The Hawks are a team in turmoil – on and off the court.
It was April 22, 2015. Tony Ressler, as principal owner, reached an agreement to purchase the Hawks from the Atlanta Spirit group. The sale concluded a messy era in Hawks history. The Atlanta Spirit had purchased the Hawks, Thrashers and operating rights to then-Philips Arena in 2004 and almost immediately broke down into a series of disputes and lawsuits between owners. The Thrashers were sold in 2011. An email, considered racially insensitive, sent by controlling owner Bruce Levenson eventually led to the entire ownership group agreeing to sell the team.
Ressler was considered a rescuer of the franchise. He almost immediately set about improving the franchise, making major changes to the arena, building a new practice facility and purchasing a G League franchise to be run and operated in Atlanta. Early in his tenure as owner, Ressler had to deal with a working relationship between general manager Wes Wilcox and head coach Mike Budenholzer that had become untenable. In May of 2017, Wilcox resigned as general manager and became a special advisor to the organization, a title in name only. Travis Schlenk was hired as the new general manager. Budenholzer, who also had president of basketball operation duties during his tenure, stepped down in April of 2018 and joined the Bucks.
It was June 29, 2021. The Hawks defeated the Bucks in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals to tie the best-of-seven series at 2-2. The Hawks had advanced deeper into the playoffs since 1968 after moving from St. Louis, where the organization won its only NBA Championship in 1958. The 2014-15 Hawks won 60 games but were swept in the conference finals by the Cavaliers. The Hawks would lose the final two games in the series against the Bucks, who went on to win the title.
Even with the disappointment, all seemed right. The Hawks were back on the right track.
A lot has changed in the 19 months since.
After their run to the conference finals, the Hawks underachieved during the 2021-22 season with largely the same roster. The Hawks made the playoffs as a play-in team and defeated the Hornets and Cavaliers. They would lose to the Heat in a first-round series, 4-1.
This season, after a number of major offseason moves, the Hawks have again struggled. Headed into Monday afternoon’s game against the Heat, they are 21-22, ninth in the conference, after back-to-back road wins. A sense of dysfunction that once overwhelmed the organization is back. There are issues in the front office and coaching staff that run deep.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution conducted a series of interviews with people inside and outside the organization and inside the NBA, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The insight offered paints a picture of a franchise again in turmoil.
There became a struggle in the front office with the increased role of Nick Ressler, the 27-year-old son of the principal owner. Nick Ressler began as the coordinator of basketball operations in 2018-19. He has since moved into the role of director of basketball and business operations.
After receiving a contract extension last year, Schlenk suddenly stepped down as president of basketball operations in December to become a senior advisor. It is, again, a title in name only. Schlenk has had nothing to do with the organization since he stepped down. Landry Fields, who was named assistant general manager in 2020 became general manager on June 13, 2022. In addition, three long-term executives in senior adviser Rod Higgins, director of pro scouting Stephen Giles and vice president of player personnel Derek Pierce were all let go. Former Hawks player Kyle Korver, who began a role in player development this season, is finalizing a deal to become assistant general manager.
Among the issues in the front office were:
*An ownership nixed trade last year of John Collins, who was seen by some in the organization not to fit the current style of play of the Hawks.
*The trade of Kevin Huerter to the Kings in the offseason, a move made solely to prevent the Hawks from reaching the luxury tax. Huerter’s shooting has been missed this season.
*The trade for Dejounte Murray, who the Hawks gave up Danilo Gallinari (released and signed by the Celtics), a 2023 protected first-round pick, a 2025 first-round pick, a 2026 pick swap and a 2027 first-round pick. It was the major move of the offseason to bring in the all-star as someone to take pressure off Trae Young. In addition to all the Hawks gave up, which some consider way too much, there was concern that Murray needs to play on the ball, much like Young.
*The signing of Aaron Holiday, a former high school teammate of Nick Ressler and played for McMillan with the Pacers.
*The draft day decision to select Luka Doncic and trade him to the Mavericks for Young will always be under scrutiny. Doncic, the Rookie of the Year in 2019, has been a three-time all-star and a three-time all-NBA first-team player. Young is a two-time all-star and made the all-NBA third team once. The Hawks also got a first-round pick in the trade and selected Cam Reddish, who was traded in this third season.
