Milwaukee Bucks GM Jon Horst spoke with the media ahead of this week’s NBA Sundays game. The unbeaten Bucks, only team in the NBA to be 7-0, will host the Sacramento Kings in what will be the third of a record 42 games in primetime as part of the league’s NBA Saturdays and NBA Sundays campaign. This week’s game will be broadcast from 8.30pm on Sky Sports Arena.
You have a young roster, including NBA Champion, Matthew Dellavedova. What does he bring to the team and do you think you need one or two more experienced players to go to the Finals?
“The core of our roster, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe, John Henson and Malcolm Brogdon, has competed in the Playoffs in three of the last four seasons. We’ve had extremely competitive series against the Toronto Raptors, the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls and I think that playoff experience, natural maturation and getting older and adding players like Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, who has been in the playoffs a number of times in his career is going to give us a chance to advance and improve on what we did last year. Our goal is to get into the second round and have a competitive playoff series. In addition to that, we added Mike Budenholzer this year, as our head coach, and Mike was part of the Spurs’ organisation for 19 seasons, was part of 4 NBA Championships there. With the Atlanta Hawks as the head coach, he made the playoffs four out of five seasons, a sixty-plus win season with the team that was on the verge of beating the Cleveland Cavaliers that year to go to the NBA Finals. So I think we actually have a wealth of experience on our roster and we’re looking forward to seeing how that plays out this year.”
How important do you think is the new philosophy, the new system of playing that Mike Budenholzer is building right now? Do you agree that the new confidence that the team is playing with right now is even more important following on from the 7-0 start to the season?
“We’ve added significantly to the core of our roster. Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova are two of our top six. Donte DiVincenzo, our draft pick this year, is our second sub off the bench so that’s three of our top seven. Then Eric Bledsoe is a player we added ten games into the season last year, he never had a training camp with us, didn’t have much practice time and really just hit the ground running, so in a lot of ways Eric is a new player for us as well. So four of our top seven or eight guys are pretty recent editions and so the roster does look different and I think that is part of the reason you’re seeing success right now. Undoubtedly, the system that coach Budenholzer has brought here fits our roster and the roster fits his system. He has implemented the system that gives guys the freedom and confidence to shoot the basketball which allows space for Giannis and Eric and Chris to operate and be guarded by one defender instead of multiple. Defensively, we’re more disciplined and more intentional about the way we are and where we are and so I think it’s very much a combination of the roster and the system and the coaching system that we have to coach the roster that has led to our early success and hopefully it’s something we can continue to build on and have a great season overall.”
Have you upgraded your expectation for the season as a result of the great start that the Milwaukee Bucks have had?
“The answer is no. Our expectations and our goals from the beginning have been to advance and build off of what we did last year. We’re still a relatively young team in this league and I think it would be somewhat irresponsible to update and adjust based off a quick start because, ultimately, we’re trying to build something that can be sustained and be successful over a long period of time and so we want to have a great season this year, we’re off to a great start. But most important for us is to build off of last year and to advance in the playoffs and to win consistently and I think we’re off to a great start and we’ll hopefully achieve our goals at the end of the year.”
The Bucks are unbeaten after 7 games, were you surprised at all by this amazing start? How far do you think this can go for?
“For us to be 7-0 ties a franchise best effort to start the season with the 1971/72 season. Only 41 teams in NBA history have had a start this good. Am I surprised we’ve started this well, and that we’ve caught on to our system and the way we’ve played so quickly? Not really… Our players and our coaches put in a tremendous amount of effort in the off-season and bought into spending time with each other and learning coach’s system and playing with each other, and really trying to prepare for this season. A lot of guys were spurned by what happened last season, losing in the seventh game to the Celtics. They’ve been motivated since that point to have a great year this year. When we hired coach and his staff, they came right in and fit right along and moved that agenda forward. The start is really a result of that. With any success that you have, you have to have some good luck, some good fortune and good health and we’ve had that so far and hopefully, we’ll continue to do that. How long this streak will continue? Hopefully one more game at least. We’ll take it game by game, we’d like to get to 8-0 now, if we get to 8-0 we’d like to get to 9-0. We want to stay healthy and take it game by game and that for us is the Boston Celtics tomorrow night.”
