When the season began two years ago, nobody knew if Mike Budenholzer could coach.
When the season began last year, we knew he could coach but weren’t sure if he could hold together a franchise that had suffered from a pair of race-infused pratfalls, resulting from severe public humiliation (or as the Atlanta Spirit called it: just another Tuesday).
Consider this the beginning of Budenholzer’s next unlikely test. Two seasons removed from being a career assistant coach, Budenholzer is now an NBA team president. He not only held together the Hawks last season, he guided them to relative meteoric, nose-bleed heights, including a 19-game win streak, a 60-win season and nose-bleed territory of the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals.
Those achievements led new principal owner Tony Ressler to effectively give him the world: a fat new contract and the team presidency, which means he assumes all major decision-making powers from Danny Ferry, the excommunicated general manager.
There’s an old saying in sports: Coaches want to win today, general managers want to win tomorrow.
“Hopefully we can do both,” Budenholzer said.
If not, he will have nobody else to blame.
When the Hawks opened the season against Detroit on Tuesday night, they did so without baggage. That’s a rarity. The former Spirit owners are mostly gone. (If Michael Gearon Jr. whines about something now, it will be with him sitting at the kids’ table, with his trivial one percent share.) The Hawks are viewed as a franchise that does things right, on and off the court, and again are expected to be in the mix for at least the conference title.
The biggest question: Did Budenholzer (the big-picture guy) make the correct offseason moves for his coach?
Opening night was night a thing of beauty. The Hawks trailed Detroit by as much as 19, was behind most of the night and lost 106-95.
If the season ended today, they would miss the playoffs. But they have 81 more games to find themselves.
Detroit dominated the boards 59-40 and had 23 offensive rebounds. The Hawks’ three-point shooting: dreadful (8 for 27). That’s like a car losing third gear.
“Out of sync,” said Kyle Korver. “It looked like the first game of the season.”
“We’re a team where ball movement and knowing teammates tendencies is such a huge part of what we do,” said Thabo Sefolosha, who looked better coming off an injury than Korver. “I think it will take a little while to get adjusted. But at the same time our energy wasn’t where it was supposed to be.”
A lot of things seemed off. Two other big ones:
• Kent Bazemore, the new starter for DeMarre Carroll at small forward, was scoreless.
• Tim Hardaway Jr., acquired from the New York Knicks for guard depth for a first-round draft pick, did even less. He was on the bench after Budenholzer designated him inactive. This wasn’t about the starting lineup, it was just about which dozen players would merely suit up. Budenholzer gave the nod to Lamar Patterson, who played last year for a team in Turkey (Tofas Bursa, if you didn’t know, and I’m sure you didn’t).
“We have to make some hard choices,” Budenholzer said. “It’s going to take him and some of the new guys a little bit of time, but he’ll get there.”
Forward/center Tiago Splitter, the Hawks’ other major offseason addition, didn’t make much of an impact, either. But then, he sort of fit right in.
For what it’s worth, the Hawks also lost their opener last year and started 1-3 and 5-5. Is this a 60-win team again? Probably not. But given his first two seasons, Budenholzer has earned the benefit of the doubt.
“We’re going to have to earn the respect and earn the trust of everybody,” he said.
Will he yell at himself if something goes wrong?
“I yell at myself all the time. Hopefully you never see that,” he said.
“As coaches, whether we’re making personnel decisions or not, we’re all critical of ourselves. We always want to get better. We push our players to do that. But nobody bats 1.000.”
Splitter gives the Hawks needed size off the bench and allows them to go with a big lineup (with Al Horford and Millsap). “From (No.) 1 to 15, I feel our roster is better than it was last year,” Horford said.
But he acknowledged replacing Carroll won’t be easy.
“His toughness,” Horford said when asked what the Hawks will miss most. “A lot of times he played hurt. People didn’t know that about DeMarre — it was an ankle, a hip. A lot of times he wouldn’t even walk through the shoot-around. But he’d come to the game ready to play. He motivated a lot of us just with things that he did.”
Carroll is gone and so is last season. We know now that Budenholzer can coach. We’ll find out soon enough if he can build a champion.
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