Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer sat down with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for an exclusive interview. Budenholzer spoke about a wide range of topics including the current controversy facing the Hawks, his new role of assuming the general manager duties and the health of Al Horford.
Q. What was your initial reaction when the news broke about the comments made by owner Bruce Levenson and general manager Danny Ferry?
A. It’s really unfortunate and you feel for the people who are hurt and the community. It’s really unfortunate on a lot of different levels. You are hoping we can come together from something like this and learn from something like this. Your initial reaction is you are not sure where this will all go but you feel for everybody that has been hurt in this process.
Q. What has been the most difficult to deal with?
A. It has been difficult. Danny is a friend and somebody I care about. I think he’s made mistakes and I think he’s acknowledged them and he wants to learn and grow from this. He put me in this (coaching) position and I have strong feelings for him. I understand that he has made mistakes and I understand that we need to build and repair the trust. He’s a friend of mine.
Q. Were you on the conference call? Did you hear the comment?
Q. Have you known Danny to use those comments in the past?
A. I’ve known Danny for 15-plus years, as a player, as an assistant coach and now as a head coach and a friend. Race has never been an issue with Danny. Comments like that, I would say, are very much out of character.
Q. How do you not let this be a distraction to the team?
A. I think our group is just incredibly strong and incredibly committed to being there for each other and excited about the opportunity we have as a team and playing and competing together. I think the group is going to do a lot of work for me if people think it’s my job to reduce the distraction. I’ve listened to them and I’ve been there for them. I think we want to be sensitive to what has happened but we also want to help the community heal and move forward and get back to the task at hand and prepare for the season. We are excited about the season.
Q. So you have spoken to the team. Was it in general or as individuals?
A. All of it. When things like this happen and there are moments in our lives where we have visited as a group. We’ve had a lot of one-on-one communications. I think the team has communicated as a group without me and I’m sure they’ve had a lot of one-one conversations with each other. I think the more we communicate and the more together we are, hopefully that can help us through this and ultimately at some point the community pulls together like it has in a lot of other circumstances and gets through this together.
Q. So (CEO) Steve Koonin comes to you and says he wants you to assume the general manager duties, how will you juggle both roles?
A. We have an incredible group here with our management and our basketball operations, scouts, assistant coaches and medical staff. I think it’s what we feel is the best solution in a tough time. I’m excited to continue to fight for our guy, protect our guys and protect what we have been building and continue to move us forward. We have done everything collaboratively since I arrived. So in a lot of ways as much as possible we are going to continue to work and continue to do business. In a tough time, this is the best solution.
Q. With the roster as it stands, there isn’t a lot of do. Will you lean on the staff and are there others outside the organization you can bounce ideas off?
A. With our roster for the most part in place, the players are always the most important thing and so I think if we continue to keep our focus on the players, making sure we have the right group here. (Assistant GM) Wes (Wilcox) and his group will continue to work and we are always looking for ways to improve and get better. I’m open and will lean on people occasionally but the more we work together and move us forward the better we are going to be.
Q. How is Al Horford?
A. He has made good progress. I think we are excited about having him back and healthy. I still think he’s got some hurdles to clear. He is not at 100 percent right now but I think we anticipate by opening night and through camp him getting to where he is totally cleared and ready to go. He’s had a heck of a summer. Al is diligent and works hard and takes care of himself so I think that will all be in a good place.
Q. So if he’s not 100 percent, can you put a percentage on how close he is?
A. We haven’t done the 70, 80, 90 (percent). We want to make sure we are taking care of him and we’ll probably err on the side of caution and being conservative in moving him through the month of October so he’s ready for the start of the season.
Q. Is he cleared for contact?
A. He’ll be held out of contact early in training camp. He’ll progress through and get to where he’s got full clearance in everything but at the start of camp there will be some limitations.
Q. How is John Jenkins?
A. John has had a great September. He’s been playing in open gym with no limitations and playing well. I think feeling well. It’s been great for him to have that feeling back again. I think he is excited about camp. We’re excited about having him healthy and watching him compete.
