Rebuilds aren’t launched on a whim. Whims are light and fanciful. Rebuilds are dark and depressing. Rebuilds take time and inspire agony even in their architects. Rebuilds are like healthy food: It might be good for you, but it doesn’t taste like a bacon cheeseburger.
We live in Atlanta, suddenly overrun with rebuilders. The Braves’ version is in its third year; the Hawks aren’t yet a month into theirs. The former at least acknowledged what it was doing, though John Hart preferred the slightly less ominous “reset.” The Hawks haven’t yet spoken the word “rebuilding” aloud, general manager Travis Schlenk allowing only that his club is “investing in the future.” (You say “po-tay-toe”, I say “tank.”)
By whatever name, Schlenk is doing the absolute right thing. And if there’s ever a time and a place to do a teardown, it’s Atlanta, Ga., in 2017 A.D. The Braves have prepared this market for – euphemism alert – the strategic pullback. They’re demonstrably in a better place now than when Hart and John Coppolella took over, and the worst wasn’t all that bad.
We can’t yet know if the Braves will become what the Cubs were last year or the Astros are now, those teams having preceded the local club along the lose-now-to-win-later path, but encouraging signals abound. The big-league product is ticking upward. The farm system is considered baseball’s best. The Braves would seem to have, ahem, invested well in their future.
The Braves and Hawks once were corporate brethren. Ted Turner owned both. Stan Kasten was president of both. (Kasten has been president of everything except these United States.) Then the Hawks – and the Thrashers; remember them? – were sold to Atlanta Spirit LLC, whereupon hijinks ensued.
Even if the two clubs were still reporting to the same Stan-The-Many-Hatted-Man, it’s not likely that Coppolella would have pulled Schlenk aside to say, “Let me help you with that.” Baseball is not the NBA. The latter has a salary cap; the former subsists on its minor leagues, which barely register in basketball. The NBA runs on superstars; MLB runs on pitching and volume.
Still, the guiding principles of rebuilding are similar. Dump aging big names and their big contracts. Get younger. Sharpen your elbows and jostle like crazy for draft position. Stock up on Tums for those months when you barely win a game. And the overarching theme is, or should be, the same in all sports: If you aren’t good enough to play for a championship, do whatever it takes to get good enough.
The Braves couldn’t have moved forward with Jason Heyward and Justin Upton because they were going to leave as pricey free agents. They had nothing of similar quality in their farm system. They hadn’t won a playoff series since 2001, hadn’t reached the World Series since 1999, hadn’t won it all since 1995. They needed to tear it up and start again.
The Hawks are an even better candidate for a rebuild. They’ve made the playoffs 10 years running, but advanced beyond Round 2 only once. (And got swept.) From Al Horford and Acie Law IV in 2007, they hadn’t had a lottery pick until they traded Jeff Teague for what became Taurean Prince last year. Four starters from the 60-win team of 2015 were gone, and Paul Millsap was about to become a free agent. Dwight Howard is yesterday’s man, with a bad contract to boot.
To spend even more to sustain a status quo that saw them finish 43-39 would have been the height of folly. Credit Schlenk: He arrived from Golden State and spoke truth to power, telling Tony Ressler there was no way up but to retreat. Credit Ressler for finally seeing the light.
I’m not sure Ressler or Schlenk, West Coast denizens until Schlenk upped sticks, have paid much attention to the Braves. I’m reasonably certain the Hawks would be trying what they’re trying if they were based in Bugtussle. Obvious is obvious. Mediocre is mediocre. Still, the Hawks’ presence in a market prepped for this process by a higher-profile franchise can’t hurt. It could help.
Admittedly, the Hawks’ aim is different. They need to get lucky in the lottery. (No lottery in baseball.) They need immediate impact. (None of that when you draft high school pitchers.) But there is a shared concern: The Braves’ rebuild began 2 ½ years before they were to move into a new ballpark; the Hawks’ rebuild commenced just as plans for a refurbished arena, to be completed sometime in the 2018-19 season, were announced. Once again, the clock’s ticking.
The Braves finessed their welcome-to-Cobb-County experience by acquiring some older guys, most on cheap contracts. Cheap won’t cut it in the NBA. You need high draft picks who become rich superstars. Still, asset acquisition and allocation is now as important – in all sports – as scouting and player development. Coppolella has an economics degree from Notre Dame. Schlenk apprenticed at one of the data-savviest operation in sports.
And we, as a constituency, know how this works. We saw the Braves jettison big names, just as we’ve seen the Hawks shed Millsap and Howard. We’ve seen the Braves shop for bargains, same as the Hawks just did with Dewayne Dedmon, a sometime starter in San Antonio. We’re seeing another rebuild, and this one doesn’t seem such a horrible idea. There can be light at the end of the tunnel. The Braves can stand as the beacon.