Milwaukee Bucks general manager Jon Horst took a break from his busy schedule Monday night to collect the 2018-19 NBA Executive of the Year Award.
Horst won the honor during the league’s awards show in Santa Monica, California, four days after he and his staff put a bow on the draft and six days before the anticipated NBA free agency.
“We congratulate Jon on earning this well-deserved award,” Bucks owners Wes Edens, Marc Lasry and Jamie Dinan said in a statement. “Jon has played an instrumental role in building the Bucks into a championship-caliber organization and we are thrilled that his fellow team executives throughout the league recognize his great work.”
The Bucks’ ownership group presented Horst with a multiyear extension earlier this month and for good reason. In his second season as the team’s general manager, Horst hired Mike Budenholzer, who was honored as the NBA’s Coach of the Year on Monday night, and assembled a team that had the best record in the NBA at 60-22.
“The team, Jon, that you put together — unbelievable,” Budenholzer said in his acceptance speech. “Every night we walked out, we felt like we had a great chance and that’s because of the job you did.”
Milwaukee also advanced past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001, losing to the NBA champion Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals.
“I’m really proud of what our team did this year and the accomplishments that we’ve had,” Horst said. “Obviously we fell short of the ultimate goal. But in looking back and talking about the year ... it’s spectacular, a lot to be proud of.”
The Bucks’ near dream season, which also included Giannis Antetokounmpo winning the franchise’s first NBA MVP award in 45 years, started in a room late last April.
As Milwaukee’s 2017-18 season was coming to an end in Game 7 of a first-round series against the Boston Celtics, Horst was already planning the organization’s next move.
After firing head coach Jason Kidd midway through the season and replacing him with the team’s assistant head coach Joe Prunty on an interim basis, Horst then set his sights on finding the right person to lead the team.
Budenholzer, also the 2014-15 NBA Coach of the Year, mutually parted ways with the Atlanta Hawks on April 25, 2018, three days before the Bucks lost in Boston.
Horst reached out to Budenholzer, Budenholzer met with Antetokounmpo and teammate Khris Middleton, and Budenholzer’s representatives hammered out a deal to become the Bucks head coach three weeks after saying goodbye to Atlanta.
Horst then drafted Donte DiVincenzo, signed Pat Connaughton, Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez in free agency, and acquired George Hill and Nikola Mirotic through midseason trades.
Milwaukee was the top-scoring team in the NBA in 2018-19 and finished the regular season with the No. 1 defense.
“We were just the best team in the NBA for seven out of nine months,” Horst said. “We didn’t win it ultimately at the end. That is the goal. But we’re right there.”
Now, instead of taking a breather, Horst stayed busy.
The 36-year-old Sandusky, Michigan, native played basketball at Rochester College, a small liberal arts school about 70 miles from his family’s farm in the Michigan town.
Horst began his NBA front office career in 2005 as an intern with the Detroit Pistons, where he often worked for gift cards or free team T-shirts. But that blossomed into an opportunity with the Bucks in 2008, when his mentor, John Hammond, was hired as Milwaukee’s general manager and brought Horst with him.
As the team’s director of basketball operations, Horst was instrumental in personnel evaluation, salary cap management and contract negotiations.
Horst was promoted to general manager two summers ago when Hammond took on the same role with the Orlando Magic.
Now, Horst and Hammond are the only general managers in Bucks history to be honored as the Executive of the Year. Hammond won the award following the 2009-10 season.
With NBA free agency set to begin on Sunday, Horst’s task over the next few weeks is to build a roster that will achieve his goal of bringing an NBA championship to Milwaukee for the first time since 1971.
“I wish at some point someone could kind of witness how this goes down,” he said. “We spend the entire year preparing for this period of time — and it just happens.”
Middleton, who was an All-Star for the first time in his seven-year career, has opted out of his deal that would have paid him $13 million for the 2019-20 season and he will be an unrestricted free agent. As will Lopez, who set the record for three-pointers made (187) in a season by a center. Malcolm Brogdon will be a restricted free agent. The 2016-17 Rookie of the Year missed time with a foot injury.
“We’ll do some great things,” Horst said of what to expect from the Bucks this offseason. “Some things that I think we’ll hopefully help everyone see our path, and that we’re continuing on a path to try to build a team that can sustain success over a long period of time and compete for championships. I think we’re going to continue to be able to do that.”
As for the Raptors winning the NBA Finals: “Honestly, I didn’t watch it,” he said. “I couldn’t watch it. It made me sick. At some point I’ll probably watch it because it’s probably an important evaluation tool for me to understand what happened and how they did it. But I have not watched it yet. I have not watched a game.”