How has the new arena influenced the culture of the franchise and what impact has it had in this good start?
“From top to bottom, there’s a youth and energy and excitement in the organization. When the owners Marc Lasry, Wes Edens, Jamie Dinan and Mike Fascitelli took over the franchise, they just invested resources and energy into it. They hired our dynamic President Peter Feigin, who’s full of energy and ideas and creativity, then me as a General Manager, young and energetic with a fresh look at things. Hiring coach Mike Budenholzer, who although he has some great experience like all of us, is relatively a young man himself. Then you look at our roster, we have young rising superstar in Giannis [Antetokounmpo], who’s a back to back NBA All-Star, back to back All-NBA and the player of the week I believe for the fourth or fifth time in his career, he’s not even hit his prime yet. That’s the people part of it. Then we have a new practice facility, a new business office, a brand new state-of-the-art arena that it’s just impossible to come to work every day in facilities like these and not be energized and excited about what is happening in the city of Milwaukee, in the state of Wisconsin. Our goal is to make our brand a global brand and I’ve seen that, I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes, I travel a lot for my work in scouting and I travel the world. I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe, in Africa, in different areas and I see basketball everywhere. A lot of time you see Giannis jerseys, occasionally there would be an Ersan jersey now but sometimes it is just Bucks gear and this is what we need to see our brand becoming global, which is ultimately our goal and so the culture and the excitement are at an all-time high and it is exciting to be part of it”
The team is getting a lot more attention, it’s getting ranked higher and higher in the power rankings and is currently top of the eastern conference. It’s a team full of young and ambitious guys, as the general manager of the team is possible to take the pressure off the team and avoid there being too much pressure placed on them and keep them on the right track?
“Pressure is inevitable, but I wouldn’t want to call it an issue, I’d call it an opportunity that hopefully we continue to win and that pressure continues to build and hopefully we continue to have success. Ultimately you can’t have success in sport unless you can manage and deal with pressure, so for our players they’ve felt the pressure of playing in the Playoffs in a competitive series. Playing in a game seven against the Boston Celtics, that’s real pressure, so they’ve dealt with that. Now there’s the pressure of expectation, being 7-0, the only team in the NBA that’s undefeated and being under pressure to keep that run alive and keep growing. That’s a new pressure for them to learn to deal with. Yes we’ll spend time with them talking about it and helping them to manage it, but it really comes back to coach Budenholzer, his staff and their approach, taking it day-by-day, play-by-play, just continue to get better, improve every day. Some days you don’t get better, some days you take a step back and when you take a step back, you evaluate and learn how to improve and go on from there. So, yes there’s pressure and it will have an impact on what we do, but you have to able to manage and deal with pressure and succeed beyond pressure to have ultimate success in this league. I look at it as a great opportunity for our guys to learn how to play with these expectations.”
You mentioned the desire to get to 8-0, the last time it happened when you were 7-1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson were playing, is there much conversation on the team about the great roster whose record they are trying to break?
“I would say directly, no, because although 8-0 would be a historical mark in the league and for our franchise, that’s not what we’re playing for. Our desire is not truly to be 8-0, it’s to beat the Boston Celtics and as a result of that go to 8-0. We want to be 1-0 after our next game, its sounds cliched but we spend a lot of time ensuring that our players are focussed on the next game and the next day. In this league it’s hard, you play a tonne of games and if you get caught up in the highs and lows, overall it can have a negative impact on your season so we try really hard to take it day-by-day. Indirectly, speaking to the great team in 1971-72, the great players like Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, John McGlocklin, Bob Dandridge, we spend a lot of time focussing on Bucks history and as an organisation those guys spend a lot of time around our franchise and coming to our games. Indirectly, those guys are a big part of what we do every day and we care very much about our history.”
Just over a year ago you were appointed GM at the Bucks which must have been an exciting time with the new facility, new arena and the great talent on your team. How has the journey been for you personally over the last year? Also with LeBron’s departure to the Lakers, everybody tends to talk about the Raptors, the 76ers and the Celtics as the contenders in the East, does that annoy you or do you see it as an opportunity to show that you are legitimate contenders for the East as well?
