ATLANTA — After nearly two decades of helping to build one of the finest operations in all of sports, of working with and learning from one of the masters in Gregg Popovich, why leave now?
Why leave San Antonio after what could be Pop’s last stand, the last championship ride for the mighty Spurs with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili at the controls?
Why now, instead of one of the countless other times over the years when some team came calling?
Mike Budenholzer answered the question before anyone could ask it during his introductory news conference at Philips Arena this morning. The new coach of the Atlanta Hawks was quick to point out the three critical elements that led him to his first head coaching job after 17 years as an assistant in San Antonio.
First up was a committed ownership group. Next came the presence of Hawks GM Danny Ferry and, finally, the roster flexibility Ferry created. That flexibility will allow these two ex-colleagues and current friends to work hand-in-hand crafting a team from the ground up into the mold they both envision, each of them no doubt using their Spurs experience as a template.
We need to be clear about one thing, though: this hire never happens without Ferry. The Hawks succeeded where plenty of other franchises have failed in the past, snatching away Pop’s heir apparent, because of that Spurs connection. So when Budenholzer speaks glowingly of the opportunities in front of him right now back in both San Antonio and here in Atlanta, he was speaking from a genuine place.
“It’s been a pretty amazing 48 hours, I’ll be very honest with you,” he said. “It’s exciting for my family, exciting for me. The opportunity to come here with the Atlanta Hawks, when you couple that with coming to the NBA finals, I’m living a dream.”
We won’t know for a while whether or not this is truly the home run hire it appears to be. The Hawks don’t have a full roster right now. Al Horford, one of three players with a guaranteed contract for next season, was the only current player mentioned by name this morning.
But if Budenholzer’s pedigree means anything (and Ferry’s belief that he could turn out to be the next longtime assistant turned coaching star comes to fruition), he could be the man that helps the Hawks finally turn the corner from playoff regular to legitimate championship player in the East.
No assistant coach in the league has been better prepared for the rigors of what he’ll face with the Hawks.
“His path is similar to Frank Vogel‘s, Erik Spoelstra‘s and [Tom] Thibodeau’s,” Ferry said, “And I think those guys are some of the best coaches in the league right now. Bud is prepared [for this].”
The Hawks are ready for the change, too. With Larry Drew as coach the past three seasons and Mike Woodson for six seasons before the that (with Drew as his top assistant), the Hawks had settled into a certain groove. Ferry’s arrival last summer was the most significant shake-up in vision the franchise had seen in nearly a decade.
Budenholzer isn’t the big name many Hawks fans had hoped for. Stan Van Gundy took his name out of the running when he announced that he would not be coaching the Hawks or any other team next season. And without a roster to in place, chasing the higher-profile names on the market simply was not prudent for a franchise looking to build an identity that shadows the Spurs’ model.
“I’m definitely not a sexy hire,” Budenholzer said. “Thankfully, that wasn’t on Danny’s shopping list.”
Ferry had a very specific coaching ideal in mind. Budenholzer met all of the criteria and more.
“Part of what’s exciting about this for me is he has a great understanding of the league,” Ferry said. “He’s been part of San Antonio. He wasn’t just in San Antonio like some of us were, he’s been there for the duration. He’s seen how it evolved. He’s seen how it has grown. Mike, [Spurs GM] R.C. Buford and Pop were the ones who were there the whole time.”
The directional shift the Hawks organization is undergoing right now began last summer with Ferry’s arrival, not this latest move. Whatever growth there is will be marked by both men having input on the process.
“I think that whoever the coach was in our situation needed to have a clear vision of how he wanted to play and needed strong base of knowledge of the NBA, because there are a lot of decisions to make. We’ll make those collaboratively, and there are very important decisions in the coming months and years with how we are set up right now.”