The Hawks have basically told one of the best coaches in franchise history, “If you want to go, go. We’ll even open the door for you.”
Mike Budenholzer, who has two years and a reported $13 million remaining on his contract, has basically told the Hawks, “I think I can do better.”
In so many ways, this makes no sense. Welcome to the world of sports, egos and, most of all, business.
Let’s break this down:
Question: Why would Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk allow Budenholzer to explore other options?
Answer: This one is easy. The Hawks, only one year into this rebuild and coming off a 24-58 season, aren’t likely to do significantly better next season. Whether they win in the 2019-20 season depends on how well they draft and whether Schlenk and owner Tony Ressler think it’s time to spend serious money for a quality starter (or two) next summer.
Schlenk’s logic could be that in two years, he might be looking for a new coach, anyway. So it could make more sense to hire a younger -- and certainly cheaper -- coach who can grow with the team. Also, if another team (Phoenix) is willing to give up a first-round pick as compensation for Budenholzer, it potentially expedites the rebuilding process.
That said, Schlenk recognizes Budenholzer is a really good coach. The early bumps that the two had in their relationship after Schlenk arrived eased somewhat late in the season. Schlenk gained respect for how Budenholzer handled the losing and Budenholzer became resigned to the rebuild, at least on some level.
It would be strange to see the Hawks just let Budenholzer walk out the door. He remains one of the NBA’s best coaches. To assume the franchise can find another coach who’s just as good is a massive risk -- and that in itself can hurt the rebuild.
Question: Why would Budenholzer want out?
Answer: This one is a bit more difficult to determine. When I spoke to him after the season, Budenholzer declined to say with certainty that he wanted to return. That spoke volumes.
If Budenholzer simply wants to get an offer so he can leverage that for a longer contract with the Hawks, that makes sense. But he certainly seems serious about this job search. If he simply wants to have a chance to win next season, pursing the Phoenix job makes little sense.
Yes, the Suns are three years into a rebuild and the Hawks only one. But it’s not as if Phoenix’s win total has been ascending (23, 24 and 21 in the last three years). It has a potential star in guard Devin Booker and the best draft lottery odds to win the No. 1 pick (presumably DeAndre Ayton from Arizona). The Hawks have no star.
But consider some other aspects of this decision.
Hawks majority owner Tony Ressler is still relatively new but he has shown a willingness to spend money in the right areas: a long overdue practice facility, the acquisition of a G-League team (which will move from Erie to Atlanta in a year) and the renovation of Philips Arena (albeit with significant public dollars).
Ressler and the entire ownership group have expressed a desire to win, and at least to this point haven’t shown the knucklehead tendencies of their predecessors, the Atlanta Spirit.
Phoenix is owned by Robert Sarver, who has been at the forefront of front office dysfunction for several years. In 2016, ESPN ranked him as the worst owner in the NBA. The Suns were ranked 120th out of 122 pro sports franchises. Sarver hired Steve Kerr as general manager, who did a nice job building the team (good). But three years later, Kerr resigned, reportedly in a contract dispute (bad).
The Suns have said they are done with the rebuild and ready to spend some money. But Sarver doesn’t have a strong track record in decision-making.
As the Journal-Constitution’s Michael Cunningham points out, the Suns are potentially set up nicely for the future with draft picks and salary cap space. So are the Hawks. Budenholzer is from Holbrook, Arizona. But is this really a case of him wanting to go back “home”? He last lived in Holbrook during high school. Holbrook is a three-hour drive from Phoenix, not exactly next door.
Maybe Budenholzer just wants a fresh start. But if that was true, wouldn’t he have left last summer, when he was stripped of his personnel power and Schlenk was hired? He had to know what Schlenk’s plan was in regards to the rebuild, and the likelihood that Paul Millsap would not be re-signed.
Until Budenholzer speaks publicly about a potential exit, we can’t know what’s in his head. Even then, it’s uncertain how forthcoming he’ll be. But this could be the bottom point of the Hawks’ rebuild and it would seem they’re heading in the right direction. If Budenholzer winds up in Phoenix, he assumes a lot he has taken a step forward.
Listen to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast. Check out the podcast show page at AJC.com/sports-we-never-played-the-game. Subscribe on iTunes or, Google play, Stitcher, TuneIn, or listen from the AJC sports podcasts page or the WSB Radio on-demand page.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.