The Atlanta Hawks are rebuilding and everyone knows it. The “R-word” was thrown around quite a bit at Media Day, especially in casual conversation, and head coach Mike Budenholzer was asked (on multiple occasions) to address his mindset through that prism before the outset of training camp.
Because Budenholzer has presided over playoff-bound teams in each and every season of his NBA head coaching tenure, this is a new challenge for him and it comes with the added intrigue of a title change that removes his responsibilities as the head of the front office. As part of that move, Budenholzer expressed “a great passion” for the coaching profession in his Media Day remarks and cited the ability to provide his “undivided attention” to the details necessary to do that job on the highest possible level.
While Budenholzer’s coaching acumen is rarely in question, there could be something to this change in that it allows 100 percent focus. This season, however, he will likely need it, as the Hawks encounter dwindling expectations due to roster turnover and overwhelming youth.
As you may expect, he was asked about the outside noise that comes with low expectations and, largely, Budenholzer indicated that the team will block it out.
“For the most part, luckily, most of us I think live in our own little world,” Budenholzer said. “And teams tend to just bunker in and we know what’s happening on our practice court, we know what’s happening in our film sessions and in our games. Our expectations of ourselves, I think, are significantly more important than what people on the outside expect of us.”
Then, he pivoted toward internal expectations.
“It’s kind of wasted time to think about or worry about what anybody else is expecting of us,” Budenholzer lamented. “I think a lot of the things that we’ve been doing, probably a lot of it since we’ve started playing basketball and coaching basketball, is how we come to work everyday, what are we doing in the gym, how are we preparing. That’s where our expectations are. If you’re doing those things then, more often than not, you can feel good about what’s happening on the court, and it just continues to be our focus is what are we doing everyday, how are we getting better everyday and that’s where our focus and expectations are.”
It is almost unanimous around the NBA, especially in a situation like this one, to hear players and coaches focus internally rather than on what is being said around them. For many involved in this rebuild, it will be a first-time foray into the lottery-bound world and, for someone with Budenholzer’s pedigree after arriving from San Antonio, it almost has to feel foreign.
Still, there are genuine beliefs behind the head coach’s optimism and he later shared that philosophy when asked just how he and the team would maintain optimism in the midst of what could be a trying campaign.
“I think the thing you’ve heard us all of us talk about this each year...” Budenholzer began. “When you genuinely believe in player development, when you genuinely believe in your team getting better from the start of this season to end of this season I think it’s a big reason why a lot of us coach and a lot of us play.”
“I think we’re all competitive and when it comes to the games we’re going to lay everything on the line, we’re going to give it everything we’ve got and we hope through the work and player development and the individual development that the results are going to be something that we’re all proud of. There’s maybe some degree of underestimation of who we are and what we can be.”
The theme of “underestimation” will almost certainly be one used behind closed doors as a motivational tactic and, frankly, that is a wise move. This is a roster full of proud, competitive players that have no interest in “tanking” to improve the franchise’s future NBA Draft capital.
Still, it comes down to process and, if you read between the lines a bit, you can surmise that even Budenholzer understands what could be a frustrating overall performance.
“I think if you kind of appreciate and actually enjoy and embrace the process of whether you’re winning NBA championships or winning 60, 55, 50 games or you’re in a different phase of your organization and you’re growing and developing and laying the foundations for something you think can be special.”
“That process can be incredibly rewarding, I think not just for the organisation but for player for coaches and everyone that’s involved in it. If you’re just focused on the end result you’re probably going to have a frustrating year (bold emphasis mine) but I think if you embrace what you go through every day and work through every day there’s a lot you can take from that.”
Deep down, it is hard to imagine that the head coach does not, on some level, understand the long climb ahead. Still, Mike Budenholzer has a well-earned reputation for maximizing the talent on Atlanta’s roster and, if you believe that the Hawks can over-archieve this season, at least part of that belief system is likely rooted in having a quality head coach at the helm.