Travis Schlenk left the Golden State Warriors, the best organization in basketball, to assume control of the declining Hawks, who last claimed the title of NBA’s best in 1958. So the good news is he doesn’t have big shoes to fill. In fact, he should bring his own shoes.
It’s always risky to pre-judge first-time general managers, like first-time head coaches, because they’ve never been in charge before. But there is a lot to like about Schlenk. His strength is judging talent. He comes from an organization that has done most things right over the past five years, including drafting Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green (in a span of four drafts). He has a diverse background. He has a reputation for being honest and straight forward with his analysis, regardless of which way the wind is blowing in the conference room.
The Hawks need that kind of decision-maker. They also need a general manager who won’t: 1) Do anything that parallels drafting Marvin Williams over Chris Paul or Shelden Williams over a lamppost; 2) Overpay for a declining and polarizing free agent like Dwight Howard in the mistaken belief he’s going to sell tickets or help the team win; 3) Say anything — anything! — on a conference call with Michael Gearon Jr. is on the line.
Schlenk, who will be introduced in a Friday news conference, also shouldn’t be afraid to move the Hawks backward in the short term. When Danny Ferry became general manager in 2012, he understood the franchise was stuck and needed to rebuild. So he found a sucker to take Joe Johnson, traded Williams and let free-agent Josh Smith walk the following year. He then built the roster with smart, hard-working players like Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Korver and Thabo Sefolosha (all on short-term and manageable contracts).
That should be Schlenk’s game plan. I suspect it will be, especially given these comments to Bay Area sports-talk station 95.7 FM: “One of the things we did in Golden State is we avoided signing bad contracts. All the guys we signed in free agency were on deals that were move-able. If you sign a bad free-agent contract and it’s a deal that can’t be moved, that can hold your franchise down.”
Would re-signing Paul Millsap qualify as a bad contract? Yes.
Some thoughts on Schlenk’s biggest decisions:
1. Let Millsap walk: He’s the Hawks’ best player, but he’s not taking them anywhere with this roster as currently constructed. A max contract (five years, $205 million) would be beyond foolish for a 32-year-old player. Even a four-year deal at more than $35 million per year could turn into an albatross after two seasons. Owner Tony Ressler said he would do whatever was necessary to keep Millsap, but he also said he wasn’t going to change his front office, then reversed field. But if Schlenk believes Millsap’s contract wouldn’t be the best for the Hawks’ future, I caan’t imagine Ressler would overrule him. Even if it’s the second consecutive year the Hawks let a player walk (after Al Horford) without getting assets in return, Schlenk can’t be held hostage by mistakes that preceded him.
2. Set a limited value on Tim Hardaway Jr.: Coach Mike Budenholzer drew a lot of criticism when he traded for Hardaway, but he has done a nice job developing the guard. But Hardaway, as a restricted free agent, likely will get offers far exceeding this year’s salary of $2.28 million (and next year’s qualifying offer of $3.336 million). Hardaway would be a nice piece moving forward on offense, but he’s not certain to remain a starter, so he can’t be paid like one. For the Hawks, he’s probably closer to a $6 million to $8 million player than the $10 million-plus he may be offered.
3. Hold onto Howard (for now): I can’t imagine another team would take Howard with two years and more than $47 million left on his contract, unless there’s a trade partner also looking to dump a big/bad contract (think: Hector Olivera for Matt Kemp). But Howard can still rebound, so he might have some value at the deadline next season, or certainly the year after. Again, this is a case of Schlenk paying for an inherited mistake.
4. Explore trade with Kent Bazemore: It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he can improve his ball-handling and his shooting and become a starting-caliber player. But it’s not a good sign that he played his way back into a reserve role last season after signing a four-year, $70 million contract. There probably are other teams that like Bazemore, but the contract probably diminishes his trade value. So the best option might be bringing him back in the hope he develops, otherwise trade him down the line.
5. Stay with Dennis Schroder: He aggravated Budenholzer at times, but his first season as starting point guard was promising. Schroder has value in the trade market, but he is signed to a manageable deal and has a big upside. He’s a keeper.