It has been a whirlwind year for the Atlanta Hawks.
During the 2016-17 season, the Hawks looked set to head into a new direction under the Mike Budenholzer/Wes Wilcox front office regime when they traded popular swingman Kyle Korver to the team that had swept the Hawks the previous two seasons: the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It made no sense to trade a player like Korver to the team that you — and all of the Eastern Conference — were desperately trying to beat. As such, many thought Korver would be the first domino to fall and that, surely, Paul Millsap and Thabo Sefolosha (the Hawks’ impending free agents) would be dealt in due course.
But, only a few days later, this notion was dashed as it was reported that the Hawks — who had been taking calls regarding their soon-to-be four-time All-Star — had taken Millsap off of the trading block. Chris Vivlamore of the AJC, at the time, reported that ‘the new mandate may have come from Hawks ownership’.
So, the band stuck together but struggled their way to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference with a 43-39 record and fell to the Washington Wizards in the first round of the playoffs in six games.
During that series, in an interview with the AJC, Hawks owner Tony Ressler basically came out and said that he makes the final decisions when it comes to personnel moves, not President of Basketball Operations, Mike Budenholzer, nor the General Manager, Wes Wilcox (though Ressler said they have a say).
“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.”
When the notion of trading Paul Millsap reached his desk he responded with the acronym, “NFW”.
I’ll let you Google that one...
Shortly after the playoffs, Ressler told the AJC that he had no intention of changing up the front office, despite being disappointed of the Hawks’ first round exit.
“I don’t think so,” Ressler said when asked if he plans to make changes. “I love Bud and Wes. I love the intellect, the competence and the commitment to win of both Bud and Wes. … This is the NBA, and I’m trying to be as thoughtful about this as possible. I want to win very badly. I want to win a championship very badly. … I think Bud and Wes can actually do what I’m looking to do, can achieve the greatness I’m looking to achieve at this franchise.”
So, naturally, it came as quite the surprise when it was reported just a few weeks later that Budenholzer’s and Wilcox’s roles were being changed: Budenholzer acting solely as the head coach while Wilcox would act as a “special adviser to ownership”. And so the search for a new GM was on, with the Hawks optimistic they’d find their man before the draft.
The Hawks certainly did their due diligence, with many names being linked to the position, including Brent Barry and Chauncey Billups. In the end, the Hawks hired Golden State Warriors’ assistant GM, Travis Schlenk, to be their new President of Basketball Operations and General Manager.
Schlenk had spent the last 12 years with the Warriors and, in his role as assistant GM, helped oversee draft selections that have helped the Warriors become a possible dynasty, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to name just two...
It was clear from the beginning that things were going to be done differently under Schlenk, based on comments that both Schlenk and Ressler made at Schlenk’s introductory press conference.
Normally when executives — and owners — talk to the media and whatnot, they often talk out of their arse. And, to a degree, you can’t blame some of them for doing so. They’re not going to give away all of their plans/strategies for the sake of being honest. Or, tell the truth about why a certain player was cut/traded.
For example, if Dwight Howard was kicking up a fuss in the locker room, you’re not going to say he was kicking up a fuss when you’re asked as to why you’ve traded him. That’s just not how business is done, so of course they’re going to say something different to that.
In life, it’s one thing to say something and another to do it...to put actions to the words, flesh to the bone. How have Schlenk and Ressler fared from that point of view? Have they put actions to their words? Have they stuck to their ideals and philosophies?
Let’s start from the beginning and what was said on the day of Schlenk’s introductory press conference, where Schlenk set the foundation for the Hawks’ future.
He repeatedly mentioned the word ‘flexibility’ and how important it is to have as to be in a position to acquire/sign a superstar player.
“...I’m inheriting a good team with a nice foundation that has some flexibility, and that’s what we’re going to look to maintain,” Schlenk said.
“Any time that you’re in the playoffs, it’s a good thing. So that’s something we’re going to look to maintain, but we need to maintain the flexibility so when the time comes to strike on a big acquisition we’re ready to do that,” Schlenk added. “Like I said, we feel good about our position right now. It’s hard to get to a point where you’re competing for a championship year-after-year-after-year, that’s our ultimate goal. But we have to maintain the flexibility and the assets so we’re able to do that when the time approaches.”
