Barring another unforeseen franchise U-turn -- for example: “Hey! Dwight Howard would be an awesome leader and a great homecoming story!” Wait, what? – the Hawks are not going to hire a head coach with head coaching experience.
That’s OK. There’s nothing wrong or unusual about hiring a first-time head coach. The Hawks’ last four head coaches didn’t have head coaching experience (Mike Budenholzer, Larry Drew, Mike Woodson, Terry Stotts), and, well, at least one worked out for a while. The last guy they hired who had head coaching experience was Lon Kruger, who proved to be a disaster. Of the Falcons’ last three head coaches: Bobby Petrino had experience (boom, goes the dynamite), and Mike Smith and Dan Quinn were first-timers (both had/have had success).
So if the Hawks hire Philadelphia assistant Lloyd Pierce, the current favorite who was scheduled to meet with Tony Ressler in Boston Tuesday for the ownership’s stamp of approval, nobody should assume success or failure.
But there are two things we can be certain of:
• 1. The Hawks would be further along in their franchise rebuild if Budenholzer didn’t waste everybody’s time for a year.
As stated previously, Budenholzer is a terrific coach who did as good a job with the remains of this year’s bulldozed roster as humanly possible. But because he chose to walk after the season, general manager Travis Schlenk lost a potential year of working in concert with a coach who had planned on sticking around. That’s a year when the two could’ve worked together on roster rebuilding and philosophy, a year when the existing players could have worked in systems that would be built upon in season No. 2. Now, everybody starts over.
• 2. This will be the most important decision Schlenk makes.
I understand the counter-argument will be that not screwing up lottery picks is more important. Billy Knight showed alarming consistency in getting things wrong. (Al Horford was the outlier.) Knight was the only guy who believed Marvin Williams made more sense for the guard-starved Hawks than Chris Paul. He was the only guy who thought Shelden Williams deserved to be anywhere near the NBA, let alone a top-five pick. Either Knight didn’t listen to anybody else in the organization or the others were too incompetent or scared to present an alternate viewpoint.
If Schlenk hires the right coach and the coaching and personnel staff can be on the same page in evaluation and direction, enough of the right player choices will be made. Success filters down from the top.
The right coach leads to on court success. The right coach makes Atlanta a destination for free agents. The right coach can do for the Hawks what Quinn did for the Falcons and Kirby Smart did for Georgia.
There’s too much baggage in the Hawks’ past. They’ve let the wrong players leave. They’ve brought in the wrong replacements.
They did everything right for a couple of years when Danny Ferry was picking the players and Budenholzer was coaching them, but everybody was on short-term contracts and when the Luol Deng conference call happened, and things went sideways, there was nobody around to fix the mess. The franchise has suffered a multitude of front-office embarrassments, including in-fighting among a bumbling ownership group that ultimately was forced to sell.
There are three cornerstones to any pro sports franchise: owner, general manager, coach. Get those right, everything else falls into place.
Right now, everybody’s unproven. Ressler has shown his willingness to spend money but he backed the Budenholzer/Wes Wilcox regime, gave Budenholzer too much money and power and gave his blessing to the Howard signing. Think of all the millions being burnt by Ressler on Howard, Budenholzer and Wilcox alone.
It’s way too early to judge Schlenk as a team builder but the handling of Budenholzer’s exit was clumsy. Budenholzer was voted NBA coach of the year three years ago, and he was allowed to leave without the Hawks getting any assets in return. They also will owe him up to $14 million, pending him getting another job.
But even Falcons owner Arthur Blank suffered early bumps. This could still turn out fine.
Pierce played college ball at Santa Clara and then internationally. He has coached at his alma mater, Cleveland, Golden State, Memphis and Philadelphia. He has been with the Sixers since 2013 and therefore has seen first-hand how a rebuild is done.
Philadelphia coach Brett Brown was effusive in his praise for Pierce the other day when his name surfaced in the Hawks’ coaching search: “If a team came in and said, ‘We want to rebuild,’ I can’t think of a more appropriate program that has gone from where we were to where we are that has a true story to tell. He’s a young coach, he’s tremendously connected to the league, he’s defensively oriented. It’s a no-brainer in my eyes. I hope soon we can look at him as the next coach of the Atlanta Hawks. He’s a natural to lead an NBA program, especially if the mission is to grow it organically like we have.”
The Hawks’ mission is to get it right. That hasn’t happened nearly often enough.
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