“Look, Tony is our owner and Tony is a fantastic owner,” Fields told the AJC in an exclusive interview Monday. “We’re unbelievably resourced in this place and he empowers us to do our jobs in a way that we feel is authentic us but also honoring to his and Jami (Gertz)’s vision moving forward.
“As far as Nick, Nick is a part of our day-to-day process. He’s a voice in the room that we value, both of (Kyle and I) do and that whole group, when we’re trying to come to a decision on anything, from the players in the room to just how we’re operating as a group. And for me, personally, as the decision maker, I love diverse thought. We have a mantra that’s called ‘conflict and commit.’
“I want to sit at a table with people with different perspectives that come from different backgrounds because, the way you see the world is not how I see the world, and want to hear your perspective and aggregate that with mine to get a clearer picture of what we’re trying to do moving forward. And Nick, he’s a part of that. He is a voice. He’s been here five years, now. he’s seen a lot of different things. He does a lot of stuff with our business side as well. But in terms of like basketball operations, he’s going to be a part of the room and we welcome that and we embrace what he brings to the table.”
The relationship between Schlenk and Young has deteriorated over recent months. Issues began following Game 2 of the playoff series with the Heat last year. In the return to Atlanta, Young chartered a private flight and did not inform the team, according to several people familiar with the situation. In the middle of the playoffs, Young was fined.
There have also been issues with head coach Nate McMillan, who according to several people familiar with the situation has tried to step down this season. McMillan signed a four-year contract in July of 2021 after leading the Hawks to the conference finals as interim head coach, taking over for Lloyd Pierce. McMillan was convinced to stay on.
When asked by the AJC if he considered resigning at any point this season, McMillan said that any decisions on his retirement will occur when the season concludes. He added that he is focused on the team’s race to the playoffs.
Young missed a game against the Nuggets in December after what was described as a ‘miscommunication’ between star player and head coach became public. Young, who was injured, did not attend the game, a normal occurrence for players who are injured, after an exchange with McMillan at the pregame shootaround.
Both Young and McMillan have appeared to be on positive terms since their disagreement and the Hawks have gone 10-12 since as the team has tried to re-focus on what they can control on the court.
Despite the Hawks convincing McMillan to remain, it is becoming more and more likely that he will not return next season. In fact, in a recent meeting with the Resslers, a player agent was told that McMillan would not be back next season. Fields and Korver both denied speaking with agents about McMillan’s position in the organization.
“We’ve got half a season (left),” Fields said. “That’s a lot of basketball. There’s been transition. There’s been stories that come out. There’s been so much investment that we have to have today to think about beyond this season. It’s not just like Nate, it’s with a lot of different people. Like for us, how are we thinking about ourselves going forward?
“To start to live into that space without honoring this space would be unfair for everyone involved -- Nate, myself, Kyle included -- like, that’s somewhere. We believe in Nate right now. He’s for us. He’s trying to do things in this whole transition of leadership that are hard. They’re hard for everyone. So having this partnership right now for the objectives that we have for this continued season is our only focus.”
The Hawks organization is concerned with the outward image of turmoil. The move to make Schlenk a special advisor and to keep McMillan is an attempt to portray stability. The Hawks deal with Sharecare as a uniform sponsor expires after this season. In October the team announced it had hired a firm to search for a replacement to sponsor a uniform patch. A typical deal is worth millions of dollars to a franchise. Any hint of instability could be a concern for a potential advertiser.
“Last year on the court, you could make the argument, we were not better than the year before,” Tony Ressler told the AJC before this season. “And the simple answer is we went to the Eastern Conference finals, and then we lost in the first round the playoffs the next year. Alright, so you could hide it, you can make excuses for it, you could ignore it or you could make quite clear that, ‘okay, I felt we didn’t get better last year,’ and try to make clear to every part of the organization, to the front office to the coaching staff, to the A(thletic) P(erformance) T(eam) staff, to the players, to the business operations. Our job is to get better. And we didn’t last year, and we’re going to this year, and we think we did.”
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com