Last spring, Mike Budenholzer was named the NBA’s coach of the year, drawing 67 of the 130 first-place votes. He finished fourth, albeit laughably so, in the voting for executive of the year, commanding four of 30 first-place votes in that category.
Question: How many votes — even third-place ones — is Budenholzer apt to draw for anything this season?
When you jump from 38 to 60 wins, everybody loves you and all your mighty works. (Even if your only significant “executive” move was to trade rookie Adreian Payne to Minnesota for a lottery-protected Round 1 pick.) When you plunge from 46-12 after 58 games to 31-27, you’re no longer flavor of the month. But there’s more involved here than the vagaries of adulation.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the man who once had all the answers appears stumped. The Hawks’ only successful major move since Budenholzer became de facto (and now official) team president has been to keep Paul Millsap as a free agent, and even that hasn’t had the desired effect. New ownership bet on continuity. Tony Ressler has gotten rather less than he expected.
Monday’s game against the 49-5 Golden State Warriors should have been SRO. (It was announced as a sellout, but the Hawks announce morning shootarounds as sellouts.) In truth, there were a surprising number of empty seats. After rising to 17th among the NBA’s 30 teams in attendance last season, the Hawks — even with their incorporation of lime green into their color scheme — have slid to 23rd the year after. They’re back to being a civic afterthought.
Much of that has to do with their record. It was unreasonable to think they’d be quite as good, but they’ve been worse than almost anybody imagined. They’re on pace to go 44-38, which is exactly how they fared in Years 1 and 3 under Larry Drew, who won no coaching awards.
So, a year later, here’s what they have: A president who had no background in presidential matters but fell into the job on an interim basis due to most unusual circumstances and got to keep it because new management was intoxicated by the sweet smell of success, and a coach whose master plan — Pace and Space! — has already reached the point of diminishing returns.
Budenholzer was handed a roster built by Danny Ferry. So long as that roster was intact, everything was hunky dory. To the coach’s credit, the Hawks have actually played slightly better defense this year than last. But the offense — the pace-and-space stuff — has gone from sixth-best in efficiency, per Basketball-Reference, to 18th. Ouch.
(Oh, and they’re still terrible at rebounding.)
Take away DeMarre Carroll, slash Kyle Korver’s effect by two-thirds, cut Jeff Teague’s production by a fourth, and what do you have? An offense of misfit toys. Also a reminder that, in the NBA, scheme is nice but it’s the players who matter. As was revealed in the playoffs, the 60-win Hawks weren’t exactly a team of top-shelf talent. If we credit Budenholzer for making that talent look better than it was, we must debit him — what with him being the president and all — for not effecting any sort of offseason upgrade.
Were Budenholzer still just the coach, you’d have to think the Hawks were in decent shape: Get him the right players and he’ll do well by them. But he’s not just the coach. He’s also the guy in charge of finding the right players. And what if he’s the wrong man for that?
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