Hawks need to find right coach after Mike Budenholzer quit on rebuild

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

Nobody looks good when somebody gets fired.

Georgia fired Mark Richt because it felt it had hit a ceiling (fine). But athletic director Greg McGarity fumbled the news conference when he refused to take questions (not fine), further irritating a significant segment of the fan base that didn’t like him, anyway.

The Braves fired Fredi Gonzalez because he was losing too many games (fine). But the front office looked spineless by taking zero responsibility for the lousy team it handed the manager and made the organization look like a clown show by rushing to secretly book Gonzalez’s one-way plane ticket home from a road trip, and, of course, he found out he was fired by an automatically generated emailed itinerary (not fine).

Bobby Petrino sort of fired the Falcons when he walked out on them during the season. But the team wasn’t faultless: The guy was draped in red flags when they hired him -- what did they expect?

Which brings us to the Hawks' "mutually agreed" upon separation from coach Mike Budenholzer. The Hawks look bad because, even if it became obvious Budenholzer wanted out, the team blew any leverage it had by giving him free rein to interview with other teams without any understanding up front about either a contract buyout or potential draft-pick compensation. Consequently, Budenholzer's very public job search dragged on for two weeks and an organization still distancing itself from past humiliation found itself embarrassed again; they owe their ex-coach $13 million to $14 million over two years (though any future job will offset that salary); they will get nothing for him – just like they got nothing for Al Horford or Paul Millsap.

Budenholzer looks bad for a number of reasons, but most of all this: When owner Tony Ressler stripped him of his team presidency and personnel power, hiring general manager Travis Schlenk, the coach could’ve walked away. He didn’t. He effectively committed to the rebuilding process, committed to developing players and helping form the core for potential contending teams in the future.

This is what Budenholzer said in October about coming back: "Organizations go through change. Yeah, it's different. But I believe in Atlanta. I believe in our ownership. So let's build it up again. There wasn't (hesitation)."


Never mind.

If you were a player in the locker room, how would you feel about Budenholzer bolting? If an athlete had done something similar, what would your thoughts be? What would a coach’s thoughts be?

Here’s mine: Budenholzer quit. He didn’t quit during the season but he quit on the process. He quit on a commitment he made a year ago. He quit with two years left on his contract.

All that said, this could work out for the Hawks. It won’t be easy for Schlenk to find a head coach as good as Budenholzer, but he at least he can hire somebody that he knows is all in and is willing to grow with the franchise.

“Obviously, and I stated this when I got the job, I want to be a partner with the coach,” Schlenk said Thursday. “I want the coach to have input on decisions. ... We’re going to find the right head coach for the Atlanta Hawks, and that coach is going to have the same job description, the same end game, as I do. That’s to bring a championship to the Atlanta Hawks.”

Schlenk didn’t want to go down the road of how all of this happened. But it’s clear Budenholzer was still harboring a grudge against the organization for the demotion. For as much as the public/media narrative has been, “Bud hates Travis” or “Travis hates Bud,” the bumps in their relationship weren’t nearly as bad perceived.

The bigger issues may have been Budenholzer harboring resentment against Ressler for last summer’s front-office shake-up, and for the intent by Schlenk and the ownership group to change the culture in the organization. Budenholzer has long favored the very closed society cultivated by his mentor in San Antonio, Gregg Popovich. The only problem with that is, Popovich has won five NBA championships, so he’s afforded a little latitude, like Nick Saban. Schlenk came from the Golden State Warriors, where things are a bit a looser.

Schlenk wouldn't say much about the separation from Budenholzer. He reiterated what he said before the final game of the season: he was planning on Budenholzer coming back. He got a different sense a couple of days later when the two had conversations and other teams began phoning for permission to talk to the coach.

What did Budenholzer say when Schlenk asked why he wanted a change?

“I don’t want to speak for him, and those are private conversations,” he said.

Like any general manager, Schlenk had his “contingency list” of coaching candidates in the event it was needed. He said he’ll look at both former head coaches and assistants. Among those who may be interviewed: former Memphis coach and Hawks assistant David Fizdale, Portland assistant Nate Tibbetts, Charlotte and former Golden State assistant Stephen Silas (son of ex-Hawk Paul Silas), San Antonio assistants James Borrego and Ime Udoka, and Hawks assistant Darvin Ham.

A coach almost certainly will be in place before the draft June 21. As for Budenholzer, he’s off looking for greener grass on the other side of the fence.

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