The Hawks and Mike Budenholzer are no longer at one. Actually, it’s now clear they haven’t been at one for a while, at least from the coach’s perspective.
The team announced late Wednesday night that they have effectively fired Budenholzer, although the press release put it in more delicate language: “mutually parted ways.”
Budenholzer had two years and approximately $13 million remaining on his contract. He will get it all, which is a lump Hawks owner Tony Ressler did not want to swallow. But if Budenholzer is hired by another organization, which is expected -- he’s currently a candidate for the New York Knicks’ job -- his new salary will shrink the Hawks’ financial obligations.
How did we get here? What happened to the organization’s relationship with the coach who led the Hawks to a 60-win season and the Eastern Conference finals just three seasons ago?
We may learn more Thursday when general manager Travis Schlenk holds a news conference. But here’s what I’ve learned over the past two weeks, from the time Budenholzer refused to commit to coming back next season when we spoke the day after the season:
• The relationship between general manager Travis Schlenk and Budenholzer, while not ideal for a GM and coach who should be true partners and work together on personnel decisions and philosophy, wasn’t nearly as tattered as some have made it out to be. The two actually met and spoke frequently about individual players and offseason plans. They were some bumps in the relationship early in the season but things improved.
• Budenholzer said publicly he enjoyed coaching this season, despite dealing with an ever-changing, young and underwhelming roster that went 24-58 (the fourth-worst record in the NBA). But it became clear soon after the season that he wanted out. Budenholzer’s job search to this point -- Phoenix and New York -- illustrate that this isn’t merely about his need to win next season and not wanting to be part of a rebuild anymore. It’s more about the after-burn of him being stripped of power following the 2016-17 season by owner Tony Ressler and the changing culture under Ressler and Schlenk.
• The logical question: Why wouldn’t Budenholzer just quit after Ressler demoted him and Schlenk was hired? Only Budenholzer can answer that. Indeed, some in the organization have been taken aback by Budenholzer’s actions in recent weeks. But it would be naive to think money didn’t play some role in Budenholzer’s decision to coach this season. Ressler did not change his contract when Schlenk was brought in. The limited job market after last season also could have been a factor. There could be several openings by the time the current playoffs are complete.
• This split was driven by Budenholzer, but it’s not like the Hawks handled it perfectly, either. Schlenk allowed the coach to interview for other jobs. By doing so, he created a situation that made the organization look silly -- and looking silly is the last thing the Hawks need. They majored in silly under previous ownership. After two weeks of this drama playing out publicly, and with no clear resolution in sight, Ressler and Schlenk likely understood something had to be done to end the embarrassment.
• Ressler and Schlenk would have liked to leverage another team’s interest in Budenholzer to get draft pick compensation. But the longer this dragged on, the less time it would give the two to begin interviewing other candidates.
Is it a good day? No.
The Hawks are saying goodbye to one of the best coaches in franchise history. But Budenholzer wasn’t coming back, anyway. This part of the story is over.
Now comes the hard part: Ressler and Schlenk need to find the next great coach. But at least they’ll hire somebody who wants to be here.
More on this subject:
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