NBA Cookout: 4th of July Hawks Edition

We are launching a new series here at the Longest View, known as the NBA Cookout, where we roast incompetent players, front offices, and overall organizations around the NBA.

I had been planning to expose the Los Angeles Lakers. Unfortunately, they entered serious discussions to sign George Hill to a 1-year contract, which is actually smart. I have decided to give Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka some time to prove themselves before subjecting them to such brutal humiliation.

Even with the disqualification of the Lakers, the NBA offseason has presented countless possible victims. Danny Ainge has decided that no superstars will ever play for the Boston Celtics. The Pacers and Bulls inexplicably traded Paul George and Jimmy Butler for subpar return packages. The Kings are offering Otto Porter 4 years and $106 million, and the Wizards may match that. The Knicks almost let Phil Jackson sabotage the small amount hope they had left. Several teams are reportedly interested in Derrick Rose.

However, another organization, while under the radar, has made enough inept decisions during the past two years to earn today’s sole invite to the cookout. That team is the Atlanta Hawks.

The Hawks do not receive as much attention as other amateur organizations like the Knicks and Kings because they are never as laughably bad. Atlanta consistently hovers around the middle of the Eastern Conference standings, usually making the playoffs but failing to earn home court advantage.

Two seasons ago, the Hawks broke that trend. Second-year head coach Mike Budenholzer led a starting five of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap, and Al Horford to the top seed in the Eastern Conference and a record of 60-22. NBA writers applauded Budenholzer’s ball movement heavy offense for enabling a lineup without a superstar to accumulate such a large win total.

All of the coaching and ball movement in the world could not have helped those Hawks in their playoff series against the Cavaliers, however. Atlanta fell 4-0 in the conference finals to LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love.

Despite their disappointing playoff exit, their 60-22 regular season record was the best in the history of the Atlanta Hawks. To reward Budenholzer for his historic accomplishment, ownership promoted him to President of Basketball Operations, giving him personnel decision making power.

Two years later, Budenholzer has resigned as President of Basketball Operations, and the 60-win Hawks’ famed starting five has migrated to other cities. Surely, Budenholzer must have decided to rebuild and flip those veterans for promising young prospects, right? Wrong. In return for Teague, Korver, Carroll, Millsap, and Horford, the Hawks received Taurean Prince, Cleveland’s 2019 first round pick, top-10 protected, and cap space.

Granting Budenholzer final say in all basketball related matters was Atlanta’s first mistake. He is still widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the NBA, a Popovich disciple who spread the gospel to the Southeast.

However, successfully managing personnel all while coaching the team is a near impossible challenge. I detailed Doc Rivers’ difficulties in Los Angeles here: https://longestview76.com/2017/05/06/power-play-doc-rivers-and-the-fusion-of-coach-and-gm-in-the-nba/

DeMarre Carroll began the exodus from Atlanta in July 2015, bolting to Toronto for $60 million over 4 years. It’s hard to fault Budenholzer for losing Carroll. He did not assume decision making power until after the season, so trading him at the deadline was not an option. The Raptors presented Carroll with an offer he could not refuse, and one that he has since failed to live up to. With Toronto offering Carroll such a huge raise from his previous deal, the Hawks had to choose between Carroll and Millsap, who was also a free agent. Budenholzer chose Millsap, a decision that has aged well. Overall, “Bud” exhibited sound decision making during his first offseason in charge.

The following season, the Hawks earned the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference and defeated the Celtics in the first round, earning a rematch with the Cavaliers. Once again, Cleveland dismantled Atlanta in a sweep. The second consecutive demoralizing result against Cleveland confirmed that Atlanta’s veteran core lacked championship potential. Horford’s free agency loomed in July.

Budenholzer had considered trading Horford before February’s trade deadline, but ultimately kept him in Atlanta. Several teams were reportedly interested, according to Yahoo’s Chris Mannix, but the packages Budenholzer demanded in return were “borderline ridiculous.”

On June 22, less than two weeks before the beginning of free agency, Atlanta traded Teague for the 12th pick in the upcoming draft, which they used to select Baylor wing Taurean Prince. In a vacuum, trading a point guard who wanted out of Atlanta for a lottery pick was a prudent move, especially when taking into account the presence of Dennis Schroder. If Budenholzer wanted to retain Horford, however, dumping his longtime point guard for a rookie might not have been the smartest decision.

To make matters worse, Budenholzer declined to offer Horford the full 5-year max upon the start of free agency, offending Horford and eliminating much of his advantage over other suitors like Boston and Washington. Horford signed with Boston, choosing a higher annual salary, a better roster, smarter management, and more passionate fans.

Budenholzer’s best course of action would have been dealing Horford in February. Once the trade deadline passed, the Hawks were left with two options: sign Horford to a massive contract paying him over $30 million annually into his mid-30s, or watch him sign with another team in free agency and receive nothing in return. Budenholzer trapped himself in a no-win situation in order to preserve an uninspiring playoff run.

Once Atlanta allowed Horford to reach free agency, they should have tried to re-sign him at all costs. The Celtics and Wizards still would have been interested in a Horford trade next trade deadline. Lowballing Horford, basically asking him to leave, was inexplicable.

Budenholzer’s transaction history beginning in the 2016 offseason offers perspective into the conflicts of interest that a Coach-President of Basketball Operations is often forced to confront. President Budenholzer recognized his veteran core’s limitations, so he traded Teague and let Horford go, hoping to rebuild. Coach Budenholzer realized that a season leading Millsap and a squad of unproven, undisciplined young players would take five years off of his life. Therefore, he committed a combined $140.5 million in future salary to Dwight Howard and Kent Bazemore.

The most recent addition of the Hawks won 43 games and qualified for the Eastern Conference Playoffs as the 5th seed, only for the Wizards to discard them in the first round. In January, President Budenholzer sent Korver to Cleveland for a future first round pick and began gauging the market for upcoming free agent Millsap. Predictably, Coach Budenholzer yanked Millsap off the market after he envisioned coaching a team featuring Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard as the two best players.

After the Wizards ended the Hawks’ season in early May, Budenholzer acknowledged his weaknesses (more than Doc Rivers can say) and stepped down as President of Basketball Operations. Almost three weeks later, Atlanta hired Golden State assistant general manager Travis Schlenk as general manager.

Schlenk’s decision making has been questionable thus far, but he seems to be rinsing his hands of the Budenholzer era. As his first move, he swapped Howard’s horrendous contract and damaging locker room presence for a Plumlee. He followed that up by declining to offer Millsap a contract in free agency (the Horford saga all over again), allowing him to bolt to Denver.

That, folks, is how the Atlanta Hawks turned four all-stars into Taurean Prince and a protected 2019 first round pick. Nice!

With all five former starters gone, it should be tanking time in Atlanta. A superstar has not played for the Hawks since Dominique Wilkins (correct me if I’m wrong), and Atlanta has never attracted marquee free agents. The draft is the most realistic and sustainable path for the Hawks’ return to contention.

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