“Ya can’t spell ATL without AL!”
Everywhere around Philips Arena, Tony Ressler looks, and sees opportunity. The majority owner of the Atlanta Hawks is not just another well-heeled rah-rah sports fan. He’s an investor, a private equity expert, a budding master developer. Whether it’s his Hawks or the downtown Atlanta area his team calls home, Ressler takes underperforming assets and strives to make them stronger, and longer-lasting.
Standing outside the arena, Ressler sees vibrant parkspace, along with under-developed plots and parking lots, bustling hotels and floundering food courts. Then he can turn his attention to The Highlight Factory, site of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Hawks and the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers (3:30 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, ABC, postgame on Fox Sports Southeast). Here, Ressler will find that the epicenter of this desired central-city synergy is a palace, but one propped up on pillars of salt.
To a man, each of the Hawks have professed glee with the opportunity to play NBA basketball in Atlanta, working with a staff that seems committed to their professional development, playing for a team whose prospects for making the playoffs are doubted, for differing reasons, every season, a team that proves their doubters wrong in this regard every time.
Ressler’s counterpart in Cleveland sees a reinvigorated downtown centered around his Quicken Loans Arena. In Dan Gilbert’s case, the pillar is made of firm marble, but has wheels on its base, and Gilbert has ultimately no control over when that pillar rolls away.
So instead, Gilbert allows LeBron James to push for the decisions that might keep Cleveland’s palace upright. It means taking your lottery-handed top pick and swapping it for Kevin Love (21 points, 15 rebounds, 5-for-12 3FGs in Cleveland’s 121-108 Game 3 win). It means taking your handpicked head coach and tossing him in mid-season for LeBron’s preferred leader in Tyronn Lue.
It means extending the payroll in ways that satisfies your superstar player in order to keep him around. It means that while a low-salaried team like Atlanta trades for Knicks like Junior Hardaway, you’re going after J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. While Atlanta grabs bought-out free agents like Kris Humphries and scarcely uses him, your team grabs Channing Frye (27 points, 7-for-9 3FGs in Game 3) to be a difference-maker in seizing full control of a playoff series. Gilbert does what he can to keep the tent pitched. Ressler’s goal of basketball-team-as-catalyst for economic gains has yet to be realized.
To achieve his much larger ends, Ressler must discern the just-happy-to-be-here employees from the commitment-to-championship-excellence workers on his payroll. That goes for everybody from the President of Basketball Operations (coincidentally, head coach Mike Budenholzer) to the 15th man on the Hawks roster.
Although propelled by many moves brought about by ex-GM Danny Ferry, Coach Bud has re-established a measure of legitimacy to the franchise, no matter how questionable his decisions on game-to-game rotations and adjustments have been. Still, Ressler has to look at the POBO, and assess whether Budenholzer’s benefit in this seat has to do more with the head coach’s job security than anything else. If that appears to be true, then a shakeup at the top of the personnel department is in order.
While LeBron serves as Gilbert’s Terminator, Al Horford (One solitary rebound in 31 minutes of Game 3, as the Hawks are out-boarded 55-28) is Ressler’s Not-Quite-Mad-Enough Max. Whether he returns this summer, or not, are fans going to hear more about salary caps and tax aversions than about the need to add star-quality talent to a competitive core?
Is Jeff Teague, or Dennis Schröder, an invaluable member of this so-called core? Is Kent Bazemore? Is Paul Millsap ever going to provide a consistently strong effort at playoff time? Kyle Korver’s impact (5-for-9 3FGs in Game 3, but four of those threes in the first half) is fading fast, so who are his replacements beyond Hardaway? Are Marcus Eriksson, Walter Tavares, and Lamar Patterson going to develop into primetime-worthy stars anytime in the next half-decade?
The Hawks’ players cannot do much more to impress their value upon Ressler going forward, and they can’t worry directly about such matters this afternoon. But they have at least one more chance to display the depth of their desire to win, especially when the world’s attention, and the heat from the Cavaliers’ glare, is placed squarely upon them. A full-court, full-48-minute effort leading to victories in Game 4 and Game 5 would create opportunities for the Hawks’ key contributors to prove they aim to be more than perennial honorable-mention winners.
Meddling owners are usually bad news for sports franchises, and it is nice to see some stability and professional activity out of the brass. But whether the Atlanta Hawks season concludes after today, Game 5, 6, or 7, the ability to transcend the Hawks from just another NBA team to a championship-quality economic catalyst would require Tony to become a Tiger.
Let’s Go Hawks!