“The journey has been exciting, an unbelievable opportunity for me professionally and personally and I’m thankful for it. I feel that I was absolutely prepared and ready for the opportunity, I got the job just over a year ago but I’ve definitely learnt a lot in that time and I think that myself and my staff are even better now than when we started and will continue to get better as we go forward. There’s a lot for me to learn and lots of areas for us to improve but I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done in our short time here. I’m very proud of the roster and the coaching staff, the way that we work, the way that we scout, the overall feeling and dynamic in our building , in our operation. Our operation is big, we have medical services, analytics, coaching, scouting and health and nutrition and we have a variety of things that we do that go into our product and I’m very proud of the work that this group has done in our time together so far”
“Without a doubt LeBron leaving the Eastern Conference presents an opportunity for everyone – Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, Indiana and the way that the Detroit Pistons are playing right now, they all feel like they can take advantage of the opportunity to its fullest. I personally believe, and I know all the players on the roster and everyone involved in this organisation know that we’re positioned as well if not better than anyone to take advantage of that opportunity. It does not annoy or bother me that the Bucks are not mentioned as much as other teams, we don’t spend time worrying about what other people think about us. We worry about our next game, our next opportunity and we take it day-by-day. We want to improve and be the best team we can be this year, if that happens and we actually do that and stay healthy, we think we’ll be very happy with where we’re at come the end of the season.”
How do you think initiatives like NBA Sundays can help grow the popularity of both the NBA and sport of basketball in general in European countries which are otherwise dominated by soccer in the news?
“Yes I think awareness, information and the overall interest that can be generated through the initiative really helps our game. I travel a lot and spend a lot of time in different countries and different areas of the world for basketball and almost everywhere I go, basketball is a big deal, no matter how big or small the country is. Is it second to soccer in a lot of areas? Of course, but I think our sport is growing in popularity and growing in interest and I love the stories of young boys and girls that are in Europe that have to stay up late or wake up super early to watch NBA games. A lot of our players that play in our league, I believe there’s 108 players in our league right now that are international, so that represents a big portion of our league that has an international influence. And a lot of them are native to here [the USA] because they had a big passion from a young age and they had an opportunity to learn about our sport and watch our sport. So I think initiatives like NBA Primetime where you all write and tell stories about teams, where we broadcast games for different areas of the world is extremely helpful. Sacramento being our opponent is fitting with Vlade [Divac] being the top of their franchise there and with the number of international players they have on their team, and the number of international players we have on our team, it should be very exciting for a lot of parts of the world to watch the game and to learn more about our game.”
You guys are playing really well on offence but the major difference from last year is from defence because right now you are the first team for contested shots. What do you think has changed from last season?
“There’s no doubt, offensively we’ve been good, we take a lot of threes and make a lot of threes, we’re driving the ball and finishing at the rim. We’ve been good, we’re a top ten offence is the league. But our real change and our real bread and butter thus far in the season and the thing we have to continue to be good at is defensively. Overall, defensive rating is a great stat – we’re number two in the league and that’s important. Some of the things that drive that are opponents steal percentage and opponents’ three-points overall percentage and we’re number one and two in those stats as well. So that speaks to the contesting stat. Why we’ve improved so much in that area? I think some of it is personnel driven, Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova – those guys don’t get credit for being defensive players, a lot of people look at them as stretch big but we have advanced analytics and we’ve studied them. Their on-off impact on the team’s defence when they’re on the floor is significant, when they’re off the floor the defence isn’t as good and the same goes for rebounding. We’ve taken a big step in rebounding as well. So some of it is personnel and a lot of it is system – the coach and his staff they talk about defence every day and they stress defence every day and that’s where our players are held most accountable. Offensively he allows them a lot of freedom and give them a lot of confidence to just play basketball. Defensively they have principles and the core principles need to stick to and abide by every day and they’re held accountable for that. So far the guys have done a great job buying in, rebounding the basketball, defending without following and really contesting shots and I think you’ve seen the result of that in our success and our overall defensive ranking thus far.”
‘NBA Sundays presented by NBA 2K19’ on Sky Sports– part of a record 42 Primetime games live on Sky Sports starting from 8.30pm every weekend. This week on 4 November the Milwaukee Bucks host the Sacramento Kings on Sky Sports Arena from 8.30pm.