Most every NBA watcher agrees: The Hawks need to be sellers at this trade deadline. Trouble is, the Hawks have declared that they’re not selling the player who’d attract the greatest return, meaning Paul Millsap. Having said that, you’ve essentially said, “We are not — repeat, are not — in rebuild mode.”
So here’s what they are: A team with the fifth-best record in the East; a team that has been outscored over its first 56 games; a team that’s 23-22 since Nov. 16; a team that, one summer after losing to Al Horford to free agency and getting nothing in return, could likewise lose Millsap, and — key point here — a team with the NBA’s sixth-oldest roster.
The Hawks are also a team with a coach who’s their czar of basketball, which isn’t the norm and is rarely a good idea. It’s especially perilous if the czar’s team requires a reset — because coaches are constitutionally opposed to the idea of losing by design. Say what you will about the pressures inherent on a general manager, but GMs don’t have yearly won-loss totals listed under their names. Coaches do.
Rick Bonnell, who covers the Hornets for the Charlotte Observer, offers this parable, as related by an NBA executive: “When you’re learning to drive, you know how you’re taught to look far up the road, but after you’ve been driving a while you mostly see what’s just ahead? That’s the difference between a general manager and a coach.”
Were the Hawks of a mind to reset in any meaningful way, they had the chance last summer. They could have thanked Horford, who’d just turned 30, for his years of service and let him leave. Instead they tried to keep him and botched that. Then, even before Horford committed to the Celtics, they signed Dwight Howard, due to turn 31 in December, for $70.5 million over three seasons. Then they tried to persuade Horford to stay as part of an H&H tandem, which would have necessitated trading Millsap.
They appeared to be ad-libbing, which is a kind way of saying they were hurling stuff at the wall in the hope something would adhere. They wound up with Howard, who doesn’t fit what made the Hawks the East’s best team over the 2014-15 regular season, but not Horford, who absolutely fit. They also wound up with their next big free-agent-to-be wondering what the heck this team was doing. Millsap might still be wondering. If so, he’s not alone.
The Hawks traded Kyle Korver, an All-Star only two seasons ago, to Cleveland in January. Speculation swirled that Millsap would be next. (If you’re serious about dumping older players, you don’t stop at one.) Then the Hawks, for reasons unclear, tabled those discussions. Then Budenholzer said Millsap would be going nowhere — unless/until he leaves as a free agent. Should he stay, the Hawks will have kept a very good player. They’ll also have kept a guy who, if he signs a three-year contract, will be 35 at its end.
Until they signed Howard, the Hawks appeared to be trying to get younger. They traded Jeff Teague, promoted Dennis Schroder and drafted Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry. They’ve succeeded in remaining pretty good, which means they’ll make a cameo playoff appearance and miss the lottery. Missing the lottery is the surest way of remaining Only Pretty Good. But landing in the lottery is no guarantee of anything, either.
The best player to enter the NBA this decade is Anthony Davis, whose Pelicans have nosed above .500 once in his 4 2/3 seasons. The Timberwolves have Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the first players drafted in 2014 and 2015; they’re 22-35. Sam Hinkie shed every veteran to load up on lottery picks, enabling the 76ers to add Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Ben Simmons in consecutive drafts. That looks nice on paper, but Philadelphia is 21-35; Hinkie resigned as GM last spring.
If you’re a coach with czar power, you see such examples and think, “No way I’m putting myself through that. Give me a few warm bodies and I’ll figure out something.” My guess is that’s what happened with Howard: Budenholzer saw a tantalizing-if-tarnished asset who, with clever coaching, might regain his mojo. Thus did Budenholzer’s team pay $70.5 million for a stationary center who has been, going by ESPN’s real plus/minus ratings, the NBA’s 73rd-best player.
If you’re a franchise stuck on Pretty Good and your biggest offseason choice is whether to dig deep to keep a 32-year-old, you’re in need of a grand design. Coaches don’t deal in grand designs. They see what’s coming next — next week, next game, next possession. That’s the nature of their job, which is the point of Bonnell’s story.
A franchise needs a big-picture guy, and a coach can’t be that. Because a coach is conditioned to believe that, if the L’s pile up, he’s getting fired.