Championship dreams fuel Hawks’ rebuild

NBA.com Global on Oct 31, 2017 08:53 AM
Championship dreams fuel Hawks’ rebuild
Milwaukee Bucks forward John Henson (31) shoots as Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins (20) defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst

I miss the Baze Gaze. (And, hi, Olivia! Hi Kevin!)

“We’re gonna try to squeeze it in there sometime soon,” Kent Bazemore said Saturday.

The Hawks’ forward could go viral in the good old days -- just two or three years ago -- when Atlanta was a contender in the Eastern Conference, a feel-good collection of selfless players, coached to get better by Mike Budenholzer and his teaching-first staff. The ball moved and the 3-pointers were copious and the Hawks won 60 games in 2014-15, sending four of their five starters -- Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver -- to that year’s All-Star Game.

That was then.

Now, the Hawks push cricket tacos.

The protein-rich delicacy is just one food offering this year’s team is selling in Philips Arena, to try and keep fans happy while they watch a team that no longer has any of those All-Stars, restructured its front office last summer and has embraced a full rebuild under first-year General Manager Travis Schlenk -- Schlenk taking over Budenholzer’s duties at the request of Hawks’ ownership.

That new group, which bought the team at the height of its best play in ’15, watched the team’s win total drop from 60 to 48 to 43 last season, which concluded with a first-round loss to the Washington Wizards. Barring an unexpected resurgence this season, Atlanta will be hard-pressed to get to 43 this season. Millsap is now with the Denver Nuggets. Horford is on the Boston Celtics. Teague, traded to Indiana in 2016, is now with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Korver is with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

That leaves a handful of vets like Bazemore and point guard Dennis Schroeder, who were there for the good old days, and a bunch of kids learning on the job.

Not too many Gazes are in the offing in the near future.

“For me, I’m a super fiery player,” Bazemore said. “I’ve had to work on controlling my emotions. There’s so many people watching, and thinking less of yourself in certain situations. Things are looking up. In every game we’ve played this year in every form or fashion we’ve given ourselves a chance. Beat Dallas, went down to Miami and had a chance to win there, Brooklyn the same, being up 18 on Charlotte on their opening night.

“We’ve shown glimpses of being a good team; it’s not like we’re going into these arenas and getting blown out by 50 every night.”

But, honestly, the losses are part of the plan this year. The worst thing you can be in the NBA is mediocre, and that’s where the Hawks were. Majority owner Tony Ressler had to be convinced to let Millsap go, but he signed off on not re-signing Millsap, and then went all-in on Process South, replacing former GM Wes Wilcox in May -- who remains with the franchise as a consultant -- with Schlenk, who was the assistant GM with the Warriors the last five years.

“Well, we had two choices, the way I saw it,” Ressler said Friday, in the new owners’/VIP digs, which are hard off the new Hawks Bar that is directly behind the baseline, steps off the floor -- one of the many parts of the Philips renovation, which is scheduled to conclude next year.

“We never had the choice of being a contender. We weren’t,” Ressler said. “I saw the team go from 60 wins to 48 to 43. And we didn’t make many changes going from 60 to 48 to 43. We thought we made additions. Let’s just say I concluded, with Travis’ help, with Bud’s help, I concluded that we were not going in the right direction.

"Truly, there are three options in the NBA, I would argue: being a contender, being a competitive team, and being young and fun. At least that would be my opinion. And we didn’t have the option of being a contender. So we could be competitive, or more competitive, and maybe, shall we say, with a whole bunch of higher-priced vets that made us older and made our payroll less flexible, and made our future more cloudy."

During an explosive summer of free agency and trades leaguewide, Schlenk worked along the margins, getting involved in deals that sent Dwight Howard to Charlotte for Miles Plumlee and Marco Belinelli; working into the Danilo Gallinari trade with the Clippers and Nuggets by taking on Jamal Crawford from L.A. (the Hawks waived him shortly thereafter and he signed with the Wolves).

But Schlenk also got a 2018 first-round pick from the Clippers in the deal, giving him three total in next year’s Draft -- Atlanta already has a Lottery-protected 2018 first-round pick from Minnesota -- to add to the two 2019 first-rounders the Hawks have in hand.

