Budenholzer, Rivers, Nash March Toward Finals


Who is the head of a family?

In our more progressive times, couples more often share leadership equally. Also, perhaps it’s not one man and one woman.

So far in the NBA, however, every team has had a basketball veteran help navigate their teams to championship aspirations. Coaches Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee, Doc Rivers in Philadelphia, and Steve Nash in Brooklyn lead passionate groups of soul brothers towards the 2021 Finals.

By examining the thinkers’ paths from the start of Bud’s head-coaching career, fans can appreciate the joys and frustrations experienced by every coach. Impediments clog the road to every NBA Finals, but the East’s big three whiteboard and marker men bring their experience suitcases to their new captaincy.

Coach Doc

2013-2020: LA Clippers

After 43 years of awfulness, LA became tired of waiting and traded a first-round pick for Doc, then-Boston’s coach. Rivers immediately led Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Co. to the third-best record in the West.

Unexpected adversity struck when TMZ caught owner Donald Sterling, already a well-known sexist and slumlord schmuck, on tape with racist comments. Although Adam Silver swiftly banned Sterling, Doc somehow had to lead his team past the improving Warriors. After a game-five win, an emotional Doc reflected on his team’s fatigue while showing compassion for Shelly, Sterling’s wife.

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Although the Clippers beat Golden State, the (as usual) horrible NBA officials made one of the worst calls in league history in the West Semifinals. “That’s our ball!” the coach hollered in vain.

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OKC closed out the series, and heartbreak struck again in 2015 after a massive blown lead against Houston in the second round. After three leaner years, LA became a gigantic underdog against the now two-time defending-champ Dubs. However, Doc’s never-say-die attitude allowed his transitioning franchise to overcome a 31-point deficit in Oakland.

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Unfortunately, Golden State battled back to win the series, and after a collapse in the NBA bubble, LA decided to move on. A champion is never down for long, however.

2020-2021: Philadelphia

The Sixers’ leasters strategy netted superb pros Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Regrettably, Brett Brown stayed on for too long. After a humiliating sweep to Boston in the bubble, Philly hired the more-successful Rivers. Doc immediately improved attention to detail on defense as Philadelphia improved from 12th in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) in 2020 to second this season. A notable concern is the Sixers only make the 23rd-most threes, a playoff liability.

Regardless, Philadelphia is much closer to its potential under its well-traveled new coach.

Coach Bud

2013-2018: Atlanta Hawks

After 16 years coaching under legend Gregg Popovich, Bud earned his shot as Atlanta’s leader. Although the Hawks only earned the eighth seed in 2014, they stunned Indiana in game one. Atlanta could have become the sixth No. 8 seed to win a series with a better game-six ending.

Still, Bud quickly established himself as a significant leap from Larry Drew as he motivated an average 2015 roster to 60 wins and the top East record. Vegas didn’t buy the Hawks, however, making Cleveland the betting favorites. The House is usually correct, and indeed, Atlanta battled to reach the East Finals. After losing both games at home, LeBron broke the Hawks’ hearts in game three, effectively ending the series.

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The Hawks haven’t experienced the same success since. The Cavs swept Atlanta again in 2016, and the Hawks slumped out of the playoffs by 2018.

2018-2021: Milwaukee Bucks

During the Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty era, the Bucks were a well-shaken coke can. If a modern-minded coach could bring a skilled thumb, the team would explode. Happily, Bud unleashed Giannis and encouraged a free-flowing offensive system. Bud again won 60 games and, after a 10-1 start to the 2018 playoffs, appeared headed to the Finals. A slight misfire by Khris Middleton in Toronto (see 5:56) tragically reversed momentum.

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The Bucks still haven’t had as good of a Finals opportunity. However, Milwaukee finished 2021 strong to earn the third seed convincingly. Jon Horst brilliantly extended the Freak and Jrue Holiday, and Bud’s lightning-ball is still working as the Bucks finished third in the east in offensive rating. Should Milwaukee best their Miami rivals, their likely opponent would be Doc in the East Finals, but – wait! – don’t forget about Nash’s Nets in the semifinals.

Coach Nash

In Jack McCallum’s excellent Dream Team, the Sports Illustrated scribe demolishes the notion that anyone could have won gold with the 1992 Dream Team. McCallum instead argues that Chuck Daly was the only coach who could have managed egos so expertly in a hyper-adoration carnival. Therefore, skeptics of new Nets coach Steve Nash should not be so quick to hit the @ button on Twitter after a Brooklyn loss.

When the Nets first hired Nash, infamously inconsistent star Kyrie Irving questioned the decision and briefly left the team. Soon, however, Irving found kinder words.

“Steve’s been amazing,” Irving stated. “He commands the respect” and “gives us a comfortable place to grow, to communicate, to throw ideas out there.” Should we have expected less from a Hall of Fame point guard?

Despite numerous injuries to its big three, Nash refused to concede games. The Nets regained health at the right time and clinched the second seed at the season’s last moment. While Nash didn’t earn any points for excitability, his postgame comments reflected proper respect for his coaching role while deflecting praise to his talented roster.

“I thought it was very professional,” he stated of the Nets’ offensive mindset. “We came out with the requisite energy.” His big three is no longer a ball-hog mishmash; now, it’s a cohesive whole. “We do have guys who are talented and have a lot of experience, so hopefully, we can rely on that as we find ourselves.” If the Nets still haven’t found themselves entirely, that’s terrible news for a now-crowded playoff field.

But Bud’s Bucks will be ready.


When asked before the Miami game Saturday if the Bucks would lose on purpose, Bud intelligently responded, “we’re just going to go out there and play.” The Bucks have worked and played tremendously in Bud’s three years, but Doc and Nash finally equaled Milwaukee in Eastern Conference might.

If seeding holds, the Bucks’ road back to the forsaken Finals paradise must run through both Doc’s familial Sixers and Nash’s newly coalesced Brooklyn brothers. If the Bucks can maintain needed defensive focus and refuse to blink in New York’s hostile lights, Milwaukee may have a happier shout: “that’s our championship!”

Follow us on Twitter @BucksLead for the latest Bucks news and insight. 

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About Jeffrey Newholm

"Jammin Jeff" Newholm had been a basketball fanatic since his high school days, and remained a casual fan as a student in Whitewater. Wishing to check in as an active participant, he also completed a writing certificate program at UWM. He loves seeing Bucks games more than any other activity in hometown Milwaukee and especially screaming really really loudly to get someone to miss a free throw. Twitter: @JeffreyNewholm

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