On the night that Golden State won the NBA title, Travis Schlenk sat up in bed in his Atlanta hotel room, watching his former team on TV, at least until he fell asleep. His wife and children attended the game and were draped in Warriors fan gear, because they probably would’ve stuck out in the expensive seats wearing Hawks shirts.
“(The Warriors) let me keep my tickets,” Schlenk said. “So they were on the floor, which was cool for my kids. Hopefully we’ll get there one day here, but it’s hard.”
Schlenk begins his rebuilding project as the Hawks’ general manager this week. He’s already swinging a sledgehammer.
If there was any doubt about the extent Schenk wants to change the look of this team, that ended Tuesday night. The Hawks traded Dwight Howard, their overpaid and ill-fit of a center, to the Charlotte Hornets, for relative table scraps: reserves Marco Belinelli and Miles Plumlee and a second-round pick (41st overall) in Thursday’s draft.
The Hawks also will send Charlotte a second-rounder (31st overall) with Howard. And a thank-you note. And maybe a house, a boat and a car.
Howard’s return to Atlanta was billed as some grand homecoming by the misguided front office. But it will go down as one of the worst free-agent mistakes in franchise history, as millions of people now scream, “I told you so.” That one move, in concert with letting Al Horford leave in free agency, doomed coach Mike Budenholzer’s tenure as team president.
It was so bad down the stretch of the season that Howard often found himself on the bench in the fourth quarter of games, including the playoffs, prompting him to vent his frustrations after the season. Howard looked even worse a week later when it was learned he had been ticketed for speeding, driving with a suspended registration and no insurance at 2 a.m. on the eve of what turned out to be their elimination game.
Howard’s exit is addition by subtraction, similar to when former general manager Danny Ferry dealt the salary-cap crushing Joe Johnson in his first move. Howard had two years and more than $47 million left on his contract, and it was believed trading him would be difficult.
But Schlenk found a way. Point for him.
The Hawks need major change. It’s not what fans want to think about a team that has made the playoffs 10 consecutive seasons (though with a cumulative postseason series record of 6-10). But if the Hawks ascend to an elite level under Schlenk, it won’t be with a roster that remotely resembled the one he inherited.
The draft is Thursday night (the Hawks own pick 19, 41 and 60, barring more deals). Free agency begins July 1. It’s safe to assume now Schlenk will be active.
Rebuilding can be ugly. The Braves have shown that for the past two-plus seasons. But if tearing down and building up gets the Hawks to where they need to be, Schlenk should be given the full backing from ownership to do it. Just be more transparent about it than the Braves were for two years. Build with young, smart and hard-working players, and fans will buy in.
This was a Hawks town for about five minutes in 2015. It can be again.
The Hawks have a number of positive things in place that seemingly bode well for the future. They have one of the NBA’s better coaches in Budenholzer. They have a majority owner, Tony Ressler, who lives in Los Angeles, but shows a strong desire to win and spend what it takes to get there. He engineered financing for a long overdue practice facility next season. The Hawks also have become sole owners of an NBA G League (renamed Tuesday) team that will take up residency in College Park in 2019.
None of these things guarantee success. You can have a great blueprint and still wind up with something built with pine straw and bubblegum. Or Billy Knight. But the starting point is promising.
Schlenk likes players who are long, athletic, smart, have high character and can shoot.
This differentiates him from general managers who are drawn to short, slow, dumb, morally bankrupt and fire 10-foot air balls.
But seriously: The fact that he came from the Warriors, who had athletic players all over the court with no dominant center, was an indication how he felt about Howard.
Kent Bazemore hasn’t lived up to his four-year, $70 million contract. Unlike Howard, he’s an athletic player and retains an upside (assuming he improves his ball-handling and shooting). But outside of Dennis Schroder and Taurean Prince, there’s not a lot of obvious pieces to build around.
A few things could swing Schlenk’s success one way or the other:
— The coach/GM dynamic: Budenholzer needs to be on board with Schlenk’s decisions or this won’t work. That said, the two need to work in concert with each other, similar to the Falcons’ Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff. From Schlenk: “If I don’t do a good job, he doesn’t do a good job. If he doesn’t do a good job, I don’t do a good job. If I go out and sign a player or draft a player that he’s going to hate and is never going to play, that doesn’t do either one of us any good.”
— The Paul Millsap decision: When Schlenk said other teams may offer Millsap more than the Hawks can/would pay, he was sending a message. Forget the max. Forget probably even a four-year deal, unless it’s for relatively low money. Millsap’s a terrific player, but my guess is Schlenk views him as a two- or three-year guy. That won’t please Millsap, who likes playing for Budenholzer and has built a private gym in Atlanta.
— The Tim Hardaway Jr. decision: Public criticism aside, I’m predisposed to liking him. He made extraordinary progress this past season with Budenholzer and is one of the few offensive weapons on the roster. Schlenk would like to keep him, depending on what offers he gets as a restricted free agent.
The Warriors recently missed the playoffs 17 of 18 seasons. But they’ve won two of the past three titles and will be favored again next year. The Braves hope this pain pays off one day. The Hawks need to take that same approach.
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