There is going to be a lot said and written now about how the Hawks plan to do things the San Antonio way.
There are going to be wonderful sound bites about how a 17-year assistant coach named Mike Budenholzer suddenly is ready to sit in the only folding chair that really matters, and how Danny Ferry knows it better than any anybody.
But what happened Tuesday is about more than that.
Ferry is one year into his tenure as the Hawks’ general manager, but this really is when the job starts. This is when the building starts. This is when the grading starts. That was always the plan. Strip it down for a throwaway season, hand the (lame-duck) coach a roster of expiring contracts, keep track of all the coaching candidates you really believe should be running your team and then blow it up when the season is over and start fresh.
Ferry wanted his own guy. Larry Drew never had a chance. He knew as much. What we have now is confirmation. Whether these were the correct decisions or not, we’ll find out. Ferry certainly earned the early benefit of the doubt with fans and media merely by finding ways to dispatch Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams. Now, in the buildup process, we’ll learn if Ferry and his hand-picked coach are the right combination to lead the Hawks out of years of irrelevance.
The best franchises operate when everybody is on the same page: ownership, front office, coaching. Any one of the three can derail the train.
There’s some baggage here with ownership. It’s probably best just to focus on the general manager-coach part of the equation with the Hawks because one mere season of relative solitude doesn’t allow one to quickly forget seven years of mismanagement, self-cannibalistic litigation and exploding clown shoes in the executive suite.
Ferry has been in Atlanta for 11 months. It was clear before, during and certainly immediately after his first Hawks season that he never felt completely comfortable with Drew as coach. He didn’t fire him after the season, but he didn’t have to. By declaring publicly he was going to interview other candidates, Ferry sent the message, “I can do better.”
Notwithstanding Ferry’s contention that he was being up front with Drew, it’s just as true that he was undercutting him. Drew felt immediately that he wouldn’t be retained. How could he be? It’s what led him to say, “I don’t like the odds.”
Drew was dealt a losing hand this season, forced to play a roster with a blur of expiring contracts, devoid of a true No. 1 scoring options and with one player, Josh Smith, who keeps letting immaturity derail his potential stardom. Drew did better than anybody could have expected, getting the team to the playoffs and winning two games over the same Indiana team that eliminated the New York Knicks and is causing Miami headaches in the Eastern Conference finals.
How many candidates do you believe would have had to say no to Ferry before he rehired Drew? There’s no such number. Ferry has been thinking about Budenholzer (and a few other potential coaches, such as Stan Van Gundy and Nate McMillan) for months. Drew existed only as a comparable.
That’s not meant as a criticism of Ferry. It’s understandable. That’s the way new bosses operate in almost all businesses. They arrive with their own agendas and philosophies, likes and dislikes, maybe a sheet on a legal pad with names under the heading, “When I get hired, talk to this guy about a job.”
General managers want their own coaches, their own scouts, their own public-relations guy. Bosses want people they know and are comfortable with. These are long-term building projects, at least in theory. The Falcons have succeeded since 2008 because Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith have similar mindsets about what does and doesn’t work. They’ve built the roster together. Ferry wanted somebody he has known and trusted. That’s Budenholzer.
The Spurs have been a model franchise in professional sports, not just the NBA. They’ve won four championships since 1999. They are about to play for a fifth. When a franchise successfully manages a salary cap and goes to five NBA finals and eight conference finals with changing rosters over a span of 15 years, it’s doing something right. R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich have been the successful general manager-coach combination in San Antonio.
Ferry hopes the two former assistants to Buford and Popovich — he and Budenholzer — can replicate that in Atlanta. The two will have to convince free agents and a jaded fan base that it’s possible. That’s done by actions, not marketing slogans. When a franchise does things right, people will start to believe.
One year later, the job really starts now.