Short of setting the budget and signing checks, Travis Schlenk can pretty much do anything he wants in his new job. He can sign anybody, trade anybody, draft anybody. He can tell any player, “I’m sure you’re a fine human being, but if I give you that big of a contract, I might as well duct-tape myself to this desk chair roll into the nearest lake.”
But Travis Schlenk just has to be right. Because as much as Hawks principal owner Tony Ressler says he’s the final decision-maker, billionaires who buy into franchises have no desire to add or subtract players. They prefer to stay at a splatter-proof distance and let general managers spend 17-hour days in the office.
“I didn’t bring him in for me to make basketball decisions,” Ressler said Friday. “I hope that’s as clear as I can be.”
So the obvious question: Did Ressler choose well?
By all accounts, Schlenk knows what he’s doing. He’s an independent thinker with an outsider’s perspective, which will serve him well in a front office that needed some shaking up. The Hawks’ office needed a fresh approach, as well as a sense of humor.
Folks have been wound tightly there for a while, even going back to the Danny Ferry regime.
Schlenk cracked a couple of jokes the other day, “and people weren’t sure how to react.” He called himself a “fun-loving guy.”
“I don’t think that environment existed here in the past,” he said.
The skeleton closet must not be on the new employee tour.
Then again, it’s easy to laugh when you work for the Golden State Warriors. What happens the first time Schlenk tries to make sense of the Mike Budenholzer-Dwight Howard-Dennis Schroder devil’s triangle?
What happens the first time Schlenk bangs noggins with his coach and former team president, Budenholzer, who hasn’t spoken publicly (beyond a team-crafted statement) on his demotion? Budenholzer was conspicuous by his absence at Friday’s introductory news conference, reportedly because he was attending his son’s high school graduation (in San Antonio). Las Vegas has not yet posted an over-under on when he will surface.
But neither Schlenk nor Ressler anticipate problems. Schlenk said he spent a few days with Budenholzer this week, getting to know each other and going over personnel and basketball philosophy. Schlenk said he came away with a positive feeling, and that’s good because this is a prickly situation, and the Hawks are not the easiest of the NBA’s fix-it jobs.
Is he ready? Ressler believes so. The owner interviewed “eight to 10” candidates, and he said he couldn’t recall how many, if any, were general managers before. But Schlenk was the only candidate who checked every box, even though he has never been in charge.
“We met a lot of folks who seemed to have strengths in one of those areas — maybe in recruiting players, maybe in evaluating player personnel, maybe in understanding an organization, maybe in having a championship background,” Ressler said. “But we didn’t find anybody who offered all of the above until we ran into Travis.”
Schlenk didn’t tip his hand on his plans, least of all his intentions for free agents Paul Millsap and Tim Hardaway Jr., but he seems averse to making long-term financial commitments to any player on a roster that needs fixing.
He said the Hawks are a “good team” with a “nice foundation.” But he didn’t reveal what assets he considers to be part of that foundation. Best to keep ’em guessing.
The good news: Player evaluation is his strength. Strangely, it’s never something he wanted to do. He saw himself as a coach. He even spent time on Georgia’s bench in 1998-99, as director of basketball operations.
“I was a 20-something-year-old kid living in Athens. I went to a small, liberal arts school. So, yeah, I had fun,” he said.
“I always wanted to be on the coaching side. But when I worked for Don Nelson at Golden State he said, ‘You really have a good eye for talent. You should take a hard look at the front-office side.’ It was a hard decision because coaching was what I always wanted to to do.”
But the relative stability of the profession (compared with coaching) appealed to him. He also found he had a knack for player evaluation. It doesn’t take an expert to point to a player and say, “That guy’s fast,” or “That guy’s big,” or, “That can guy can shoot.” So what does he look for?
“Character,” Schlenk said. “When a player comes out of the game, how does he interact with coaches? What kind of posture do they have on the bench? How do they interact at practices. If you have bad-character guys or guys who aren’t easy to get along with, it just brings everybody down.”
Schlenk said it took seven years at Golden State to build a championship-caliber team. He believes the Hawks are ahead of where the Warriors were at the start. Then again, the Hawks never had a stretch of drafts equivalent to taking Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in a span of four years — creating such an enticing environment that Kevin Durant went there as a free agent.
The Hawks aren’t nearly at that level. Schlenk has a lot of work to do before the Hawks become an attractive option for coveted free agents. No player, no trade, no move is off the table. Ressler is just happy his biggest decision is done.
“We have real time before the draft,” he said off stage. “We have a lot of decisions to make.”
Schlenk describes himself as “inclusive.” But in the end, his decisions will turn this product in one way or the other.