The Hawks opened March with a six-game homestand that they hoped would pull players together, strengthen playoff positioning and make everybody forget the NBA’s version of international slapstick when Dennis Schroder was stuck in Germany after the All-Star break because he forgot to get a new visa.
Maybe April will be better.
The six games in 10 days included …
- A loss to Cleveland, during which Mike Budenholzer bumped an official and was suspended.
- A loss to Indiana, when the Hawks blew a six-point lead with 1:43 left.
- A loss to Golden State, when Dwight Howard kept throwing wild passes to holograms, and Schroder responded by yelling at him. The yelling might’ve been warranted, but it would’ve been better not to loudly debate out in the open — and speaking of open, there was Steph Curry left alone so he could sink an open 3-pointer while Schroder was still yelling at Howard, leading to Schroder’s benching.
- A rare benching of Thabo Sefolosha after he was late to an afternoon walk-through before a game against Toronto, reportedly because of Atlanta traffic. (Ah hell, we could all be benched for that.)
But good news: No visa issues.
It wasn’t all bad. The Hawks defeated Toronto on Friday night. They salvaged a split of the six games that left them within striking range of the Raptors for the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed and a home playoff series, for whatever that’s worth. (Not much.)
Confused? Welcome to this season. What’s most interesting about this Hawks team isn’t that they give any impression they will be a postseason threat. It’s the degree to which Budenholzer The Coach suddenly is scrambling to make the moves of Budenholzer The President look good.
There is enormous pressure on Budenholzer. Two years ago, he was the most popular coach or executive in Atlanta pro sports. He presided over a team that won 60 games during the regular season and reached the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
The 2014-15 season had the potential for disaster. General manager Danny Ferry built the roster but suddenly took a “self-imposed” leave of absence for the whole racist scouting-report thing. This came on the heals of news of a racially charged email by then part-owner Bruce Levenson, causing the ownership group’s implosion (again).
Somehow, the Hawks came through all of that. It was because of Budenholzer. He calmed the players and stabilized the franchise. And he won. A lot. He was so impressive that he was able to leverage a raise, a contract extension and the new position of team president in negotiations with Tony Ressler, the new majority owner.
Budenholzer’s biggest moves as a basketball executive haven’t worked. We know that for the simple reason the team’s season records have declined from 60-22 to 48-34 to a current projection of 45-37.
When a team declines, the coach often gets fired by the empowered executive. That’s unless the empowered executive first gets fired by the owner. Ressler has a decision: How many hats does he take away: zero, one or two?
Budenholzer has obvious skills as a coach. The problem is he seemingly has changed his position on this team at various points of the season, and it’s worth wondering if Ressler will factor that into this decisions on franchise restructuring.
Question: Why did Budenholzer trade Kyle Korver to Cleveland, in seemingly the first step of a roster blowup/rebuild, then make a U-turn and try to upgrade the roster with the signings of Ersan Ilyasova and Jose Calderon? That’s not to suggest the Hawks didn’t get fair assets for Korver (top-10 protected first-round pick in 2019, Mike Dunleavy and Mo Williams, who was traded). But Korver’s departure made the Hawks a lesser team. Roster additions and an adjustment of minutes could have been made even with him.
Question: Why make it clear to other teams that Paul Millsap is available in trade, then rotate just before the deadline and shut down all trade talks? Nobody is certain why that happened, but it became obvious there’s a split in the front office on which direction the team should go.
Question: Why, if the decision is going to be made to let Al Horford go in free agency, is more not done to fill his leadership void in the locker room (later made worse by Korver’s departure)? It should be obvious that situation would not be helped by the sometimes petulant Dwight Howard and the talented but immature Schroder.
Budenholzer The Coach is trying to make all of this work. But the Hawks have been a .500 team since mid-November. They are not going to suddenly change now. Five months into the season, Budenholzer The Coach was struggling to get Howard and Schroder to co-exist. He’s struggling with all of it.
Ressler, who has not granted an interview to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution since the summer, will have difficult decisions to make after the season.
Choice 1: Make no front-office/coaching changes. That seems unlikely.
Choice 2: Replace general manager Wes Wilcox and keep the new GM under Budenholzer. But how much would that accomplish?
Choice 3: Bring in an executive with equal or more power than Budenholzer. But if Budenholzer The President doesn’t like the situation, would Budenholzer The Coach still want to stay?
In the big picture, getting to the No. 4 seed doesn’t seem that big of a deal.