PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA (AP) — After leading the Atlanta Hawks to the top seed in the Eastern Conference coming off tumultuous summer, Mike Budenholzer beat out Golden State’s Steve Kerr for NBA coach of the year on Tuesday.
Budenholzer, in his second year as a head coach, was honored after the Hawks went 60-22 during the regular season, the best mark in franchise history. They won their first division title since 1994, which also was the last time they held a No. 1 seed.
“He deserves it,” said Jeff Teague, the Hawks’ All-Star point guard. “He’s made me a better player. He’s made our team better. I’m glad to have him as my head coach.”
Budenholzer received 67 first-place votes and 513 points overall in national balloting by sports writers and broadcasters. Kerr, who guided the Warriors to an NBA-best 67-15 record in his first season as coach, received 56 first-place votes and 471 points.
A longtime assistant under San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, Budenholzer went 38-44 with the Hawks during an injury-plagued debut year. But the Hawks surged to the top of the East in his second season, giving Atlanta its first coach of the year since Lenny Wilkins 21 years ago.
Milwaukee’s Jason Kidd finished a distant third in the balloting with one first-place vote and 57 points. Popovich and Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau were the only other coaches to receive first-place votes.
The Hawks had a troubled offseason after emails emerged showing owner Bruce Levenson made racially charged comments about the team’s fan base. Shortly afterward, it was revealed that Levenson’s emails were discovered during the team’s investigation into insensitive comments by general manager Danny Ferry during a conference call to discuss the potential signing of free agent Luol Deng.
Levenson announced he would sell his share of the team — a process that is still ongoing — while Ferry took an indefinite leave that lasted all season. Budenholzer, with help from assistant GM Wes Wilcox, was forced to take control of player personnel matters as well as his coaching duties.
Amid the turmoil, Budenholzer molded a tight-knit unit that has been willing to sacrifice individual stats for the good of the team.
“He’s a family-oriented person, and he spread that all throughout this organization,” Teague said. “He’s always been straight-forward with us. He’s never sugarcoated anything. A guy like that, he’s going to win awards like this.”
After a sluggish start, the Hawks suddenly got hot in December. They set a franchise record with a 19-game winning streak and in January became the first NBA team to go 17-0 in a calendar month.
The streak brought a commanding lead in the East, and Atlanta finished seven games ahead of the overwhelming preseason favorites, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The 45-year-old Budenholzer was credited with bringing to Atlanta the fast-paced, team-oriented style that worked so well for the Spurs. The Hawks had six players average in double figures, with the five starters finishing between 12.1 and 16.7 points a game.
His philosophy was best epitomized when all five starters were honored as NBA players of the month for January, the first time the league has given the award to an entire unit.
The success led to a huge jump in attendance for a franchise that traditionally struggled to draw fans. Atlanta averaged a team-record 17,412 per game, an increase of more than 21 percent from the previous season.
Budenholzer and his assistants have spent a lot of time focusing on player development. Paul Millsap made the All-Star Game for the first time after coming to Atlanta. Teague emerged as one of the league’s top point guards. DeMarre Carroll became a valued starter after bouncing around to four teams his first four years in the NBA. Dennis Schroder, who barely played as a rookie, improved to double-figure scoring this season and leads Atlanta’s deep bench.
“He was really hard on me last year,” Schroder said of Budenholzer. “I was mad about it. But now I recognize that it really helped me. He’s an amazing guy. He really cares about me and the team. I love that.”
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