other all-defense level defenders other than KD. 

Bud can install a system and alter the way the team plays on offense. What he can’t do is turn bad defenders into great ones, while also magically making the team larger. 

With that being the case, it’s still in the Suns best interest to try to reshape their roster to adapt to the new NBA. It's amazing what Bud accomplished with the Hawks, but that success shouldn't be used as the basis for the Sun's team building going forward.