Impending changes to the Atlanta Hawks front office structure and personnel have been dominating the news in this corner of the world for the last three days, although it feels like it has been more like three weeks. Thankfully the organization put out an official communication before the weekend arrived confirming the situation and how they would be proceeding.
The process is going to be enormously complex; any situation involving such strong adjustments in distribution of authority when the preceding figures of authority are still around can quickly become full of more challenges than solutions.
A couple of names have already surfaced. But as mentioned, a single weekend is all that sits between the point the organization put out the communication and where we are now. So more names and other sorts of rumors and speculation are sure to surface.
If Tony Ressler asked for my recommendation for what he should be looking for in his search for a new leader of basketball operations (he hasn’t and he won’t), this is what I would share.
Has worked with a strong coach, ideally more than one
Most importantly, the candidate must be able to enter the position without feeling threatened by Coach Budenholzer. Maybe just as importantly, he must be able to see the Hawks head coach as the asset that he is and have the communication and interpersonal skills to take and apply appropriate weight to his coaches input... while being able to own (in all forms) the final decisions.
The candidate obviously needs to have a track record of success. But if that track record includes history of partnership with just one coach, it will be tough to evaluate the candidate’s ability to work with coaches that with a different style or philosophy. If the candidate’s track record reflects a history of partnership with numerous coaches of vastly different styles it could speak volumes regarding the adaptability of the candidate.
Any candidate that does not have the credibility to establish a specific plan as to how to get and keep Budenholzer and other important stakeholders on board should get little if any consideration.
Has full grasp of the disciplines that have emerged in the last decade
The game and the league has evolved more over the last decade than likely any period in its history. And the rate of change does not show any signs of slowing down any time soon. Disciplines that have emerged in recent years on the surface can sometimes seem to be in competition with one another. But the most successful organizations understand how to contextualize inputs and observations from these various disciplines.
A candidate must demonstrate a full grasp of analytics and sports science; he must understand how technology is changing the sport. It must also be clear that he is comfortable with how specialization has emerged as a real dynamic on and off the court. While everyone can appreciate those that have contributed to the history and the legacy of what has become a sport of globalized success, the modern NBA organization is an enormously complex enterprise and must be managed as such.
Additionally, the NBA talent pipeline has come to take on many forms. It is critical for the candidate to demonstrate, for example, how to use a D-League affiliate to identify and groom talent.
Has a track record of being a part of more than one iteration of a successful team
Sports history is lettered with far too many examples of a team or an organization hitching itself to the latest success story, the newest flavor of accomplishment. It is my view that under-developed organizations often pounce on these types of opportunities because they lack the confidence that they can acquire such a talent after he has become a more proven commodity. I would advise strongly against such a tactic.
The best candidate will be associated with a team (or teams) that have had success but have had to reinvent themselves in order to realize success again. A path that includes equal parts success and adversity leads to a more well developed candidate. A leader than can form a plan after experiencing a setback (perhaps unexpected), that can communicate that plan and build an organization’s confidence around that plan will be able to guide the organization through the natural ups and downs of any existence.
Has the confidence and finesse to push back on the ownership group and business operations
This might be the trickiest part of the evaluation in the recruitment process for any candidate. But it might also be the part of the process that might be the shortest path to building confidence and rapport with Coach Budenholzer and his staff. If anything can be learned from the organization’s most recent history, this should be the lowest hanging fruit.
Has been in the room when the significant discussions have taken place
It can be challenging to vet the strength of a so-called “lieutenant”. A person that has not been at the helm of an organization but seems to have served an organization in important if even indispensable ways. But if the candidate has not had the clout to have been in the room when the most important conversations have taken place, then he might be supremely unprepared for how to handle some of the biggest moments of decision or influence when they arise.
Understands the sophistication of the modern NBA superstar
The Hawks don’t have one of these right now. And there is no clear path to the next time they will. But these types of players can often arrive in unexpected forms or from unexpected paths. But when an organization has one, they better know how to take care of him... in the most constructive of ways.
That’s my input for what it’s worth. When the search is complete, it will be interesting to measure the chosen candidate against this checklist. It will be even more useful to do so a year or two into his tenure.