The way Schlenk repeated the word ‘flexibility’ certainly drew quick intrigue...
Another quote of interest came from Hawks owner Tony Ressler.
As everyone found out during the playoffs, Ressler basically interjected with part of the front office’s desire to trade Millsap — while the Hawks could at least see some return — before the trade deadline. He, in short, didn’t allow the front office to do their job.
Would things be any different under Schlenk?
Yes, according to Ressler, things would be different.
“I didn’t bring him in for me to make basketball decisions,” Ressler said. “I hope that’s as clear as I can be.”
When Ressler said this, many were skeptical, but everyone would have to wait until free agency to see whether these were just words that came out of his mouth or something more... When it comes to possibly losing Paul Millsap in free agency, then we would see if those words still held up...
So, until then, let’s talk about the first major move Schlenk made at the helm of the Hawks: trading Atlanta’s own Dwight Howard two days prior to the draft.
Schlenk, again, cited ‘flexibility’ as the primary reason why the Hawks moved on from the Atlanta native’s homecoming after just one year.
"Our number one goal is to maintain our flexibility as we work to get this franchise going in the direction we wanted to,” Schlenk said after making the trade. “This trade helps us accomplish long term and short term flexibility for us.”
Alleviating themselves of Howard’s remaining two years, $47 million gave the Hawks more flexibility in terms of cap space over the next two years, but came at the cost of an additional year of the Miles Plumlee contract (which runs for an additional three years and $32.5 million per as opposed to Dwight’s two years, $47 million).
While I’m sure opening additional cap space was an objective of this trade, the other part of this trade was, surely, just getting Dwight Howard off of the team at any cost.
But, ultimately, it did create more flexibility (at least for the next two summers), and this was the first instance of Schlenk acting on his words and staying true to his ideals.
Next came the aforementioned draft.
Schlenk made clear what characteristics he was looking for when selecting 19th overall.
“I’m going to say this a lot,” Schlenk told the AJC back in June. “We are going to focus on character. We are going to focus on length. We are going to focus on skill. Those are the things we did at Golden State and all the draft processes that I’ve been in. We’ll do the same thing here.”
Schlenk also said he was looking for “athleticism” and that the Hawks would take “the best player available”.
On draft night, the Hawks selected John Collins from Wake Forest with the 19th overall selection.
Collins doesn’t check the ‘length’ box but he checked everything else Schlenk had on his wish-list: character, skill, athleticism and best player available.
“...He's a guy that we had pegged higher up on the draft board than the 19th spot, so we love his athleticism,” said Schlenk after selecting Collins. “We love his ability to score, his rebounding...”
"Our philosophy is going to be best player available,” Schlenk added. “Like I said, we had him ranked in the top 15. He was on the board. We went with him."
Schlenk stated his ideals and he delivered upon what he said when it came to the draft: he selected a high-character guy, a freak athlete and the best player available.
And it looks like that philosophy has already started to pay off as Collins looks to be one of the steals of the draft, excelling in Summer League and being named to the Vegas Summer League First Team along with the second overall pick, Lonzo Ball.
Next came free agency, where Schlenk, again, laid out his philosophies.
“The one thing I’ve maintained is that we are going to be flexible and not sign bad deals,” said Schlenk on June 29th. “That means different things for different guys.”
The Hawks had one big decision to make: what to do with star free agent Paul Millsap?
Re-signing Millsap to a $25+ million deal would leave the Hawks with no cap space both this summer and beyond, thus, leaving them with no flexibility with the contracts of Kent Bazemore, Miles Plumlee, Dennis Schröder’s extension and the buyout of Jamal Crawford already taking up the majority of the Hawks’ cap space.
This is where things, you might argue, don’t line up. Prior to the beginning of free agency, Schlenk said that the Hawks would make Millsap their ‘best offer’ and that Paul was a player they wanted to keep. In the end, the Hawks didn’t make an offer to Millsap, who signed a three year, $90 million deal with the Denver Nuggets.
And, look, I hear your concern. ‘How is Schlenk sticking to his word when he said he wanted to sign Millsap and didn’t even offer him a deal?’.
For all we know, Schlenk, perhaps, tried to trade the contracts of Bazemore and/or Plumlee in order to re-sign Millsap but was obviously unable to do so. That’s not to say the Hawks didn’t want to keep Millsap, but for $30 million per...that was too much for the Hawks and what they wanted to do.
