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Unpacking Tony Ressler’s comments on the Atlanta Hawks front office

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This isn’t good, folks.

Detroit Pistons v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Prior to Saturday’s thrilling Game 3 win by the Atlanta Hawks, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a pair of articles by columnist Jeff Schultz and Hawks beat writer Chris Vivlamore stemming from an exclusive interview with Hawks majority owner Tony Ressler. If you haven’t read them by now then I suggest you do so now, because it is a revealing look at the decision making process in the team’s front office and sheds some light on some puzzling situations.

Credit to Schultz, Vivlamore and the AJC for asking these questions and credit to Ressler for answering them. There is plenty to unpack in these stories but the root of everything goes back to this.

But the owner also dismissed any suggestion that Budenholzer is the final decision-maker.

“I make the final decision,” he said.

“If you think Bud makes a final decision on everything that we do, you don’t understand the way the Atlanta Hawks are run. … The president of basketball operations is what I say it is, not what you say it is. (Budenholzer) has the loudest voice, not the final word. There’s a dramatic difference.”

Other things we learned.

  • Ressler was directly involved in the negotiations with Horford and admits that he might do things differently if he had the opportunity.
  • That the front office was divided on the decision not to trade Paul Millsap at the deadline, but that he killed the notion entirely when it reached his desk.
  • Ressler believes that the 2017 edition of the Atlanta Hawks is a “better playoff team” than the 2015 club that won 60 games and reached the Eastern Conference Finals.
  • Ressler doesn’t anticipate making changes to the Hawks’ front office structure.

There is a lot there and not a mention of the decision to sign Dwight Howard however, according to Schultz, you can blame Ressler for that move also. Perhaps there are more details coming from this interview but for now lets take a closer look at these revelations.

Before we dive in, it is important to point out that there probably isn’t an owner in the NBA that isn’t involved somewhat in the decision making process of his team. You certainly aren’t trading a player the stature of Paul Millsap without getting ownership’s approval. However, there are different degrees of ownership involvement and by Ressler’s own words, Mike Budenholzer is merely “the loudest voice in the room” despite carrying the President of Basketball Operations title.

Contrast that with the situation that existed here under former President and GM Danny Ferry who had full autonomy and getting ownership approval was the equivalent of a rubber stamp. That is until that group of Hawks owners finally imploded around him.

On the Horford negotiations, Ressler says they made the effort and offered a ton of money but there is a lot missing from this story. No mention of the Howard signing and where Horford was on the priority list. He admits that Horford’s negotiation came in his first year as owner and that he might do things differently if he had the chance.

You can’t really delve too deep into this one because there is still a lot of unknowns. Will be interesting to see if the failed Horford negotiation has any effect on how they handle things with Millsap this summer.

Millsap is the common theme in a lot of this. The team appeared to be really close to hitting the reset button in early January when they traded Kyle Korver to the Cleveland Cavaliers and were reportedly gauging the value for many of their key players including Howard and Tim Hardaway Jr.

Millsap trade rumors were at the forefront until the team abruptly took him off the market and informed him that he would not be traded before the deadline. Many people around the league took that as a bluff and insisted that Atlanta would revisit the situation but that never happened. Now we know why.

Ressler admitted in the interview that the front office was split on the decision of whether or not to trade Millsap before the deadline. He also says that when it “reached his desk” he used a colorful acronym “NFW” in shutting it down. More on that thought process in a bit but it is also worth noting that just a few weeks later season ticket holders began receiving notices of increases, some substantial, for the 2017-18 season.

Can you hit the reset button and then ask season ticket holders to pay more? Probably not.

Ressler also gives some insight into why he was resistant to hit the reset button on this group. He says in the interview that he thinks the 2016-17 edition of the Hawks is a “better playoff team” than they 60-win team from 2015 that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. If you thought this team had a chance to go two rounds deep in the playoffs then sure you wouldn’t entertain the thought of blowing it up no matter what.

Lets put that to bed now. This Hawks team finished with a 43-39 record and a negative-0.9 point differential for the season. Per Basketball-Reference, their expected win-loss record was 39-43. This team overachieved and that is a testament to Budenholzer and his coaching staff. This team doesn’t belong in the same conversation as the 2015 club and I question the judgement of anyone that thinks that is the case. This team hasn’t even proven to be as competent as the 48-win team that made it to the second round last year.

There seems to be underlying theme throughout the Hawks fanbase that the team’s front office structure needed to be shook up. Schultz alluded to it in his column and Ressler says that it likely isn’t going to happen.

There needs to be a shakeup but it doesn’t involve Mike Budenholzer or Wes Wilcox. I alluded to this back in 2015 when ownership was being introduced but the Hawks basketball operations was already in good hands. New ownership needed to come in and give them the tools to be successful. Reducing Budenholzer to merely a voice in the room doesn’t provide a lot of confidence for the future. Especially when the final decision maker doesn’t have experience in making those basketball related decisions.

Ressler’s group has done many great things since taking over ownership of the Hawks and I’d venture to say they have done everything right off the court. A brand new state of the art practice facility is on the way and it is going to be among the best in the league. They will have their own D-League franchise starting next season and it will be relocating to College Park in 2019. They even got the City of Atlanta to pitch in on renovations to Philips Arena that will bring it up to par with the best arena’s in the league.

However, ownership’s involvement with the on court product has not gone well. I have no idea if the decision to pass on hitting the reset button in January was influenced by the timing of the season ticket increase but it does seem reasonable given the timing. Perhaps the decision last July to sign Howard was predicated on more than just improving the team’s rebounding.

Building from the middle is fine as long as you can remain flexible but this Hawks team isn’t that and it looks like that is only going to get worse this summer. Better yet, what is the plan? Is there a plan at all? Is the plan simply to keep the playoff revenue rolling?

This interview does however provide clarity and validation for many of us who were wondering why Atlanta suddenly pivoted 180 degrees from what had served them well. You now have your answer.