Owner Tony Ressler says Hawks are ‘just getting started’ after deep playoff run

Credit: Curtis Compton/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Curtis Compton/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Hawks principal owner Tony Ressler was more surprised with the way the season started (14-20) than the way it finished (27-11 the rest of the regular season, advancing to the Eastern Conference finals).

In the past, Ressler had been open with how impatient he was, in terms of the speed at which the franchise rebuilt. But he had confidence in how the roster was constructed entering this season, with a talented young core of players and a few experienced veterans added to the mix.

On March 1, Lloyd Pierce was fired, and Nate McMillan, who previously was an assistant, became interim head coach (interim tag no longer, as of Monday). The Hawks went on to do much more than simply make the playoffs, dominating the Knicks in the first round and knocking off the No. 1-seed 76ers in the second. That’s made Ressler more excited and eager moving forward — the Hawks are fully committed to “being good for an extended period of time,” Ressler said, and that means competing for a championship.

“We really do believe we are just getting started in building what we’re trying to build,” Ressler said. “... There should be no confusion, we are really proud of where we are. But by no means do we think we’ve gotten, shall we say, to where we’re going. That’s just not the case. Nobody has lost any bit of obsession about where we hope to go.”

Speaking with the media Tuesday, Ressler gave his thoughts on the team’s success under McMillan and how to handle the roster, contracts and higher expectations moving forward.

Here’s a condensed version of more of Ressler’s answers to questions surrounding the franchise:

... On the biggest priority moving forward:

“I thought it was creating some stability, not being at all surprised about where we are. We are exactly where we expected to be. I would argue are the two objectives from this season. We shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe some in the media, maybe some fans and maybe some other franchises, frankly, most of us are not that surprised. We’re happy where we are, but creating that stability, having a great coach in place, having the vast majority of our players in place, all of that is part of the stability. We are where we expected to be, and, frankly, we expect to be better going forward. ... Our job is to create stability and a sustainable franchise. That’s the objective. That’s what this summer is about.”

... On whether he expected the team would make the Eastern Conference finals:

“I didn’t say that because that would be a fib. I didn’t know what I expected. I expected to be a far better team this year. I expected to be in the playoffs. I didn’t get into the first, second, third round. When I saw the way we were playing in the first round, I thought we had a real shot and expected to be in the finals. It’s different on what part of the season. In the earliest part of the season, we thought we would be a much better team and make the playoffs. As the season changed, I changed with it.”

.… On how he views the difficulty of building a roster when guys on rookie-scale contracts are all becoming eligible for extensions around the same time:

“It’s complicated, of course, because what we’re trying to convince people is we’re building something, but let’s not kid ourselves, our job is to run a good business. Every player we’re negotiating with for their contracts are trying to do what I’ve been in their ear (about) from the day they joined the Atlanta Hawks, which is to be good businessmen. Be successful. Be financially focused. And at the end of the day what we are trying to achieve is literally keeping our best players, as you could imagine, trying to make clear that we’re going to have to spend a lot more than we have this season. We fully expect that. I’m not sure we’re going to be able to keep every single player that we want to keep. Pretty good bet, pretty good assumption we will not.

“But I do think we have several years that we should be able to build some real stability and listen, if the question is, and I’m not sure if it is, but if the question is are we scared of the (luxury) tax, are we scared of hitting the tax, are we scared of going into the tax, let’s face it. Our job is to run a good business. I’m scared of paying the tax and not being a good team, yes, that I’m scared of, but if we have to go into the tax to be a great team for a period of time, so be it. It’s the nature of this beast. But our view is really simple, it’s try to be the best we can and try to run a good business. And yes, try to keep as many young players as we can and know that we may not be 100 for 100 on that.”

... On his view on max contracts:

“Not every player should have a max contract and great players should and will. I still make the argument that you could send two very clear messages, which is we do not expect to be financially constrained and, not or, we fully expect to be reasonably smart in our approach to running the business. If that means we’re committed to fair contracts, please accept me in that category. We are not committed to bad contracts. We are not committed to spending when not appropriate. We are making the clear message that we will not be financially constrained, that we do intend to be investors. When we bought this franchise, we thought there was an enormous opportunity to invest in this franchise, to invest in this community and to build a top-tier franchise. That’s the efforts we have made and continues to be our focus.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

… On what he’d like to see done with John Collins’ contract situation:

“John is a perfect example of what I just said; he to his credit is going to be a smart businessman and what he decides and negotiates; we’re going to try to run a good business. Our job is to come to a fair agreement with John. That’s our objective. There should be no question. He’s a really good player and maybe more importantly, a really good person. So the idea of having both is important to this franchise. That’s my view.

