As the Atlanta Hawks face the prospect of the worst season in well over a decade, it will be the man on the sidelines and not the men on the court who ultimately decide this franchise’s finish line.
The Atlanta Hawks have made the postseason for ten straight seasons, the second-longest streak in the league next to the San Antonio Spurs. While the Spurs are an emotionless basketball machine that will continue long past the end of time, the Hawks are facing the prospect of missing the playoffs for the first time since George W. Bush was in office.
[For reference, the last time the San Antonio Spurs missed the playoffs Bill Clinton was the President, Seinfeld was still pumping out new episodes, and everyone thought gluten was a good thing].
The mere fact that this site is covering the Hawks is startling in and of itself; this site has never covered the Hawks in detail, as they have never fallen under its purview. But for the first time in a decade, the Atlanta Hawks are so stripped of talent that they will almost certainly break their streak and miss out on the postseason.
One year ago, the Hawks were winners in the offseason, retaining the services of young wing Kent Bazemore and adeptly replacing All-Star center Al Horford with future Hall-of-Famer Dwight Howard. Giving up shooting and versatility for a cheaper defensive force with post moves and significantly better rebounding seemed like a good recovery if not the smart move.
Fast forward another season, however, and things are not looking rosy in Atlanta. All-Star forward Paul Millsap left in free agency, the second straight season the Hawks lost a star with no return. Kent Bazemore is one of many 2016 free agents who were doomed to underwhelm their contract numbers, and a shrinking cap made that ever-so-more-painful. Dennis Schröder may not be an NBA-level starter, Tim Hardaway Jr. signed a lucrative contract elsewhere, and Dwight Howard was traded to the Charlotte Hornets for a bizarre failed money saver.
That leaves a collection of inconsistent young talent and veterans with major weaknesses on this roster, and that’s a recipe for the lottery. But the range of endpoints for this team is still relatively high, meaning this team could finish anywhere from the eighth seed down to the very bottom of the league. That’s an incredible array of ways this “thing” could end.
Players such as Schröder and Bazemore will have a say on where this team ends up, and that is without question. How young prospects such as Taurean Prince, DeAndre Bembry, and John Collins develop and grow into their roles will be important for understanding their long-term fit in the Hawks’ plans.
But the biggest X-factor for the Atlanta Hawks will not spend games in a jersey running up and down the court. Rather, head coach Mike Budenholzer will have the biggest impact on this team and how the next season plays out.
Since Budenholzer arrived in Atlanta, the Hawks have been a consistently great defensive team, a tough out for anyone not named LeBron James in the Eastern Conference playoffs. He has never overseen a bad team before, and it’s a relative unknown if his teams can play poorly enough to tank.
The bottom of the East looks bad this season, with a number of teams projected to struggle. The Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, and Hawks all lost their stars, while teams such as the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic were bad last season and didn’t make the offseason moves necessary to improve their fates. The New York Knicks are seemingly always one step from disaster.
From the viewpoint of asset management, the Hawks are better off finishing last in the East then 10th or 11th. With the Western Conference improved in nearly every way, a last-place finish in their conference could mean the best odds at winning the top overall pick. The Hawks haven’t picked in the top-10 since 2007, when they selected Florida center Al Horford, and especially now they are strained for marquee talent.
To finish last, the Hawks need to have worse talent than the teams around them in the standings, and while they have some decent players there is no star on this roster. No star players equals a tough path to wins. The problem is that this team will be facing a lot of other teams with poor rosters. Against the Pacers or Knicks, the tie-breaker could come down to coaching.
Playoff-seeking Mike Budenholzer is a top-10 coach in this league, and has the advantage over those helming the other teams in contention for the bottom of the standings. If “Coach Bud” is making the most of his roster, they will scrap together wins that they wouldn’t have otherwise reached.
The Atlanta Hawks recently removed Budenholzer from his combined coach-president role, allowing him to focus on his coaching duties. If that was code for “develop young players and lose games” then the Hawks will be well on their way to tanking. But if an undivided attention means he can focus even more on game-planning and execution, then this team of lesser parts will again exceed their sum.
The Sam Hinkie path to the bottom – or even the Ryan McDonough path – is not the only way to return to contention. The Boston Celtics, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers have all drafted well later in the lottery while making smart decisions throughout the calendar year. They have also invested in solid coaches, something Atlanta has already done.
Budenholzer and the Hawks don’t have to bottom out. They could fight to continue a winning culture, see improvements from unexpected sources, and keep their playoff dreams alive. In a small-market where football and baseball matter more than hoops, it may be cost-prohibitive to tank. Even if the front office is in favor, the ownership group has to green-light intentional losing. That’s a hard decision to make.
The Hawks have legitimate NBA players at every position, and especially at the big-man positions. While there are no stars around, Budenholzer won’t tolerate scrubs either. This team doesn’t have the ceiling to excel, but with Coach Bud around they may not have the option of bottoming out.
Whether that is a good or bad thing is yet to be seen. But it does make a head coach, and not a player, the true variable for this team’s outlook this season. Mike Budenholzer is the X-factor for the Atlanta Hawks.