No suspense was needed in evaluating whether the Atlanta Hawks would rest players during a stretch where the team plays four games in five nights. Head coach Mike Budenholzer has earned a reputation for Spurs-ian tactics with respect to "maintenance" of his key players, and the Hawks previously rested players in similar spots, even with theoretical positioning for the playoffs on the line.
Now, there is no such barrier to hold Budenholzer back from full-on rest, and he elected to pull the trigger on the entire starting lineup before a 115-100 loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday night. Here is what Budenholzer had to say about his choice, via Chris Vivlamore of the AJC:
"I have a huge appreciation for our fans and how important they are. We don’t have anything without our fans. I empathize that there might be a conflict of interest. We are just trying to make decisions that put our players in the best position to have success, somewhat in the short term but much more in the long term with the playoffs. Being healthy is crucial. You see how important it is for every organization. Hopefully, there is some understanding. I know we appreciate and value how important the fans are to us."
There is one sliver of that statement that sticks out, at least to me, and that is "decisions that put out players in the best position to have success". Frankly, that is the name of the game.
Saturday night's game looks like a 15-point loss on the scoreboard, but in addition to resting players who have been grinding all season, Budenholzer's deployment decision also opened the door for a particular role player.
Mike Muscala had easily the best game of his career, with 18 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks, and he is a player that the front office (and the head coach) have been consistently high on during his short tenure with the club. Skeptics would point to Muscala's performance as largely irrelevant, as he will likely be out of the playoff rotation, but from a developmental standpoint, a night like Saturday can be valuable for a player who could be "promoted" to a more full-time role in 2015-2016.
Then, of course, there is the issue of the fans. Admittedly, Saturday night's contest would be a less-than-ideal experience for casual onlookers, as the Hawks put out a product that was below their usual standard. However, Budenholzer's responsibility is to his organization, and it is no surprise that every opportunity for across-the-board rest has taken place away from Philips Arena this season. Beyond that, this loss actually helps the Hawks in the standings, as Atlanta has a vested interest in Charlotte finishing ahead of Brooklyn (thank you Billy King!) for the purposes of draft positioning.
There is no room for hot takes here. Mike Budenholzer simply made the best decision for his team and its future, and in the end, providing the best opportunity to win an NBA title in 2015 is paramount. With anything in life, there are unintended consequences, but in this spot (and with the Warriors running away with the overall top seed and home-court advantage in a prospective NBA Finals), there was, quite literally, no reason to deploy the four "healthy" members of the starting five.
Would you play the starters?