Mike Budenholzer walked over after the morning shoot-around. I considered opening with something that conveyed sympathy like, “I’m sorry for what you’re going through,” or, “Perhaps you’ll be rewarded with a lifetime of riches and serenity for this misery,” but instead I started with a joke.
“I just signed a 10-day contract.”
“Good. You’re playing tonight,” he responded.
This is a positive sign for Budenholzer. The Hawks’ coach, who usually has this look of angst during games as if he’s staring at a plague of locusts heading straight for him, has reached a level of acceptance about this season. Some would call it resignation.
“I don’t know if I would say resignation,” he said. “But there becomes a reality of where the wins and losses are and where the playoff seedings are.”
Where the Hawks are: Third place, in the upside-down world, which is all that really matters today. They held a 12-point halftime lead against Oklahoma City, only to get trampled by 24 (65-41) in the second half and lose 119-107 Tuesday night, dropping their record to 20-48. That places them as the third seed in the NBA draft lottery, so they’re giving it a run, or a stumble, depending on your definition.
Memphis (18-49) has this tanking thing down pat. It has lost 18 in a row. It’s the biggest oh-just-take-my-lunch-money-and-punch-me-in-the-face act since Philadelphia dropped a record 26 consecutive games ... two years in a row.
The Hawks have quality wins this season over Portland, Indiana, Cleveland and others. If they’re not careful, they’re going to blow this. They’re just going to have to try harder.
Maybe play barefoot, or blindfolded, or with one leg tied to a llama.
Fortunately -- and I mean this in the nicest possible way -- Kent Bazemore suffered a bone bruise in his knee the other night and is out for the season. Bazemore actually was injured in a game, so this spared Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk from knee-capping a starting player himself. (Hey, it’s business.)
Just kidding. Sort of. Not really.
There’s a website, Tankathon.com, if you want to follow along with the tanking derby. Just don’t tell NBA commissioner Adam Silver because he does not approve of such realities.
Silver can’t fine a website, but he can slap owners around. He hit Dallas owner Mark Cuban with a $600,000 fine last month for daring to speak the truth about tanking for a higher draft pick. Hawks owner Tony Ressler won’t make the same mistake, but the Hawks might as well make a show of this since most Atlanta sports fans checked out on the season, in, well, 2016.
Why not jazz things up a little? Hold a souvenir Hawks’ Toy Tank Night (tank is “volt green,” of course). Maybe give 10-day contracts to a few lucky fans, like Golden Tickets to Wonkaland. Better yet, just start five Oompa Loompas and be done with it.
The Hawks are somewhat trending in that direction anyway. They’ve lost Bazemore. They’ve had 22 players on the roster this season. Only nine of whom were never drafted. They have signed three players to a total of five 10-day contracts.
(Stay with me, I’m just getting started.)
The Hawks’ current 17-player roster includes eight rookies and four players with one year of experience. The average NBA experience on their roster is a league-low 1.5 seasons.
“The average is 1.5? Wow. So I really am one of the vets now,” said Mike Muscala, who’s in his fifth season.
“Hmmm,” said Dennis Schroder, smiling, after being told of the average. “Things change. ... I’m not going to lie, it’s tough for me.”
To reaffirm: Players don’t tank. Front offices tank. Players may dog it down the stretch if they’re not playing for a contract, but they don’t lose intentionally. Owners and general managers -- yeah, they lose intentionally. The Hawks are losing intentionally.
Losing intentionally is never something I’ve endorsed, unless a franchise agrees ahead of time to also slash ticket and food prices by 75 percent. The Hawks are as far off the radar as I can remember in this town, and that even includes the 13-69 season of 2004-05.
(Sudden horrible flashback: Former GM Billy Knight tore things down and later spent consecutive top-five picks on Marvin Williams and Shelden Williams. So Schlenk has a low bar to top.)
The NBA recently passed rules to dissuade teams from taking in the future. The season’s three worst teams will have an equal chance (14 percent) for the top pick. But that begins in 2019. This year the worst team still has a 25 percent shot at the perceived best player. The consensus top three players are Arizona center Deandre Ayton, European point guard Luka Doncic and Duke forward Marvin Bagley.
Budenholzer coached a 60-win team just three years ago, only to see it torn down. He struggled with all of this more at the outset of the season but is fine now. Off the court, he supports the rebuild. On the court, he’s still trying to win.
Competitive instincts stop him from benching the few productive players he has.
“You should check me out during some of the timeouts,” he said. “Sometimes I leave the timeouts and it’s like, ‘I’m about to lose my (expletive) mind. What’s wrong with me?’ It’s just the way most of us are wired.”
If this is going to pay off, he might want to cross a few wires.
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