Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

With Millsap gone, the Hawks are tanking. It's a crowded tank


Paul Millsap will sign with the Nuggets , which means the Hawks are in tank mode. Being the Hawks, they might have botched even that.

Of the eight NBA East teams that qualified for postseason play, three have seen their best player exit to a Western outpost: Millsap to Denver, Paul George from Indiana to Oklahoma City, Jimmy Butler from Chicago to Minnesota. As we speak, the East’s top four seeds in the 2017 playoffs – Boston, Cleveland, Toronto and Washington – figure to make it in 2018 without straining.

Milwaukee, which was the No. 6 seed, and Philadelphia, with its wealth of young talent, should be there, too. Charlotte landed Dwight Howard, which as we know might be subtraction by addition. Every other team will be fighting for the bottom. Miami finished 41-41 last season and missed the playoffs; if an Eastern team goes 35-47 next year, it might well be the No. 8 seed. (Or No. 7.)

The Hawks waited too long to acknowledge the obvious, and now the competition to stink – and thereby land the most ping-pong balls in the lottery – will be fierce. Their new owner got fooled into believing that the 60-win team he inherited would always be a 60-win team. Their new owner was convinced by the voices in his current from office that those 60 wins were their creation, as opposed to the exiled Danny Ferry's.

Officially, the managerial pairing of Mike Budenholzer and Wes Wilcox lasted 31 months. That was plenty long enough to run Tony Ressler’s shiny new car into a ditch. The Hawks took too long to start rebuilding, and their first major move in that director was so halting that you weren’t sure if they meant to make it. Al Horford left last July to sign with Boston, even as the Hawks were desperate to convince him to stay, even as they’d already signed Howard, who’s six months older, for $70.5 million over three seasons.

In June, they’d traded Jeff Teague to the Pacers for a draft pick that became Taurean Prince. That smelled like a rebuilding move, even if the Hawks did have Dennis Schroder at the ready. But wait: In July, they re-upped Kent Bazemore, their fifth-best starter, for $70 million over four seasons. That bore the whiff (and not a pleasant one) of a team bent on some measure of continuity, when all you had to do was note that this aging team had just slipped from 60 wins to 48.

We move to further action. This January, the Hawks traded Kyle Korver to the Cavaliers for Mike Dunleavy Jr. (already gone), Mo Williams (never arrived) and a top-10 protected Round 1 pick in 2019 or 2020. Given that the Cavs aren’t apt to crack the lottery unless/until LeBron James leaves again, that Round 1 pick will likely became two Round 2 slots. Still, shedding Korver was a move in the right direction, meaning downward, and we expected another – trading Millsap ahead of the deadline – to ensue.

It didn’t. The Hawks finished 43-39, which gave them the No. 5 seed in the tepid East, and duly lost to the Wizards in six. They’ve now lost Millsap for nothing a year after losing Horford for nothing. Budenholzer is no longer president of basketball operations and Wilcox no longer the general manager, and thank goodness for that. But their 31-month reign of error has left a hole Travis Schlenk will need years to fill.

Ressler's avowal on the day he took ownership – “What was working was Bud, Wilcox and (CEO Steve Koonin); I want to keep that working" – is among the most short-sighted in the annals of a franchise rarely known for its vision. His proclamation that he would have vetoed any Millsap trade and would make "every effort imaginable" to keep him  makes us wonder if this white knight from L.A. is just another empty suit. ( Albeit one adept at construction projects. )

The weirdest twist in this winding road: Millsap didn’t leave for anything approaching max money. The Hawks could have offered $201 million over five years. He’s taking $90 million over three to sign with a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013 and hasn’t won a series since 2009. Millsap told the AJC that the Hawks didn't make an offer . It’s unclear if they’ve met with any free agents. As much as Schlenk might dislike the word “rebuild,” he deserves credit for seeing that one is absolutely warranted.

Trouble is, the Hawks are rebuilding at a time when half the East is doing likewise, and rebuilds can be a zero-sum game. Ask the Braves, who dumped nearly everyone and lost 95 and 93 games and wound up picking only third in last year’s draft and fifth this June. (Granted, MLB has no lottery.) A more prescient crew than Ressler/Budenholzer/Wilcox would have pressed the reset at least a year ago. Poor Schlenk has been left to play catch-up tanking.


Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.