In case you just crawled out from under a rock, Mike Budenholzer is no longer an employee of the Atlanta Hawks. The club and its head coach of five years announced Wednesday night that the two sides would part ways, despite the fact that Budenholzer had two years and more than $13 million left on his contract. Per Jeff Schultz of the AJC, Budenholzer left no money on the table and will get every dime, minus any offset if he were to take another job in the next two years.
Budenholzer had such a large contract because he was promoted to be the President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach in 2015 and given a five-year contract that we now know to be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $35 million. Two years in, the Hawks hit the reset button and hired Travis Schlenk to take over basketball operations, essentially paying Budenholzer $7 million a year to be solely the head coach. Less than a year later, Budenholzer is out, but he’ll still get his money.
As always in the NBA, there will be no rest for the weary. The focus immediately turns to the future, where Schlenk will have an opportunity to bring in his own head coach to take the team through this rebuilding process. “Process” is exactly the right term for what’s about to happen in Atlanta, because it certainly seems as though the Hawks are on the brink of a 76ers-like path over the next few years. Schlenk convinced owner Tony Ressler to green-light the tear-down last summer, when Paul Millsap was let go to Denver for no return (other than cap space) and Dwight Howard was shipped out via trade.
Immediately, there were questions posed about Budenholzer’s future, both because he had been stripped of his former power and because the team was going to go through a downturn. After a year of development in which the Hawks finished 24-58 under Budenholzer’s watch, those questions have been answered and Atlanta will be looking for a new leader on the bench.
Many names have already been reported, from former head coaches to current assistants, all with one thing in common: they’re all 45 years old or younger. As reported by USA Today’s Sam Amick, the Hawks are aiming to hire a young coach in order to have that coach grow with the team, as Brett Brown has in Philadelphia over the past five years.
Brown was 52 when he was hired by the 76ers to steer their ship through The Process and the team is now reaping the benefits of having his consistent message and culture emanating throughout their organization. Atlanta is looking for the next Brett Brown; somebody who can come in and develop and connect with young players as Brown has in Philadelphia and his previous stops in San Antonio and overseas.
Whomever they hire, it will be difficult to surpass the culture and development Atlanta has seen under Budenholzer’s watch. Nicknamed “Hawks University” for a reason, the club was able to develop players from across the league and far down draft boards. From Kent Bazemore and DeMarre Carroll to Mike Muscala and Paul Millsap (who signed with Atlanta for $9.5 million a year in 2013 before re-signing for $20 million and then leaving for Denver for $30 million), the Hawks were consistently able to bring in lower-end draft picks and other teams’ castoffs and turn them into 8-digit players.
Budenholzer and his staff had a multi-year track record of success and replacing them (while potentially retaining some assistants) will be the most important aspect of Schlenk’s task. Just as they did at the end of the 2017-18 season, the Hawks will churn through a lot of players over the next few years, looking for those diamonds in the rough who will make it on the next great Hawks team, but it will take the right coaching staff to develop the right ones.
Of the names leaked as Schlenk’s initial list, Darvin Ham could have an inside track at the job. For whatever personal issues there were between Schlenk and Budenholzer, there have been no reports or inklings that those misgivings extended down the bench to Budenholzer’s assistant staff, which has already spawned two head coaches in Utah’s Quin Snyder and Brooklyn’s Kenny Atkinson, who was brought in by the Nets to oversee the very same developmental phase into which the Hawks have entered. Ham has been with the Hawks since Budenholzer was hired in 2013 and has worked his way up the bench after Snyder and Atkinson were hired away, serving as the lead assistant for the past two seasons.
Fellow Budenholzer assistant Taylor Jenkins is on the rise as well in coaching circles but has not yet been reported as a target of Schlenk’s. If Ham were to be elevated to head coach, it seems likely that Jenkins would be his lead assistant, at least for next season, before Jenkins may be hired away elsewhere.
Schlenk could bring in someone with whom he worked in Golden State to oversee the next chapter in the Hawks’ history—Charlotte’s Stephen Silas worked with Schlenk when the two were with the Warriors recently. Silas served as the interim head coach while Steve Clifford was out with an illness and now that Clifford has been let go from his post with the Hornets, Silas is sure to get a look there as well. Golden State’s Jarron Collins has also gotten a lot of head coaching buzz over the last year or two and by all accounts would be a fantastic young hire for Atlanta. Collins and Schlenk were together for three years with the Warriors as Collins worked as both a player development coach and scout while Schlenk was assistant general manager.
With Budenholzer out of the picture, the Hawks’ ties to the San Antonio Spurs are somewhat severed, but there are still a pair of young Spurs assistants who will get head coaching looks over the next few years. James Borrego and Ime Udoka were already reported to be on Schlenk’s shortlist for the position and the Hawks will certainly request interviews with both men in the near future. Borrego was a long-time Spurs assistant before moving to Orlando, where he was the interim head coach for part of the 2014-15 campaign. Orlando went away from Borrego after that season concluded and he returned to his position as an assistant with the Spurs. Udoka took a similar path, only as a player: he had multiple stints in San Antonio as a player before retiring and becoming an assistant for Gregg Popovich.
The Spurs’ Becky Hammon will certainly generate a lot of buzz as a candidate for any open position and while she certainly is on the path to becoming a head coach in the very near future, it seems unlikely that this is the year for her. Hammon was behind Borrego, Udoka, and Ettore Messina in the pecking order in San Antonio and while all three of the men ahead of her are up for head coaching jobs this summer, she may need a bit more seasoning as an assistant before taking the reins as a head coach in the league. Even with her relative lack of NBA experience, Hammon would come with a wealth of WNBA playing experience and has solidified her reputation as a developmental coach.
Outside some of the best assistant coaches in the league, Atlanta could look to a slightly more established coach looking for a second chance. David Fizdale was let go by the Memphis Grizzlies very early on in the 2017-18 season but his reputation from his Miami Heat days precedes him as a key piece of Erik Spoelstra’s coaching staff. Fizdale clashed heavily with Grizzlies’ star Marc Gasol but other players have raved about his ability to motivate and inspire young players. Elsewhere, Silas’s old boss Clifford will get looks around the league, though it seems unlikely that he fits what the Hawks desire in their next head coach.
There are a whole host of other worthy candidates, especially given that the Hawks are in the rebuilding phase and want to hire a young coach who can grow with the team over the next several years. The elephant in the room will be Ressler’s willingness to pay for two coaches at once, as Budenholzer’s buyout arrangement reportedly stipulates that the Hawks are on the hook for the entire $13+ million and would only get an offset if Budenholzer takes another job.
Just as other coaches have done in the past, it’s certainly possible that Budenholzer will take a sabbatical from coaching for the next two seasons, collect what’s left on his contract, then put his name back in the ring for head coaching positions. His recent interviews with Phoenix and New York seem to indicate that he wants to hit the ground running and depending on what happens in the rest of the playoffs, there could be a couple of jobs available with playoff-caliber teams.
If Budenholzer takes a route that leaves Ressler liable for a vast majority of that $13+ million, will the Hawks let some of the top candidates walk away to take a chance on a cheaper, less-well-known coach? To this point, it seems as though Ressler has been heavily invested in the club, from purchasing the new practice facility in Brookhaven to acquiring and moving the Erie Bayhawks to College Park in the next few years, to say nothing of the massive renovations that will transform Philips Arena this summer. However, no owner’s wallet is truly endless and it will be interesting to watch the Hawks’ hiring process play out with respect to Budenholzer’s own ventures.