Having been pushed aside by the Washington Wizards in the first round of this year’s playoffs, the Atlanta Hawks decided that this summer, like last summer, should be one of change. Wes Wilcox, who has been the general manager since Danny Ferry’s resignation in 2015, has been removed and transitioned to an ‘advisor’ role and coach Mike Budenholzer has relinquished his role as President of Basketball Operations while remaining head coach. The Hawks might have actually exceeded expectations this year but ownership does not seem satisfied and has seen fit to shuffle the front office, which can only ever be a tumultuous event. And yet this turmoil is indicative of the entire 2016-17 season for Atlanta as they continue to show a distinct lack of direction and certainty.
Having lost two of their cores pieces, Jeff Teague and Al Horford, last summer seemed like the perfect time to start anew for an Atlanta Hawks team that has long been mired in the middle of the playoff picture without ever threatening the hierarchy once the postseason arrives. The front office, though, decided on a different direction.
While the reins to the offence were handed to the younger Dennis Schroeder, the Hawks replaced Horford with hometown-center Dwight Howard and thus pushed the team into another season of, well, meh… And to make things worse, Kent Bazemore, who was given a big contract and thought of by many as the next candidate for a break-out season, failed to live up to his new cost.
The Hawks finished the season in the fifth seed with a 43-39 record. A positive record but a steady decline from the 60-win season in 2014-15 and even last season, when the roster managed 48-34. But as the first year of a new system, some drop off was expected. Some even predicted that Atlanta would fail to reach the playoffs and in that way, the Hawks did deliver. Dennis Schroeder was inconsistent but showed promise as a starter with 17.9 points per game, Tim Hardaway Jr exploded for 14.5 points per game and Dwight Howard made his presence felt by bossing the boards for 12.7 rebounds per night. In comparison, last season’s rebounding leader was Paul Millsap with nine. And Millsap, as ever, was an understated, underappreciated star, leading the team in points and finishing second in assists, rebounds, steals and blocks.
As such, the season was inconsistent and streaky. A good start was followed up by a terrible losing-streak and everything eventually evened out. But, on January 7th, the season turned when the end of an era was signalled loud throughout the entire NBA. The Atlanta Hawks were middling at best and so a trade came. Kyle Korver, who was perhaps the most fitting symbol of Mike Budenholzer’s pass-happy, floor-spacing system, was sent to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Hawks fans were devastated, having lost one of their favourite players to a team that had swept them in consecutive playoff series.
And then came the talk of a fire sale. Sources from every outlet erupted with rumours and suggestions that Atlanta, halfway through the season, was done with their group. Paul Millsap and Thabo Sefolosha were among the names put on the trade block and Hardaway Jr, who was already showing great improvements, was said to be valued at just a single, second-round pick, having cost a first-round pick the summer before.
The Atlanta Hawks, it seemed, were finally ready to blow up the roster they had already begun to disassemble in the summer and there was some sense to it. Millsap is an upcoming free agent and, having lost Horford for nothing, it was understandable that the Hawks might want some return for him. But their asking price was supposedly huge. The Denver Nuggets, Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors all apparently looked and then stopped and so Millsap, amid a torrent of swirling rumours, stayed put. So too did Sefolosha and THJ and the ‘fire sale’ was extinguished and dead in the water.
In fact, as the trade deadline came about, the Atlanta Hawks front office had done a complete about-turn. Jose Calderon was brought in to give the roster more depth at the point and they also acquired Ersan Ilyasova, who proved himself to be a great addition for a roster looking to push further in the postseason. And that is what these additions were about. Rumours of a trade involving Millsap were long gone. He was off the block and the only word we heard of him was of how he loved Atlanta and intended to return, echoing Al Horford’s own sentiments from a year before with an alarming accuracy.
Having appeared to initiate a rebuild with Korver’s departure, at the trade deadline Atlanta were suddenly buyers, stocking up to compete for the playoffs. And so the fans are left wondering what direction their Hawks team was headed in. Were they rebuilding around Dennis Schroeder and impressive rookie Taurean Prince? Or were they pushing on as they had done for years now, clinging to their playoff streak and a series of early postseason exits? Or were they looking for a superstar to take them to the next level? Atlanta were rumoured to have made an offer for Paul George around the deadline and they were one of many teams to attempt to woo Kevin Durant in free agency.
Either way, the Hawks ended the season relatively well, taking the memorable scalp of the Cavaliers even when resting key players, a result which helped Boston usurp the top seed. The roster glued a bit more, Hardaway excelled as a starter, while both Schroeder and Millsap pressed on hard.
But even then there was confusion. Rookie Taurean Prince began to play an increasing role, even starting in the playoffs, but then, at the point, the idea was reversed. Malcolm Delaney, a rookie with a wealth of experience in Europe, had been the Hawks backup point guard since they released Jarret Jack in the summer, and he had done well in that role. Yet, as well as giving undue minutes to Mike Dunleavy on the wing, Budenholzer installed Calderon, a player who is being increasingly left behind by a league he once graced with such soft shooting, in his place and the Spaniard was exposed, on defence especially, early and often.
So, come the playoffs, few, if any, predicted that the Atlanta Hawks would beat the Washington Wizards who, led by John Wall and Bradley Beal, had been among the NBA’s finest since January. And, as ever, the Hawks failed to pull off any surprises, losing 4-2 to the Wiz.
And then things were quiet until, in early May, the Hawks exploded in the media once more. Out of nowhere, rumours swirled that GM Wes Wilcox had been fired and that Mike Budenholzer’s future was in doubt, just one year after they had refused to rebuild and pushed on with a new system. Atlanta responded sternly with a statement that denied the rumours and specified that their personnel was unchanged. A day later, it was confirmed that Wilcox was removed as GM and that Budenholzer had resigned as the President of Basketball Operations. Something that could have been handled simply, with one short announcement, became a confusing farce, one which leaves the Hawks fans wondering if their team has lost the plot.
The entire episode was confusing and aimless and that is indicative a season that has seen the Atlanta Hawks go back and forth more times in the front office than their team did on the actual court. One minute there is a fire sale, then there is not. One minute the front office is unchanged, the next the GM and President are gone. The yo-yoing of players coming in and out and going on the trade block makes fan wonder where the team is headed.
In a way, though, it is a relief. The combination of Wilcox and Budenholzer in the front office was the one that had neglected the obvious chance to rebuild and pushed ahead with a new group and a new system that would obviously never eclipse the previous ones or come close to reaching for a championship. In the summer, they appeared to be going young with Schroeder and then swapped Horford for Howard.
When that did not work, they shipped Korver and looked to start afresh as they should have months before. Then, they stand put, taking key guys off the block and even acquiring veterans to round out the roster. In one area they went young, in the next they got older. The duo, as GM and President, constantly contradicted themselves and failed to show any sense of direction, certainty or foresight.
And that is not the way to run a team. For fans, the uncertainty was incredibly frustrating, not knowing if your team was rebuilding or buying for the playoffs. Maybe, then, their departure is a good thing. Maybe it will bring direction to a direction-less team, trapped in the upper-middle of the standings, and prevent the Hawks becoming the Sacramento Kings of the East, instead of the ‘Spurs of the East.’
And so the front office shuffle might mark the end of the very indecision and confusion of which it is indicative. Either way, it has been a long, baffling and largely unenjoyable season to be an Atlanta Hawks fan.