As a successful businessman, Tony Ressler has hired, fired, promoted and demoted countless employees, changes that sometimes require delicate corporate-speak when spinning in public forums. Those skills were fully on display Friday when the Hawks owner tried to explain why he made a U-turn from two weeks ago and decided to effectively blow up the Hawks’ front office, even while offering praise for the casualties.
But let’s be clear about what happened: Mike Budenholzer, one of the NBA’s top 10 coaches, was ill-equipped to make personnel decisions and was stripped of his duties. Wes Wilcox, a competent personnel man, was equally a bad fit as the team’s general manager.
Danny Ferry’s excommunication three years ago opened a black hole in the organization that still hasn’t been filled.
Even worse, Budenholzer and Wilcox often didn’t see eye-to-eye on player moves, something Ressler and his partners apparently were oblivious to. Each had their own agendas. Both wanted success, but they had different ideas how to achieve it. Conflict was inevitable. The product suffered. Neither “resigned,” as a news release amusingly read. Both were demoted.
It’s doubtful Wilcox will stick around long to be a “special advisor,” which is front-office Latin for, “Files paper clips.” He said in a statement, “I’m grateful for my time as general manager and consider it a privilege to be asked by Tony to continue on as a special advisor.” (Sure. That sounds believable.)
Credit to Ressler for coming to the realization, even if belatedly, that it wasn’t working. As he told the Journal-Constitution’s Chris Vivlamore on Friday morning, before a conference call later, “When I was completely honest with myself, after a complete thorough and exhaustive evaluation, I really felt I could use more help. We could be better.”
And so: kaboom.
Ressler now is faced with the biggest hire he will make as an owner — and doesn’t have a lot of time.
The owner said he would be “comfortable” with Budenholzer, Wilcox and the other components of his lame-duck front office handling the NBA draft June 22, but he knows that’s not ideal and would prefer to have somebody in place before then.
The Hawks were not necessarily a complete mess all season, but they could become a complete mess if the past regime makes even one more decision about the future.
This isn’t just about who to draft. It’s about the trades that lead to the draft and the potential deals during and after it. Those are roster-shaping decisions.
This is about Paul Millsap, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent and will need to be given solid reasons to stay, reasons that go beyond dollars. (See: Al Horford.)
This is about Dwight Howard, a colossal $70.5 million mistake of the last offseason, who still has two years left on his contract and was benched for long periods down the stretch of the season and in the playoffs. What to do with him?
This is about how to fix another mistake, Kent Bazemore, who was elevated to starter and given a four-year, $70 million contract, but by season’s end was coming off the bench, and Tim Hardaway Jr., a restricted free agent who may be offered more from a competing team than the Hawks are willing to match.
These are roster-shaping decisions. The same two guys who just lost positions because of the two-year slide can’t be the ones calling the shots. It’s not a healthy situation.
The new general manager will be Budenholzer’s boss. He may or may not have a fancy executive title, too, but, quoting Ressler: “I’m a big believer in the general manager owning personnel and the coach owning players in terms of day-to-day function. We have not yet decided if the GM would acquire that (president) title, but the title’s not that relevant.”
What is relevant is that he finally came to realize that Budenholzer and Wilcox couldn’t call the shots.
Ressler, when he was being nice: “It’s fair to suggest when I asked them how can we be better, each of them individually … neither felt we were operating to the best of our ability as a franchise. I would argue they recognized it at least as clearly and early as I did, maybe earlier.”
Ressler, when he was being real: “From my perspective, I love the idea of a head coach … not being conflicted by other requirements.”
Budenholzer will be a better coach. The Hawks will be a better team if they hire the right general manager. But quickly.