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Report: Mike Budenholzer is the “focus” of the Raptors coaching search

Toronto is apparently in talks with the former Hawks coach, but how far along are they? Is this anything?

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Sacramento Kings Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

According to the one true voice of NBA news, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Raptors are reportedly in some kind of conversation with former Hawks coach (and president of basketball operations) Mike Budenholzer.

Here’s how Woj worded this scoop:

(Woj’s full story is here.)

The questions now are many: what does “emerged as the focus” mean? How involved are these conversations? Did Masai Ujiri just call up Mike to ask what’s good? How in the mix are the Bucks? And, perhaps most importantly: really?

Here’s the book on Budenholzer: for 16 years he was an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs, which means he learned at the knee of the great Gregg Popovich. This is as close to a coaching golden ticket as one can get — every season it feels like a new crop of Spurs assistants are getting interviewed hither and yon in the NBA. This year it’s names like James Borrego (recently hired by the Hornets) and Becky Hammon (recently lighting off a dumb sexist firestorm). Back in 2013, it was Budenholzer’s turn; he was hired to run the Atlanta Hawks and managed to turn them from a middling .500-ish team into a 60-win juggernaut in just two seasons.

Since nothing good can last forever, coach Bud had to watch as his ideal Hawks team slowly fracture apart, first with some wonky contracts (hello Kent Bazemore), then some big name departures (bye Al Horford), and finally, with the true spectre of death: late-period Dwight Howard. Budenholzer coached the Hawks for five seasons, and this last year saw them notch a 24-58 record while clearly hoping to tank to the bottom of the league. In one sense, Budenholzer literally left the Hawks in a worst place than when he found them. It’s a hard and fast life in the NBA, is the takeaway here.

So then, the Raptors. Does it make sense for Toronto to hire this man they call Coach Bud?

In the extreme micro-microsense... maybe? Look, I can’t really elucidate what Budenholzer did exactly for that 60-win Hawks team except to suggest that he found ways to maximize the talent he had on hand. That squad, much like today’s Raptors, didn’t have a truly transcendent player. They were built around the malleable, beyond-the-boxscore skills of Paul Millsap and Horford, along with the off-the-ball brilliance of Kyle Korver and, whoa, DeMarre Carroll. Toss in a little Jeff Teague spiciness, plus a solid bench of Dennis Schroder, Bazemore, Mike Scott, Pero Antic, and Thabo Sefolosha, and you’ve got a recipe for success. This was egalitarian basketball at its finest, which is something the Raptors strove for this past season.

It is also a look that got completely squashed by LeBron James two years straight, with Budenholzer’s Hawks getting handed eight straight playoff losses from the King. Sound familiar?

There’s a logic here that suggests Budenholzer can figure out ways to eke out some new utility from the current Raptors roster. Maybe there’s a way to get DeRozan going without the ball a tad more, or to hand-hold Serge Ibaka through some new play-making opportunities, or to leverage the growing awareness of Jonas Valanciunas. And sure, the young bench unit could perhaps benefit from some new tactics, new strategies, or maybe just a new voice in the locker room. It’s not an impossible suggestion.

But every coaching choice for Toronto right now is going to be asked two other questions (beyond “really?”). They may be unfair, but they’re also necessary. Here goes:

Can this coach improve on a 59-win team?

Can this coach lead a team past LeBron James?

In that simple macro sense, I get the feeling Mike Budenholzer has already failed.