A great coach is important. A great builder is more important.
An average coach can win a championship with a great roster, one constructed by a general manager with an eye for talent, a sense for chemistry and a vision for where the league is headed.
A great coach can sometimes will and guide a team with even modest talent or dysfunction in the locker room to overachievement. But far more often than not, the season will not end with a title run.
I bring this up now because the Hawks are two offseasons into the post-Danny Ferry front-office regime of coach/president Mike Budenholzer and general manager Wes Wilcox, and the jury is clearly out. Budenholzer can coach. He has to prove he can build.
The Hawks were less of a team this season than the one before. They may be less of a team now than they were when the season ended.
On Friday, they signed Dwight Howard, a free agent whose availability stirred less fanfare than at any time in his career.
On Saturday, they lost Al Horford, a player at the opposite end of the marketability and likability scale, when he signed with Boston.
You wanted change. There it is.
You wanted something bold. There it is.
You wanted improvement. Not so fast.
Maybe this works. Maybe Howard, whose recent career has been punctuated by underachievement and diva tendencies, ugly exits in Orlando and Los Angeles, and yawns in Houston, truly is humbled and willing to change. Maybe a bigger physical presence in the post will help Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore up front in ways Horford couldn’t.
But Budenholzer looks like more than just a guy seeking change right now. He looks like a guy at the end of the crap table, throwing two dice and trying to win back his rent money.
Horford sought a five-year max contract from the Hawks. That offer presumably never came. A max contract might seem a bit expensive for Horford, but in a summer when Timofey Mozgov is getting $64 million, is it really such an outrageous request?
There was a moment Saturday when it appeared the two sides would reach a deal, pair Horford and Howard together, and the Hawks would try to make the numbers work, likely by dealing Paul Millsap to get under the salary cap.
Horford ended that fantasy with a simple tweet at 7:15 p.m.: “Celtic Pride!!!!”
The Hawks defeated Boston in the first round of the playoffs this season. I think I’d take the Celtics in that same matchup today.
Howard isn’t a bad player. He’s just not a great one anymore. And there is all this baggage. He can still rebound and block shots, but years and injuries have taken their toll. Howard won Defensive Player of the Year Honors three consecutive seasons, but the last time was five years ago — and in the past two seasons he didn’t even get a vote.
He was an elite player in Orlando, and a healthier one. In his first seven NBA seasons, he missed only seven games. In the past five seasons, he missed 97.
Because he has been slowed by various ailments, including back and knee, he’s not the offensive force he once was. Then there’s the off-the-court stuff. The Hawks are taking a risk on a player who was accused by his former coach in Orlando, Stan Van Gundy, of trying to get him fired. In his lone season with the Los Angeles Lakers, he was called “soft” by Kobe Bryant, who in an interview with USA Today also said Howard wasn’t “willing to deal with the uncomfortable and combative nature” it takes to win a championship, according to Bryant.
The Hawks came away from their meeting with Howard on Friday in a Buckhead restaurant believing he had changed, been humbled and showed a willingness to take direction. But the real test never comes at lunch when an athlete is seeking a contract, it comes during losing streaks and tense practices. Budenholzer yells at everybody, even players he really likes. How will Howard respond?
You wanted change? You got change. You wanted improvement? That’s up for debate. Dennis Schroder might be an offensive improvement over the inconsistent Jeff Teague at point guard, but he still has moments when he looks like a pingpong ball in a wind tunnel. Bazemore might develop an offensive game that the Hawks so desperately need on the wing.
But the Hawks just lost a four-time All-Star, getting back no assets, and Millsap can opt out of his deal after next season. This could go south in a hurry. Either way, it’s on Budenholzer’s watch.
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