Atlanta’s three pro sports teams have a winning problem. (I know. And the sky is blue.)
The Braves are setting franchise standards for futility. The Falcons have missed the playoffs three consecutive years. The Hawks’ limitations are best illustrated by losing 11 consecutive games to the Cleveland Cavaliers, including two playoff sweeps. If all three franchises proved as adept at building champions as they are at schmoozing local governments and bamboozling tax payers, there might be a reason to draw up a parade route.
So I thought: Which of the three franchises inspires the most confidence about the future? I can make a case for any of the three to be listed first. Or last.
Reasons to feel good: The signing of center Alex Mack should fix a three-year-old problem that caused a ripple effect across the offensive line and probably contributed to some of Matt Ryan’s struggles. The first three draft picks (strong safety Keanu Neal, outside linebacker Deion Jones, tight end Austin Hooper) all may play significant roles in 2016. Coach Dan Quinn showed his inexperience after that 5-0 start, but a late-season upset of Carolina (the Panthers’ lone loss until the Super Bowl) was impressive and possibly foreshadowing.
Reasons to wonder: Neal and Jones will add needed speed to the defense, but the lack of proven pass rushers is an obvious concern. This sacks-by-committee philosophy has failed in the past. The onus is on several players to improve from a year ago, including Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, Ra’Shede Hageman and Brooks Reed. Mohamed Sanu was a talented No. 3 receiver in Cincinnati, but the Falcons broke the bank for him on the assumption he can be a strong No. 2 opposite Julio Jones. Perhaps the biggest question of all: Will Matt Ryan improve from last season? It was his first with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who also has a fair number of skeptics to convert. Ryan is coming off the worst touchdown-to-interception ratio (21-16) of his career.
Confidence on scale of 1 to 5: 3.
Reasons to feel good: Mike Budenholzer can coach. He often is criticized for his bench rotations and in-game strategy, but Twitter is full of experts, and I’d say helping turn around a franchise and winning 108 of 164 regular-season games (.659) and getting to an Eastern Conference finals in the past two years speaks volumes about his abilities. The Hawks have payroll flexibility and several workable options if they want to change the look of their team this offseason: Al Horford and Kent Bazemore are becoming free agents, and Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder have value in the trade market. Owner Tony Ressler is a bit of an unknown, but it appears he’s passionate about his team and will be prone to fewer knucklehead tendencies than his predecessors.
Reasons to wonder: There are major questions about what direction the Hawks need to go in and they may need a stronger big-picture, personnel-driven executive in the front office. Budenholzer was elevated to president of basketball operations last year, but giving that kind of power to a coach only two years into his tenure is risky. Signing Kevin Durant obviously would fix a lot of problems. But what’s the realistic chance that Durant would pick the Hawks in free agency over San Antonio, Washington, Golden State, Boston or staying in Oklahoma City? Assuming the Hawks remain a tepid option for free agents, they’ll have to try to improve themselves with major trades (or sign-and-trades). Can Budenholzer and general manager Wes Wilcox handle that responsibility? Logic says Teague or Schroder will be traded. (Pure speculation: Teague goes.) But they’re both inconsistent point guards. Scoring from the wings is a major problem.
Confidence on scale of 1 to 5: 2.8.
Reasons to feel good: There have been a string of strong performances from young starting pitchers recently (Matt Wisler, Julio Teheran, Williams Perez, Mike Foltynewicz, Aaron Blair). Freddie Freeman looks normal again, but he still lacks protection in the lineup. Mallex Smith has a ton of raw talent and speed (even if he’s a bit of a project). Ender Inciarte can impact a game on offense or defense, assuming he’s healthy, which has been an issue the past two seasons. The minor-league system: stocked, we think.
Reasons to wonder: A case can be made that the Braves have the greatest potential upside of the three franchises, given their youth. But what does it say that the two executives (John Coppolella, John Hart) who feel so good about the future so badly miscalculated the team’s strength this season? There is a stack of lottery tickets in the minor league system that may or may not pay off. The Braves gave up assets for Hector Olivera, whose future (and freedom) are in doubt. They traded Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons, whose glove could’ve helped a young rotation and dreadful bullpen. The Braves are the worst defensive and offensive team in baseball. Their payroll ranks 27th in a field of 30. Sunny front office soundbites notwithstanding, why are we to believe Liberty Media will significantly change directions in salaries when the team moves into a new stadium? If the losing continues, projected revenue streams won’t be nearly as great as anticipated. The absentee corporate owners appear far more focused on real estate values, the stock price and the bottom line than winning.
Confidence on scale of 1 to 5: 2.7.
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