Q. Is everybody else healthy?
A. (Kent) Bazemore is also coming off this summer’s foot injury. He will, through the month of October, kind of be progressed from starting with some limitations and working through a progression to where some point during October he will be cleared and not have any limitations and plan on being ready for opening night.
Q. Have you thought how you will use Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha, you’re two free-agent acquisitions?
A. Yes, I’m so excited about adding those two guys and what they bring. I think we really want to get better defensively and I think not just Thabo and Kent. Adding them is going to be big but the whole group we want to get better and improve defensively. I think their skills and their makeup and the way they’ve competed in their careers is going to take a big step in helping us improve defensively. I think they both can do a lot more and help us on both ends of the court. I know we are excited they are here. In all our communications and work with them I think they are excited about being here also.
Q. Is it too elementary just to say they will be subbing for DeMarre Carroll to help him defensively?
A. There is always some truth in the fundamental, elementary statements. I think our rotation on the wing is still to be determined in how we use those guys, including John. That is what camp is for and the preseason. I think that everybody felt how important DeMarre was to us last year, especially that defensive mentality, makeup, energy and effort. So to have a couple of guys who have established themselves in the league with similar mindsets and similar makeups, I think we have a lot more depth in that way.
Q. You go into training camp with the maximum 15 players under contract. How much competition will there be? What can we expect out of training camp?
A. I think there is still competition. Guys come to camp and they come to make the team. I think we are in a situation where salary-wise and cap-wise we have some flexibility. I think we want to leave ourselves open to competition, most importantly, in putting together the best team we can. I think fortunately for us there is still opportunity for us, there is still flexibility in all ways, shapes and forms.
Q. The Eastern Conference is dramatically different now with LeBron (James) in Cleveland. What are your expectations going into the season? How do you see the change in hierarchy?
A. It’s strange. I don’t really pay that close attention to the rest of the East or the entire NBA. We are in such that building mode and that beginning phase mode that I’m really focused on our guys. I genuinely mean that. I think there are fans out there that know more about the East than I do. Hopefully I know more about the Hawks than they do. I know LeBron is in Cleveland now and Chicago has made some good additions, mostly Derek Rose coming back healthy. I think you can go down the list of how the teams have improved. To whatever degree, I am aware of all that. I’m significantly more focused on what we are doing and hope that we can have that daily approach and be worried about ourselves. We’ll find our spot in that mix of teams.
Q. How long did it take you to get over the playoff loss to the Pacers? Is there still a bitter taste or have you moved on?
A. It really sits with you all summer and it motivates you all summer. Hopefully our group, and myself included, will look at it in a good way in how can we improve. I think that’s important for our group. I can’t remember what everybody said after the loss, but I think, obviously, there were a lot of positives. But we wanted to be honest with ourselves and look and acknowledge where we need to improve and where we need to get better. I’m going to be on our group on where we need to get better. A lot of that can be feed, that memory and that taste. I don’t think you really want it to go away or to get over it.
Q. You’ve had changes in the coaching staff. What will the roles will be?
A. I’m excited about adding first Neven Spahija, a friend and a colleague that I have known for a long time and have a lot of respect for. I think people know how we feel about the international game and the European game and how we can learn from each other. Adding him was great. Adding Ben Sullivan and Charles Lee, two relatively young coaches who I think have very, very bright futures. To be honest with you, just watching them on the court with our players the last month has been great. I think adding them to Kenny (Atkinson), Darvin (Ham) and Taylor (Jenkins), my staff is incredibly important to me. They don’t get enough credit. They are not talked about enough. But I think our players know how good they are and our players appreciate them and know we want to help our players get better. We want to be prepared every night. I think it’s a great staff. I’m really excited about them. I will miss Quin (Snyder) dearly but I’m very, very happy for him and his opportunity and now we’ll move forward with a few additions and changes.
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