Hawks owner discusses understanding they would not contend, going all in on rebuild

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The past couple of years, the Hawks have been coming up on a crossroads: Spend big to re-sign high-priced free agents such as Al Horford and Paul Millsap, surround them with solid vets, and be a good but not great team that made the playoffs and maybe the second round, but capped out there; or let the vets go and rebuild.

Horford is a Celtic, Millsap is a Nugget, and the Hawks are young and interesting with Dennis SchroderKent Bazemore, and John Collins.

We tend to give team GM/presidents the credit for making a call on the path, but those kinds of large cultural decisions fall on ownership. When Chris Paul left this summer, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer chose to retool around Blake Griffin.

Hawks owner Tony Ressler chose to rebuild, and spoke about it with David Aldridge of TNT.

“We never had the choice of being a contender. We weren’t,” Ressler said. “I saw the team go from 60 wins to 48 to 43. And we didn’t make many changes going from 60 to 48 to 43. We thought we made additions. Let’s just say I concluded, with Travis’ (Schlenk, the GM) help, with Bud’s (Mike Budenholzer, the former GM and now coach) help, I concluded that we were not going in the right direction.

“Truly, there are three options in the NBA, I would argue: being a contender, being a competitive team, and being young and fun. At least that would be my opinion. And we didn’t have the option of being a contender. So we could be competitive, or more competitive, and maybe, shall we say, with a whole bunch of higher-priced vets that made us older and made our payroll less flexible, and made our future more cloudy.”

It was a good call. The Hawks were going to be stuck in the NBA’s middle ground, winning 44-50 games a season (give or take), getting the 3-6 seed, maybe making the second round of the playoffs, then getting bounced. Once you’re in that zone it’s hard to get out, you don’t have high lottery draft picks to infuse talent into the organization, and big contracts for Horford and Millsap would have killed flexibility and the ability to draw other quality free agents.

The challenge for Schlenk is to get the rebuilding right — to draft well, to find smart free agents that fit, and get players who fit with the strong culture Budenholzer has established. So far so good, Colins has been a find, but this is a long road in Atlanta.

Ressler knows it’s a long road in Atlanta to rebuild. The question, as with ownership in all rebuilds, is how long they have the stomach for it?