You also have to consider that maybe the Hawks didn’t want to low-ball Millsap and end things on a sour note with Millsap as they did with Al Horford?
The truth is we don’t know for sure, only that Paul Millsap is no longer a Hawk.
Allowing Millsap to walk, however, did free up a lot of cap space for the Hawks both this summer and down the road, hence, maintaining flexibility as Schlenk said he wanted to create.
“...We knew he was going to get a very good deal,” Schlenk said in early July. “Where we are as a franchise and the path we are on, it just didn’t make sense for us at this time...”
“Like I’ve maintained from the beginning, our goal is to maintain our flexibility,” Schlenk added. “Get good guys on good contracts. Going into free agency, we weren’t going to be out of the gates early. We are going to take our time and let everything play out. That’s what we’ve done as we sit on the 10th and we’ve signed one guy.”
While allowing Millsap to leave illustrated Schlenk’s desire to head in a new direction, it also proved something else: that Tony Ressler allowed him to.
Allowing two very popular players in Howard and Millsap to leave was a decision that would hurt the Hawks’ pockets when it comes to ticket sales, etc. Attendance at Philips Arena can be difficult, shall we say, even though the team has been a playoff team for the last ten years.
So, if that’s the case, what will the attendance be like when the team is in a rebuilding phase?
In allowing Howard and Millsap to be traded/leave, Ressler proved true to his word that Schlenk did indeed have total control over basketball decisions. This was a hugely significant decision by Ressler to allow the best basketball decisions to made in order to give the Hawks the best possible future. And Ressler deserves credit for that, for sticking to his word.
Schlenk also discussed his desire not to sign bad contracts in free agency.
“One of the things we did in Golden State is we avoided signing bad contracts,” Schlenk told Bay Area sports-talk station 95.7 FM. “All the guys we signed in free agency were on deals that were move-able. If you sign a bad free-agent contract and it’s a deal that can’t be moved, that can hold your franchise down.”
Whether Paul Millsap’s deal — to the Hawks — qualified as a bad contract, is unclear, but the deal restricted free agent Tim Hardaway Jr. could potentially receive could qualify as a bad contract.
Still, Schlenk had hope that the Hawks would re-sign Hardaway.
“He is a priority for us, just like Paul,” Schlenk said. “I don’t see (a quick offer sheet signing) coming. It could happen. I think they’ll give us a heads up.”
After a slow start to the restricted free agency market, it burst to life on July 6th when the New York Knicks made an astronomical offer sheet to Hardaway worth $71 million over four years — far beyond what the Hawks had in mind for Hardaway.
This was one of the worst contracts to be given out this summer and Schlenk decided that the best course of action was to not match the offer sheet, allowing THJ to rejoin the team that drafted him in 2013.
Schlenk expressed his disappointment that the Hawks couldn’t work something out but was happy for Hardaway.
“We really wanted to work something out with him,” Schlenk said. “Very happy for Timmy. Timmy did a great job here with our player development staff getting better. He got rewarded for that.”
Schlenk did the right thing in avoiding what would’ve been a bad contract that would’ve affected the Hawks’ future flexibility.
Schlenk also made signings that wouldn’t cripple the Hawks long term and signed them to team friendly deals.
The Hawks re-signed both Ersan Ilyasova to a one year, $6 million deal, signed Mike Muscala to a two year, $10 million deal (with a player option) and signed Dewayne Dedmon to a two year, $12.3 million deal (again, with a player option).
These moves give the Hawks flexibility and, in addition to Marco Belinelli coming off of the books, cap space for next summer.
Since the day he arrived in Atlanta, you can see that Schlenk has stuck true to his words and his ideals. He has been consistent and delivered upon what he said he would do when it came to the draft and free agency — he has created flexibility and has avoided signing bad contracts. He put his words into actions, not something every executive can say.
And Tony Ressler has to stuck to his by letting go and allowing Schlenk to do the job he was hired to do.
With the two men on the same page and a clear direction set, the Hawks can now build for the future. With young players like John Collins, DeAndre’ Bembry and Taurean Prince, further arena renovations to look forward to, a new practice facility and a G-League team, the Atlanta Hawks’ future is bright under Travis Schlenk.