It may seem odd to say that Mike Budenholzer is underrated when he is only two years separated from winning the Coach of the Year award. Most of the NBA has (to a degree) forgotten about the 2014-15 Hawks’ 60 wins though, and one could easily argue that Budenholzer doesn’t receive the degree of recognition that he deserves.
Regardless of recognition, Budenholzer is facing several new coaching challenges this year. The facts that the Hawks have a much different roster from last season and are facing an improved Eastern Conference are nothing new, but they are just as much hurdles for the coaching staff as they are for the team as a whole.
First of all, Jeff Teague and Al Horford are gone. Teams move on from players on a regular basis, but these two had been on the team for multiple years before Budenholzer arrived, and it is important not to understate the effects of their absence. Atlanta replaced each of them with another competent player, but much of Budenholzer’s previous success came from roster continuity (something he has often stressed). Without Teague and Horford, Budenholzer is now at the helm of a much different team.
Budenholzer also faces this season without longtime assistant Kenny Atkinson. Getting a job at Brooklyn is a fantastic step for Atkinson (and reflects well on Atlanta’s coaching system), but Atkinson has been a big part of the player development that the Hawks value so highly. His departure doesn’t doom the team, or even mean that players should take a step back, but it is still important.
Finally, the East is stronger than it has been since Budenholzer arrived. Boston is better this year, teams like Detroit and Milwaukee are on the rise, and Charlotte and Toronto should be as strong as they were last year. The East is still extremely top-heavy, but the middle is growing more and more competitive.
What Coach Budenholzer did over his first two years in Atlanta is remarkable. To take the 2013-14 team, and turn it into a 60-win juggernaut is something few coaches could do. If this team is able to replicate (or come close to) the 48 wins from last year, he will undoubtedly deserve a lot of the credit. 48 wins was a success in 2015-16, and to continue at this level with these new challenges would be impressive
However well this team plays though, Budenholzer brings a considerable degree of stability to the Hawks. He is a proven coach with a strong resume, and there is little doubt around the league that he should be able to get this team to play to its full potential.