It feels silly to write that the decision regarding to whom the Atlanta Hawks chose to offer their open head coaching position is a critical one. But it still feels like something that needs to be said.
For my taste, I’ve heard a few too many observers suggest that it would be fine for Hawks’ GM Travis Schlenk to let a pedestrian, “placeholder” coach to run the team for a couple of seasons. Over that time, they presumably accept not having a successful team so that they can add more high lottery draft picks after which they get serious about finding the right long term fit.
The person that will be Atlanta’s next head coach will be, among other things, a message to the young players on the roster regarding how important they are to the organization.
Let’s look at a case study or two.
After the 2014-15 season, the Orlando Magic decided to move on from their young head coach Jacque Vaughn. The next season would be the third year for their former No. 2 overall draft pick Victor Oladipo. It would be the second NBA campaign for both their former No. 4 overall draft pick Aaron Gordon and their former No. 10 overall draft pick Elfrid Payton. It would be the first season of their would be No. 5 overall draft pick which turned out to be Mario Hezonja.
If some parts of the fan base get their wish, the Hawks will be drafting at similar spots in the lottery for another year or two, if not longer. And while that might not be the worst path for the team to take, it’s important that they get the right coach in place now.
The Magic, in May of 2015, decided to offer the job to Scott Skiles, a 14-year veteran coach. He coached them for just one season and, two years later, Victor Oladipo is playing like an all-NBA guard for his third team in Indiana. Elfrid Payton was traded for a second round draft pick. The fourth year team option they had on Mario Hezonja was declined. And while the counting stats of Aaron Gordon have improved the last two seasons, his offensive efficiency and general impact as a player isn’t much different than it was in his first couple of seasons in the league. And now they have to decide if they really want to pay him.
What was the issue with Scott Skiles? Well, he wanted to win right away (among other things). And any coach that wants to win right away is not going to be very interested in playing young players. He also put pressure on the front office to bring in additional veteran help at the trade deadline even though they were not even a .500 team as the deadline approached. As a result, they moved then 23 year old Tobias Harris to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova. Both players had played for Skiles in Milwaukee, which should have been another red flag, and neither of them would be on the team for the 2016-17 season.
The Magic have won less than 30 games in both of the last two seasons, And all they have to show for it apart from any aforementioned players is Jonathan Isaac, a 20 year old who played just 27 games during his rookie season, a lottery pick (at least) in the 2018 draft and a handful of additional second round draft picks.
We could walk through a similar exercise with how the New York Knicks handled their coaching search in 2015 and how they are now looking to for a coach that will the the fourth head coach that Kristaps Porzingis will have had in what will be his fourth NBA season. And it’s unclear how much of the 2017-18 season Porzingis will get to play under the leadership of that new head coach before he becomes a restricted free agent, presuming they don’t reach an agreement on an extension before he is expected to return from injury.
The Hawks need to find a coach that is invested in the team’s young players, one that is more invested in how good the team will be during presumably his fourth year coaching the team that it’s first. The need to find the coach who will lead the team during the rest of John Collins’ rookie scale contract and the entirety of rookie contracts of the player(s) they will acquire during the 2018 draft.
The new coach should have a proven track record of having led or helped led, as an assistant coach, a strong player development program. He needs to be able to connect with young players. In Orlando, there were more than a few rumors about how awkward the old-school coach was with that team’s young players.
The process that began in 2013 in Philadelphia has been a thing of controversy. But the one thing that is tough to dispute is that the Sixers went out and got the right coach right away. I’m not suggesting that the Hawks prepare to be arguably (or not so arguably) the worst NBA team in the league for the next for four years. But I am saying that they need to do better than finding a “placeholder” coach over the next 6-8 weeks.
It is crucial that for the Hawks to make the absolute most out of the next 2-3 years, regardless of how many games they might win over that period. With that in mind, this coaching hire is paramount.