The Hawks gave former Spurs center Dewayne Dedmon a short deal (two years, $12 million, second year team option), but other than that, they’re committed to building around their young guys: Schroeder, second-year wings Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry, and rookie big man John Collins.

“For me, at least, I can’t speak for other guys, but losing games, I just try to think we’re playing with the best of the world every night,” Collins said after the Hawks lost their sixth game in their first seven Sunday. “It’s not going to be easy. Nobody’s going to give you anything.”

Collins carries the poker chips around for the team flights, and gets the Snickers on the late-night snack calls and tries to repeat the pattern of sudden improvement he showed from his freshman to his sophomore season at Wake Forest.

Schlenk was, as he puts it, “in NBA La-La Land” at Golden State. Now, he can’t just get lost going to games and getting ready for Drafts; he must sell the rebuilding vision in a city that was slow to warm to the Hawks, but embraced the “True to Atlanta” motto during the team’s run to the Eastern Conference finals.

“That’s the hard part, with the fans,” Schlenk said. “I would say that 90 percent of the people I see in Atlanta, meet in Atlanta, say ‘hey, love what you’re doing, needs to be done.’ There’s another 10 percent of ‘what are you doing?’ But I think just as far as with Bud and the ownership group, it’s just constantly reminding them, listen, it’s painful right now. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We have five Draft picks the next two years, first-round picks. It’s my job to, hopefully, get four of those right.”

Budenholzer came to Atlanta from San Antonio in 2013 under former general manager Danny Ferry. After Ferry lost his job over racially insensitive remarks he made in a pre-Draft meeting in 2014 -- with people subsequently taking sides all over the organization during what became an internal power struggle involving the team’s previous majority owners -- the power vacuum created led to Budenholzer gaining control over all the franchise’s basketball decisions.

But the devolving record and the new ownership group led by Ressler didn’t give Budenholzer much chance to retain both jobs.

“I think Mike felt he was a great head coach,” Ressler said. “I tried to convince him and I think he realized fully that being the GM is a full-time job. So why does anyone on earth think they can do two extraordinarily difficult jobs? And I believe Bud saw that very clearly. And to this minute, I think what Bud wanted above everything else was a great GM who knew more about player personnel than he could or did. It’s not a part-time job. And anyone who thinks it is, I think makes a big mistake.

“And being a great head coach that is extraordinary in player development, and where players literally -- which is not that common -- there are not that many ways to distinguish yourselves, to differentiate yourselves as a head coach in this league. But making players think they can come here to get better, I absolutely believe is one of those. But that’s not a part-time (bleeping) job. That’s a tough job. I think Bud, and I certainly had a strong view, as you might imagine, I said we need a great GM and we need a great head coach. I thought we had a great head coach. And I thought we had a GM that was not great, that was not experienced, who was not top dog. It’s just two jobs.”

Budenholzer acknowledges it was “not easy” to give up the VP job and its decision-making authority. But this is how the Hawks are organized now, and he’s made his peace with it.

“It’s a change,” he said. “And I think that can be a positive, where either I have to think through things even more deeply and be more convicted or more capable of articulating why it is something is important to me and have everybody understand it. And there’s going to be people who say ‘I completely, totally disagree, and we’re not going to do that.’ And I’ll grow from it, and hopefully the organization grows from it. But when you’ve kind of been in that position and you do have passion and you do have vision, hopefully all for good, it’s certainly going to be different. But it’s a good different. It’s a good change.”

Schlenk tread lightly the first few weeks after taking the GM job. He couldn’t go my way or the highway. This was a proud group of guys who’d done great work in making the Hawks a legit exciting team to watch for the first time in a long time.

“We sat down, probably the first day I got the job here, we went to dinner -- (Chief Executive Officer Steve) Koonin, (Chief Operating Officer) Thad Sheely and Bud and I all went to dinner,” Schlenk said. “And then the next day Bud and I sat down for three or four hours and just talked about different things. And really, I kind of knew in my mind what I wanted to do with this.

“Any time you come in, you kind of want to put your stamp on it. But he had been here and it was his stamp and he had emotional connections to all of these guys that I didn’t have. So it took, I got hired first of June, end of May, But I would say it took two or three weeks of, I wasn’t assertive at all. I would just sit back and have conversations. But we kind of channeled the conversations in the direction I wanted to. And he knew.”

