Hawks principal owner Tony Ressler sat down with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for an exclusive interview the day before the NBA draft. In a wide-ranging interview, Ressler spoke about his willingness to spend what it takes to be a great franchise, the relationship between general manager and head coach and what the Hawks might do with their draft picks and salary-cap space.
Here is a portion of the interview.
Q. Two years ago, almost to the day (June 26), we sat here in an empty field as you broke ground on this practice facility. Four years ago, almost to the day (June 25), you purchased the team. You said you wanted to build a “great franchise” and that meant winning championships. Where do you believe you are in the process? In other words, how close?
A. I would say four years ago, we said we had a franchise that was not perceived by anyone in the NBA as a top-tier franchise, on its way in the right direction. I think we were coming of a really good 60-win season that people thought we overachieved, and I will let others determine. I tried to watch and learn that first full year, for sure. I think getting swept in the playoffs in ’15 and getting swept again in ’16, I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, but I think it is somewhat evident that they did overachieve from a regular season to a playoff perspective. I just don’t think you are supposed to get swept in the playoffs. My bigger argument was do we have a marketplace that people appreciate? Do we have facilities that people appreciate. Do we have staff and a franchise that people appreciate? Do we have ownership that people think will spend money? All of things, at least from my perspective, I said let’s take an arena that was the worst and make it the best that it can be. We’ve done that. I said let’s take a practice facility that … I think most people would perceive it as the worst in the NBA. I would say that we are sitting in what is, generally, I want to be careful on the hyperbole, either the best for among the best in the NBA. I would say top-tier franchises have a commitment to spend money, if and when appropriate. I don’t think the previous ownership sent that message. We are trying to send that message to everyone and anyone possible. It’s not a question of if we will spend money and be at the top end of team’s paying for great players. It’s a question of when and how. I think it’s critically important to have a G League team and facility that is accessible to the team. I think that is really important for some of the younger players you are trying to develop which is core to having a young team. I would say it was incredibly important having a head of basketball operations and head coach that absolutely work hand in glove. That really want to see each other succeed. That really want to see each other do well. And most importantly, rowing in the same direction. I would say none of that existed when we took over the team.”
Q. In your tenure, the organization has had ups – with a new practice facility, a renovated arena and a G League team – and downs – with needing a new general manager and head coach. Is there one specific anecdote that encapsulates that the most for you?
A. I will say this, and this is not a criticism of any of our predecessors, but the function of being head of basketball operations and the function of being head coach are really different. That I learned. You might say I should have learned that before. The idea of one person doing both, virtually impossible. Not impossible. Coaches are programmed, generally, to win now. however, whoever they have to go to war with. Most great GMs and head of basketball operations are, generally and should be, bigger picture thinkers about players and the future as well as the present. Coaches, certainly, as good thinkers and as smart and as talented, there job is to be much more short term than medium or long term. It’s just a different job.
Q. How excited are you that you have so many draft picks? Does the fan in you still come out and say “Wow, the options we have. What we could do.”
A. We have a lot of picks. As (general manager) Travis (Schlenk) would say, which of course I’m now using his quote, the more swings at the plate, generally, the more times to hit the ball. More specifically, I don’t think we have an ability to have more than three rookies coming into our team next season, maybe it’s four. The fact we have more and more assets to work with, to trade, to create value, is a real positive and make (Thursday) and, I would argue, the time leading up to the season much more interesting than it might be otherwise. Adding assets to create value is exactly what Travis is supposed to be doing. I would argue, it’s precisely what he is trying to do. Whether or not we make right decisions, I would say the last couple of drafts would be evidence of Travis and his team’s ability to make good decisions. I would like to take credit for the good decisions we’ve made, but that would be disingenuous. Saying that you have signed off on someone’s good decision-making does not make you a great decision-maker. You could take credit for hiring people who are really good at their jobs. Travis is one of them. … I think we’ve done it the last couple years. It’s why we have four or five really good youngsters that we can build a real business, a real team and a real contender around. We are not there yet.
Q. The other side of that, is you have a lot of cap space. There is a lot of excitement on what can be done with that. Would you say you are ready to jump in yet? Or do you need to wait another year and let this group come together before you become heavy hitters?
A. The idea is to become a contender. There is no confusion about that. But I’ve also found is that if you go in too soon in whatever dollars you are willing to spend, and we are willing to spend dollars, but if you go in too soon, then you lose the opportunity you have in front of you. Having patience in this process is, by far, my greatest obstacle and problem. I ready to go in now. The good news, is I have a lot of folks in our basketball-operations staff that are more professional about that decision. I am trying to take their advice. But I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t ready now and haven’t made several recommendations on how we could go early and be more aggressive sooner which would probably be to the great detriment of the Atlanta Hawks.