The Toronto Raptors are interested in Mike Budenholzer. This is news that came out in the immediate aftermath of Dwane Casey’s firing on Friday, but we’re passing it along again here because there are new, potentially relevant details and because it occurred to me that there wasn’t a stand-alone Budenholzer post for everyone’s spicy Budenholzer takes. So.
Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported Monday that Budenholzer has become a focus of both the Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks had previously narrowed in on Budenholzer after an initial round of interviews, and an initial version of the story had the Bucks going so far as to be dangling an ownership stake to entice him, though Wojnarowski later amended the report to say Budenholzer is only meeting with ownership. Still, that suggests the Bucks -who can offer a 23-year-old Most Valuable Player candidate, a young roster on the upswing, a new arena, and the chance to lead the team past the first round for the first time in almost two decades – are fairly far along in their pursuit.
The Raptors, meanwhile, “opened talks with Budenholzer over the weekend, and those conversations were continuing Monday.” Toronto’s pitch is fairly straightforward, to, with an ownership with deep pockets that’s spent on everything except the luxury tax to make the team a winner and will likely do that next year, too, a roster that just won 59 games, and president Masai Ujiri, one of basketball’s best salesmen.
This, of course, is grain-of-salt season. Wojnarowski has had just about every Budenholzer report throughout his process of leaving the Atlanta Hawks and being pursued by a number of teams. The Raptors aren’t the leakiest of organizations, and while Wojnarowski would be a good bet to receive any of those leaks, it’s telling that no other names have surfaced in a search that was expected to cast a wide net. It’s certainly possible Toronto’s immediate interest is being leveraged here as Budenholzer approaches the finish line with the Bucks (though the opposite is also possible).
In any case, Budenholzer would be a reasonable enough candidate. A 17-year assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, he then helped lead the Hawks to a 60-win season, winning Coach of the Year in the process before being swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. If that sounds familiar, it won’t be the only thing that sounds familiar between Budenholzer and the departing Casey. There are similar strengths and weaknesses on each resume, and while Budenholzer is a better tactician, he also runs much hotter on the sideline, which can cut either way. His system in Atlanta also wouldn’t have fit Toronto’s personnel – they played a five-out style that relied on playmaking bigs – though there’s no saying that because he’s a system coach he can’t adjust his system. He also came under fire for his in-game management and rotations, the same sort of micro-focused areas that led to Casey’s ouster despite his standing as a very strong big-picture coach.
All of that is to say, the general response to a potential Budenholzer hire looking like a lateral move or change for the sake of change is not unfounded, even if he’s a better version of a similar archetype.
There is no shortage of names the Raptors could pursue, and that includes three internal candidates. Marc Stein of the New York Times reports that assistant coaches Nick Nurse and Rex Kalamian will both interview for the role Tuesday, and Raptors Republic has learned that Raptors 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse will also receive an interview this week. All three have interesting cases, with Nurse’s resume standing as among the most decorated it could be without NBA head coaching experience, Stackhouse having an incredible first two seasons as a lead coach behind the 905 bench, and Kalamian holding a strong relationship with players and having what would seem to be the proper demeanor for the position. Nurse has earned rave reviews for his creativity on the offensive end and the role he played in reshaping the team’s offense this year, while Kalamian has helped lead a top-11 defense three years in a row and Stackhouse led the 905 to the G League’s best defense in consecutive years with an approach that would look familiar to anyone who watched Cavaliers-Celtics Game 1.
How legitimate a case any of these names have isn’t immediately clear, but they all have solid resumes and reputations. Nurse would probably have to be considered the front-runner of the group, given his track record and how the offense shifted and held up in the playoffs, but it’s always difficult to ascribe credit and blame across a coaching staff. At the very least, the Raptors would want it to be known that they at least interviewed their in-house candidate. Stackhouse had several other interviews in the past month, Kalamian has interviewed for outside positions before, and Nurse has been at the top of potential first-time hire lists for years now, so there’s legitimate flight risk here. If the Raptors ultimately go another route, selling three names on sticking with the organization becomes paramount to maintaining some stability and continuity of culture during a coaching change.
Given that the Raptors have interviews on the books a few days out, it doesn’t seem like there will be an immediate resolution to their search. And there shouldn’t be. Ujiri has never made a head coaching hire before, and he hardly seems the type to rush such a decision.