Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer.
Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images
Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images

I don’t see how Mike Budenholzer can remain Hawks coach

Under the circumstances, I don’t see how Mike Budenholzer can remain Hawks head coach. As far as I know, Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk hasn’t ruled out the possibility of keeping Budenholzer as coach even after he seeks out other jobs. But if Budenholzer were to remain it would be, in my view, an unworkable situation for the Hawks. 

Budenholzer obviously wants out of Atlanta. His displeasure is related to losing personnel power to Schlenk last year, and Schlenk’s subsequent decision to rebuild via the draft. Remember, there were no head coach openings in the NBA after last season, so Budenholzer had little choice but to stay with the Hawks if he wanted to be a head coach in 2017-18. 

Now there are coaching openings in Charlotte, Orlando, New York and Phoenix as well as interim coaches in place for Memphis and Milwaukee. (Bundeholzer already withdrew his name from the Phoenix search.) Stan Van Gundy could be in trouble in Detroit and there are rumors that Terry Stotts could be out in Portland after the Blazers were swept in the first round of the playoffs. 

There’s a robust market for head coaches and Budenholzer, the 2015 NBA coach of the year, might be the top candidate on the market. But is Schlnek really willing to let Budenholzer talk to all interested teams and, if the coach doesn’t like the offers, stay with the Hawks? Or is Schlenk leaving open the possibility of Budenholzer returning to maintain his leverage when negotiating compensation with teams that want his coach?

Schlenk’s main advantage is that Budenholzer is under contract for two more seasons at about $14 million and tampering rules mean he can’t take another NBA job unless the Hawks allow it. That gives Schlenk control of the scenario, but it’s complicated because now it’s out in the open that the coach isn’t on board with the GM’s long-term plans. 

I thought Budenholzer did a good job this season striking the tricky balance between playing to win and bringing along the team’s young players. I have little doubt Budenholzer could do the same with another youthful, talent-deprived Hawks roster in 2018-19. Budenholzer is ready to return and coach the Hawks if he doesn’t get another job, according to a person familiar with his plans, but then what else could Budenholzer say if he wants to be assured of a job?

If Budenholzer were to return, how could the Hawks function normally with their coach unhappy with his situation and eyeing other jobs? How can Hawks player work for a coach they aren’t sure is committed to the team and may be a lame duck, anyway? 

Budenholzer’s position isn’t great, either, and not just because of his contractual obligations to the Hawks. (Yes, it’s weird to consider a $14 million contract burdensome but that’s what it’s become for Budenholzer if he really is so unhappy that he wants out.) 

Look again at that list of current and potential openings: Phoenix, Charlotte, Orlando, New York, Memphis, Milwaukee, Detroit and Portland. The Bucks, Blazers and (maybe) the Hornets are significantly better for Budenholzer in terms of a playoff-ready roster. The other five teams also are rebuilding. 

The New York Post reported that Budenholzer would take the Knicks job if offered. The Post quoted a source close to Budenholzer as saying: “Phoenix and the Knicks are trying to win every game.” But that quote is contradicted by the sentence immediately preceding it: “Like the Hawks and Suns, the Knicks are also amid a slow rebuild.” The Knicks haven’t made the playoffs for five consecutive seasons. Kristaps Porzingis is a potential franchise player but his status for next season is in doubt as he recovers from ACL surgery. 

If Budenholzer wants to coach the Knicks, he’s unlikely to gain personnel power with them or any of the other teams with openings or potential openings. The Pistons seem to have soured on Van Gundy having personnel power. Only two other coaches, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Minnesota’s Tom Thibodeaux, call the shots as basketball executives. 

Believe it or not, it wouldn’t be unprecedented if Budenholzer stays with the Hawks after seeking other jobs. The Grizzlies gave Dave Joerger permission to speak to the Timberwolves in May 2014. Joerger eventually agreed to a contract extension in Memphis after a talk with team owner Robert Pera. (Two years later the Grizzlies again granted Joeger permission to seek other jobs and he ended up in Sacramento.) 

In Joerger’s case he was unhappy with his contract, both in terms of pay and security. Budenholzer has different motivations for wanting to move on from the Hawks, and his concerns can’t be placated under the circumstances. 

The most likely outcome is that Budenholzer accepts another job, and I believe that’s the best outcome for the Hawks at this point. I think Schlenk genuinely believes Budenholzer is a good coach for the rebuild because of his track record with player development. But Budenholzer wants out and everyone knows it, so I don’t see how Schlenk can keep him. 

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 
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