A week before the Draft, Budenholzer went to Schlenk’s office and told him he was all in. But, because coaches are still judged on their won-loss record, it was no shock that Budenholzer still argued for keeping Millsap, the Hawks’ remaining All-Star and his best all-around player last season.

“And Tony (also) wants to win,” Schlenk said. “He doesn’t want to go through this. But I would just constantly say, ‘listen. You guys won (43) games. You want to win (43) games again?’ I get this will be painful. Believe me, the first four games, I’m sitting up there miserable.”

It leaves Budenholzer to focus on what has been the team’s strength since he got there -- a strength that gave former Hawks’ assistant coach Kenny Atkinson a shot at the top job in Brooklyn -- player development. It is a mantra of the coaches in Atlanta that everyone, no matter how long they’ve been in the league, can get better. The proof, ironically, is in the deals that many former Hawks have gotten from other teams, from Millsap’s big contract with Denver to Tim Hardaway, Jr.’s $72 million deal with the New York Knicks.

“Organizationally, this is the way we’re organized now, and this gives us the best chance going forward to have a chance in Atlanta to have success,” Budenholzer said. “I’m passionate about coaching. I love coaching. But I’m passionate about everything. And I think, I believe in our ownership, I believe in all the changes we’ve made and what we’re doing going forward.”

The Hawks opened their new practice facility, the Emory Sports Medicine Complex, last week. The $50 million complex, about 15 minutes northeast of downtown, will house the front offices and medical staff, with space for a P3 facility in the building. Several players trained at the original P3 in California over the past few offseasons.

The team is also building an arena in nearby College Park that will open in 2019-20 for its new G League team. For now, that team – the Erie Bayhawks – is playing in Pennsylvania this season and next.

Meanwhile, the $192.5 million renovation of Philips Arena will continue through the season. The lower concourse is being broken up, with the single wall of suites on one side of the building now being broken up. The 15 “bunker suites” and other seating that were state of the art when the building opened in 1999 have fallen victim to the times and the current state of the team. The Hawks plan to create “future seating” in their building -- theatre seats, lodge seats -- they went to Las Vegas and found that pool events at casino hotels are now driving up to 20 percent of revenues there.

There won’t be pools at Philips. It’s the thinking outside of the traditional game-presentation box that the Hawks hope will make games more than just about winning and losing.

“This is entertainment,” Koonin said. “The line between entertainment and sports is more blurred than it’s ever been before. So we’ve got Run the Jewels playing at halftime. We’ve got every minute programmed, no different than HBO or TNT … and we’re young. People understand. This is a town that understands, and craves a championship, and that there’s a price to winning a championship. And sometimes you have to take a step back. We’ve been in the playoffs for 10 years. We’ve had a lot of success. We have not gotten our goal yet.”

A renovated Philips will be part of a renovated complex -- “it’s not often that you have a 35-acre hole in the ground in downtown Atlanta,” Ressler said that includes Philips Arena and the Falcons’ new stadium, Mercedes-Benz Stadium -- and will, everyone in the city seems to hope, sometime soon include “The Gulch,” an undeveloped parcel of land that is chopped up by railroad tracks and looks as bad as the name sounds.

But renovations, to be done well, must be done right the first time -- measure twice, cut once, and all that. Ressler -- in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi Thursday, Atlanta on Friday -- has learned he must slow his own roll and accept the down year or two that awaits.

“Winning a championship, winning 60 games, would be great -- and, actually, preferable,” Ressler said. “But, to us, it’s a package. The idea of building a practice facility and refurbishing the arena and sending a message to your fan base that you’re trying to go in the right directions, I personally believe all are required. It’s not one of the three. Frankly, what we’ve learned is, if you just try to show people oh, we’re redoing the arena and we’re building the practice facility, and we’re bringing the G League team in, but we’re not focusing on both our payroll and the team on the court, you lose.

“So, to me, you’ve got to send a clear message: we’re all of the above. And, we are … my wife (actress Jami Gertz) likes to say ‘don’t be so competitive.’ Everything’s competitive … but our view is, you’ve got to send a message that the franchise is going in the right direction.”

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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