Quin Synder was an assistant on Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks staff back when the basketball program had a clear vision. You knew what those Hawks were about.
They spread the floor, shared the ball and made 3-pointers from the one man through five. Defensively, Budenholzer’s Hawks protected the paint and prevented opponents from running in transition. They played with togetherness and the player development program focused on making shooters.
Budenholzer’s successor, Lloyd Pierce, came to the Hawks with a mandate to help the team’s young players develop. He got that part right. Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter all grew their games with Pierce as coach. Pierce was dismissed because the Hawks were 14-20 after they’d moved on from tanking.
The Hawks won more when Nate McMillan took over from Pierce in the interim. McMillan guided them further than they’ve ever been, six games into the Eastern Conference finals. But as McMillan gained full ownership of the program the Hawks got diminishing returns and never developed a true identity.
General manager Landry Fields said he fired McMillan because players weren’t responding to the coach’s voice. Fields hired Snyder to be the guy that gets through to them. Snyder will hit the ground running as the Hawks (31-30) make a push for the playoffs.
Snyder’s immediate list of tasks for is topped by getting to know his best player, Young, and helping him lead. Snyder will want to get to the bottom of what Hawks players say is a lack of accountability on the team. Snyder will have to figure out a way to get their offense flowing and make their defense respectable.
The Hawks should get a tactical boost with Snyder for the final 21-game sprint for a playoff spot. McMillan had become too rigid in his methods. The harder task for Snyder will be fulfilling the vision of, as Fields put it, “being a championship-caliber franchise with the values of character and unity.”
“That just doesn’t just happen overnight,” Fields said Monday while introducing Snyder as coach.
Snyder is tasked with beginning that process on the one hand, and guiding the Hawks as they are now to the playoffs on the other.
“I think the opportunity to come in now, although it may be challenging, is also an opportunity to hopefully go on a run,” Synder said. “But also—and I think these things are not mutually exclusive—to begin to build a foundation, a culture. In NBA, you hear term the ‘foxhole’ a lot. You get in the foxhole these guys, those things have an opportunity to accelerate the building of relationships.
“You are faced with adversity and go through it collectively, together. I didn’t want to wait until next year to do that.”
Snyder built a winning program as a college head coach at Missouri for six-plus seasons. He helped the Jazz rebuild after they’d slipped under Tyrone Corbin, a longtime assistant for franchise legend Jerry Sloan. Snyder’s Jazz teams were strong defensively with center Rudy Gobert. Then Utah drafted Donovan Mitchell and took off once he blossomed into an elite scoring guard.
Utah had a complete team in Snyder’s final two seasons. In 2020-21, the Jazz ranked third in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency, per Cleaning the Glass. Last season, they were first in offense and ninth in defense. Typically, only two or three NBA teams are top 10 in both each season.
It took some time for Snyder’s Jazz to become playoff threats. The Hawks are a relatively young team. This is only the third season since they shifted from tanking to trying to win with Young.
“Youth can be deceiving,” Snyder said. “We’ve got some guys can tell already is they want to get better.”
Snyder’s Jazz tenure got shaky once the team lost in the second round of the 2021 playoffs to the Clippers. Utah was up 2-0 in the series and were eliminated in Game 6 after leading by 25 points. The Jazz lost to Dallas in last year’s first round. Weeks later, Snyder resigned because he said players needed a “new voice” after eight years.
Now Snyder is the new voice for the Hawks. Soon, he’ll try to get in tune with Young. Snyder’s experience working with Mitchell should help him with that. Young, like Mitchell, is a rising NBA star who’s still learning what it takes to be the leader of a team with high ambitions.
I didn’t believe the Hawks could get Snyder, the best candidate available, because of organizational dysfunction. Fields and team owner Tony Ressler proved me wrong. To do it, Ressler had to give Snyder a contract with four more years after this one, substantial cash and a “significant voice” in player personnel decisions, per ESPN.
There’s risk involved in those decisions. That’s the price the Hawks had had to pay to get a proven coach to take on this job. I’m sure Snyder saw what everyone else saw. The Hawks struggled to make their record much better than break-even this season and their front office had become a mess.
Travis Schlenk stepped down from running basketball operations in December as Ressler’s son, Nick, gained more influence. Fields fired McMillan weeks after McMillan had been talked out of resigning. The Hawks drew a curtain on the clown show by hiring a top coaching candidate before the season’s over.
Snyder said he was sold on the Hawks after talking to Fields and assistant general manager Kyle Korver, who played for Snyder with the Hawks and Jazz. Snyder said he’s on board with the front office’s plan to make “humility and selflessness” core values of the organization.
In the meantime, the Hawks (31-30) need to go on a run to make the playoffs.
They won both games with interim coach Joe Prunty and stood eighth in the Eastern Conference after the weekend’s games. They were 3 ½-games behind the Knicks for sixth place, which is the final guaranteed playoff spot. The Hawks will need to finish at least 10th in the East to qualify for the play-in tournament.
Fields believes Snyder will make a difference now. Even if that doesn’t happen, I think Snyder will turn out to be a good hire for the Hawks. That doesn’t necessarily mean he will work out because there are so many variables other than coaching involved in winning. But the Hawks reduced the uncertainty by hiring a coach with a strong track record of winning and, just as important, building a winning program.
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