“The idea of being smart for both of us, to come to a reasonable place, that’s the objective, and there should be no confusion. So we’re going to be trying that, as you might appreciate, and I think as Travis said, which I think is amazing, a lot of players that don’t agree to a contract going into this season, play in a certain way. John played as an amazing teammate trying to win games and doing whatever he could do to win games. John’s a really good guy and a really good teammate. And I hope he is an Atlanta Hawk.”

… On what the next step is or what needs to happen for the Hawks to win a title:

“I still think if we would have had De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, the entire season healthy, and certainly the entire playoffs healthy, who knows what we’d be discussing or where we’d be right now. So the simple answer is being healthy, I think is a huge part of NBA success. That we know. And I think basically this team with as I saw the six or seven young players we have, but when you see what a (Danilo Gallinari) and a (Bogdan Bogdanovic) and a Clint (Capela) and a Lou (Williams), and Solomon (Hill) and Tony (Snell), too, when you look at what our vets gave to us … I think the idea of creating some stability. I think we have, again I’m entitled to be somewhat partial, but I really do believe we’re incredibly deep and really talented.

“And I think this team could do more than they did this year, is the simple answer. And yes, the answer is we do expect more, we do want more, and we’re going to try to get more. We are not satisfied. We are not banging our chest and saying mission accomplished. None of that, none of that. We are just trying to highlight that this franchise is what we thought it was, this team is what we thought it could be, and we think it has the ability to get better. And that should be a very clear message. And I think if you asked each of these players individually, I think they would tell you the same.”

… On if he feels the team as currently constructed is enough to win a championship:

“I think it is. I want to say this clearly, I think it is, but again I want to be careful, Travis and Nate and their, shall we say, respective groups, are weighing all of that as we speak. Me as the owner, I’m going to say in that group of three, probably should be a better listener. I personally think we were, if we were completely healthy, I think we could have done more. I’m just going to say that. Come on, Bogi for a good chunk of the series (vs. Milwaukee) was on one leg. Trae (Young) could not walk. … These are young men in their early 20s that could barely walk, and were asked to play on one of the most difficult stages in the NBA.

“That’s pretty remarkable. Some of them had terrible injuries, and they still tried to play, and some still played. So guess what I’m, I’m being long-winded, I think we have enough. I think we have some extraordinary talent that could be even better with each season. I absolutely believe we have enough to win a championship is the simple answer. But hey, our job is to always try to be better.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

... On whether this playoff run changes the team’s timetable to contend for a title:

“The simplest answer is yes. I think every player on our team feels like we’re capable of contending. I don’t know if they felt it at the beginning of the season, but I am sure they felt it during the season and certainly by the end of the season. If you look at our record since coach McMillan came into the picture, when you look at how we’ve performed since taking over as head coach, I would say it’s competitive with any team, at any time, at any place. I think we’re supposed to have a higher bar going forward. If you ask any of our players, I have to believe that our bar has gone up. I know it has from an ownership perspective, from a senior-management perspective, from a coaching perspective and for a player’s perspective.”

... On if there’s any concern about the extraordinarily high expectations this run could create:

“Yes, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad. It’s like that with every business. Sometimes business that have amazing quarters as public companies, they’re like, ‘Ugh. The bar has been raised.’ People who want to be perceived as great businesses or great basketball franchises have to have a high bar, and they have to live up to it. If we underperform next season, we have to figure something else out, and all of us would have to re-evaluate who we are and what we are. Our view is we have players and coaching and a franchise that is capable of being really good.

“That’s what we believe. I don’t believe this was good luck, although I will say this, one thing that I have learned with winning an NBA title is you have to be really good, but you also have to be healthy and a little bit lucky. I didn’t appreciate all of the above because we hadn’t been there. Twisting an ankle at a remarkably bad moment in time, having a meniscus reoccur for De’Andre Hunter at a remarkably bad time, these are things that have real impact in becoming champions. I don’t want to act like we’re the only team that had an unfortunate set of injuries, but I don’t think we had as much luck as we could have.”

... On what he saw from Young in the playoffs:

“Trae Young has done beautifully. He has performed in the playoffs. He’s performed for the past three seasons in a way that, again, many folks in the media ... I guess felt surprised with how Trae Young played in the playoffs. I wasn’t. This kid is special. I would also like to highlight that when you look at Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, Onyeka Okongwu — we have five, six, seven young guys who are really coming along. That’s something to be really proud of.”

... On the Atlanta community embracing the Hawks on their playoff run:

“I don’t want to make jokes about this, but four or five years ago, you could come to a playoff game and you could see more jerseys of a visiting player. Those days are over. When you see our fan base, when you see the jerseys they’re wearing, when you see the cheering going on, it’s very clear it’s for this team, this city and this franchise. We couldn’t be more proud of that.”