The Atlanta Hawks hired Mike Budenholzer as their next head coach Tuesday, agreeing to a multiyear contract with the longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant.
Budenholzer, 43, has been an assistant with the Spurs for the past 17 years and been with the organization under coach Gregg Popovich for 19 years overall. He has a long-term relationship with Hawks general manager Danny Ferry, who played for Budenholzer and worked with him as an executive with the Spurs.
Let it never be said the NBA is a league lacking in trends. In hiring San Antonio Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, the Atlanta Hawks join the Phoenix Suns and Charlotte Bobcats in a group of analytically inclined front offices that made the decision to field first time head coaches. Yet if one were to go full Sesame Street on the addition of Budenholzer, Jeff Hornacek and Steve Clifford to the bench for their respective franchises, it’s the most recent hire that most definitely not belong. Where Atlanta’s new head honcho is not like the others boils down to expectations.
That’s not to imply that Phoenix and Charlotte are bereft of expectations for Hornacek and Clifford, but simply an acknowledgement of how limited those expectations will be. We know so little about either as a coach, and their new employers have so little with which to work. That unfamiliarity, coupled with well-earned pessimism, lends itself to a kind of detached hope. It’s not the coach, so much, as the idea of another chance to break a cycle that has no apparent end in this or any other world. Neither franchise has much going for it other than blinding ineptitude, failure ostentatiously adorning their uniforms more garishly than any future advertising patch ever could. It is that superhuman ability to be awful that offers an awkward spark of hope, like an abandoned hiker’s bated breath as the air catches her last bit of lit tinder beneath a bed of kindling. The overhead branches of the draft and lottery will provide shelter from the storm and a ready supply of young, skilled players on undervalued contracts, ready to toss themselves on the flame of a fledgling franchise if it means a chance to join the stars. What comes of those wisps of potential energy, though, is in the hands of the one who crafts the flame.
For Hornacek and Clifford, then, the goal will be simple. Develop the young players that the inevitability of gravity brings your way. Get them to play hard and to play “the right way.” Make the product on the floor as entertaining as possible to distract the consumer from just how bad the product might be. If the fire that gets you through the night starts to burn down your lean-to, put it out before it engulfs the entire forest. Other than that, nothing is expected, not even your enduring survival. Eventually, the heat will fade; every moment it lasts is a bonus.
We know, Budenholzer, though, at least as well as anyone within the clandestine fortress of Castle Spurs can be known. More precisely, we know what we expect him to be capable of, regardless of the pieces with which he’ll be able to work. He is a product of a system so focused on the process that it can’t help but produce results. Budenholzer’s 19-year tenure in various faculties inside the Spurs organization makes him almost disgustingly familiar with that system, and combining forces with fellow former-Spur Danny Ferry, Atlanta’s GM, seems destined to bring a new era of prosperity to the Hawks. And Atlanta is ready for that elevation in stature — not immediately, but sooner certainly than either Charlotte or Phoenix. They have a cornerstone in Al Horford, admirable financial flexibility once Josh Smith exercises his constitutional right to annoy another fanbase with his shot selection, and now a spectacular one-two combo in the front office and on the bench.
The only roadblock, of course, is everything. Atlanta will still need to put actual basketball-playing pieces around Horford, and they’ll have to compete against a priori juggernauts like the Heat and Thunder as well as any other meteoric franchises vying for rank and privilege. Even the most sound process is subject to the deafening winds of change and chance, as a San Antonio Spurs team lucky enough to secure Tim Duncan’s services would gladly attest. Forces beyond the control of Budenholzer and Ferry will conspire to cut short the golden threads their basketball lives have woven. They are of sound mind and spirit to take on such a task, but sometimes the universe punishes even the most pure of intentions. It takes time to install a culture, especially in a society without a Tim Duncan, or a David Robinson to show the way and bridge the gap from old to new. If the weight of expectations becomes too great, though, then the new chieftains of The Way may not have the opportunity to pave new roads.
Whether or not Budenholzer is successful in Atlanta, the expectation is that he will be. He might be a first time head coach, but his reputation is loftier than a large swath of his more tenured brethren. He’ll bring with him every opportunity for the Hawks to contend for titles, and nothing less will suffice. For Bobcats and Suns fans, we’re reduced to hoping the new guy can move us a half-step closer toward that championship melody. Either way, all any of these teams can do is trust in the process and expect it work out for the best.
Though it might be best not to expect at all.
Photo by daveoratox via Flickr