Hawks’ restart: New coach, new players, Sheetrocked door

This has been a miserable month for Atlanta sports fans. If October were an X-ray, the doctor would hold it up to the light, get that Scooby Doo, rut-roh look in his face, run into a closet, scream, take a cleansing breath and then walk out, phone the patient and extol the virtues of summer breezes and short-term leases.

The Hawks are in a different place from any baseball or football team in town, if for no other reason than they haven’t played an official game yet. The coaching staff is new. Dust is still settling from the last roster razing. Marketing is laboring to find a more palatable campaign than, “Josh is gone!” or “Come watch our cap space!”

Enter Mike Budenholzer. He needs to make this work.

He’s a likable guy. He’s a smart guy (or he wouldn’t have worked for the San Antonio Spurs for so long). But this is his first head coaching job, which means there are uncertainties and adjustments. When George Seifert, the long-time San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator, took over for Bill Walsh as head coach, he told me after his first practice, “I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I just sort of walked around with my whistle.”

Budenholzer can relate.

When the Hawks opened training camp, he acknowledges, “There were times in practice when I wasn’t 100 percent sure what to do. Where am I supposed to be? You’re in more of that observatory, taking-it-all-in mode. It was awkward to not be the guy running a drill.”

The Hawks have a first-year coach, a second-year general manager and few returning players. It’s as close as this franchise has come in years to throwing a gallon of primer on the wall.

Budenholzer has two objectives: 1) implement his schemes, including the well-spaced, motion offense perfected by the Spurs; 2) help change the culture of an Atlanta franchise that has never won a second-playoff series. The second may be a more daunting task than the first.

Remember back in school days when you walked into a classroom and your new teacher had the chairs set up differently and new posters on the wall. That’s where Budenholzer has started.

A theater for video instruction now occupies a space where offices used to be just off the locker room at Philips Arena. (“Most people in general are visual learners,” Budenholzer said, referencing video study.) Pictures of past Hawks greats such as Doc Rivers and Steve Smith, which used to hang in a hallway just outside the team’s dressing room, have been moved. The walls are now blank.

“It wasn’t so much about the past,” Budenholzer said. “There’s a lot of respect for the history here, but we need to put our feel and our imprint on it.”

And then there’s this: The door to the head coach’s office, which was visible to anybody who entered from the arena corridor into the locker-room area, has been closed — literally Sheetrocked. The only way to get into Budenholzer’s office now is from around the corner, out of public view. He said, the idea originally was general manager Danny Ferry’s: “It just gives us a little more privacy, whether I’m visiting with a player or I’m watching film.”

Al Horford’s tenure with the Hawks has covered three head coaches and two general managers. He has never seen anything quite like this changeover, but he approves.

“It feels like a workplace,” he said. “It’s like our lab.”

Jeff Teague, another returnee, echoed: “I like it. It’s all about business. There’s no joking around. It’s (an) atmosphere probably like San Antonio. I mean, it’s still fun, but when you step between the lines there’s no playing around, no laughing. You’re just trying to get better.”

The challenge, of course, is maintaining that level of enthusiasm after the fresh-paint smell wears off. Credit Budenholzer for this much: He seems realistic.

Asked how long a culture-change would take place, he responded, “I have no idea. I tend to think it’s going to take longer than shorter. Some things, the transition will be quick, smooth and easy. Some things they will be long, hard and sometimes it won’t look pretty.”

It probably didn’t help perceptions of Budenholzer or the franchise’s makeover when the new coach was arrested for DUI in late August in Midtown. Budenholzer has pleaded not guilty, but has said little publicly beyond that. But the matter hasn’t seemed to be a distraction for him or the team.

Las Vegas has placed an over/under on the Hawks’ win total at 39. That sounds about right. Horford, Teague and Paul Millsap are a nice start. But the team’s best shooter, Lou Williams, is still rehabilitating from a knee injury and could miss the first two months of the season. Most of the rest of the roster is a compilation of young players and spare parts.

“I’m sure our warts will stand out on some nights, and hopefully some nights we’ll look like we know what we’re doing,” Budenholzer said.

A realistic projection.