Schultz: The Hawks’ problems start at the top with owner Tony Ressler

Schultz: The Hawks’ problems start at the top with owner Tony Ressler

ATLANTA — Sports have shown us that there are several ways to win. A team can win with great players and an average coach, or even average players with a great coach. It can win with a general manager who excels at squeezing every last nickel out of every nickel, or one whose owner allows him to spend money freely, or with a drafting and player development system so good you don’t need to swan dive into the deep end of the free agent pool.

But there’s one thing a sports franchise can’t overcome: flawed ownership. So let’s start here Falcons. Let’s start at the top with Tony Ressler, because the spiral of this franchise begins and ends with him.

Ressler is a very invested owner (that’s a good thing) whose hyper-emotional ups and downs have affected the team in negative (bad) ways. He’s helped turn a franchise that grew into a dysfunctional mess, experiencing the same painful learning curve as Falcons owner Arthur Blank. Blank was encouraged to succeed, but he lacked objectivity so early and often that he enabled Michael Vick and talked about “lifetime” contracts for Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, effectively weakening their front office.

Much has been written over the past few months, and certainly in recent days, about the Hawks’ dramatic divergence from a team that reached the 2021 conference finals and was seen as a blueprint for building the road right to one that is only in ninth place. place in the Eastern Conference standings. There may be some hope. The Hawks led heat by 26 points in the first half, almost predictably let that lead shrink to four in the final quarter, but held on for a 121-113 victory Monday.

They are back to .500 (22-22) for the first time in three weeks. They have won three in a row for the first time since early November. But small sample size. Hold the statements, especially against the backdrop of so much turmoil.

Many have been bumped for the fall since the 2021 playoffs: Bring on Youngwho has the talent but sometimes he seems to lack maturity and leadership skills by someone of his status; coach Nate McMillan, who has had his share of frustrations with Young and is likely training for his job the rest of the season; former general manager and team president Travis Schlenk, who in late December was suddenly moved into the obscure role of “senior advisor,” which is generally what teams do when they don’t want to fire someone for reasons of ‘appearance, especially with this. how much time is left on someone’s contract; Nick Ressler, an otherwise obscure employee of the organization except for the rather important fact that he was the son of the owner and had become an increasingly prominent voice over the past two years.

On Nick Ressler: The Hawks are doing everything they can to try to quell the narrative that the 27-year-old with no basketball experience has been a big influence in decision-making. It’s just a “voice in the room,” they say. (Just one voice. Okay. And right now I’m picturing a job interview with someone in HR saying, “Hey, I see your last name is Ressler! Are you related? Because that might help!”)

But let’s leave young Nick aside because this is more about his father.

Tony Ressler is emotionally and financially invested in his team, which is what any fan should want. He and his wife Jami Gertz drive more social causes than any other Atlanta sports executive. He also orchestrated the renovation of State Farm Arena (albeit with public money) and the construction of a necessary practice facility. But Ressler has acknowledged his lack of patience and blind spots in the past, calling himself “the rascal in the room” for mistakes that include the promotion of former coach Mike Budenholzer to team president.

He seemed to have learned.

Maybe he hasn’t.

Many saw the Hawks’ two-year run to the Eastern Conference Finals as a bit of an aberration. The Hawks were a franchise on the rise, but not yet at this level. But Ressler saw it as an accurate barometer of where the team was. He became more and more involved in basketball operations, as is his right. But when high expectations weren’t met last season, he called for changes. Schlenk became the “big picture” guy. Landry Fields was promoted to general manager, in charge of day-to-day operations. Ressler began to hear the wrong voices, including his own, and became involved in basketball transactions. He turned down a trade that would have sent him forward John Collins to a Western Conference team because he didn’t want to break up the core, a league source said.

Everyone in the front office agreed that the Hawks needed a second scoring option with Young. But how Those of Athletic Sam Amick reported in his comprehensive analysis of the Hawks’ front office dysfunctionSchlenk didn’t feel comfortable trading three first-round picks to the spurs for Dejounte Murrayalthough he liked Murray as a player.

The truth is that anyone who had followed Schlenk in his career knew that this type of job did not align with his philosophy. But others at the front desk disagreed. Fields dismissed any notion that the Hawks were mortgaging the future, saying The Athletic“You have to take some risks. What’s Jimmy Johnson’s famous quote: ‘You can’t play with scared money’? If I had it to do over, I’d make this trade 10 times out of 10.”

The owner agreed. He made the decision indeed. Overall, Murray has played well, but Fields acknowledges that the chemistry between him and Young is still not there. There is a question whether it ever will be. The trade also forced Atlanta to deal a valuable guard Kevin Huerter in a salary dump to avoid paying a luxury tax penalty.

The Young-Murray pairing may end up working. But that is not today’s view. Even Hawks CEO Steve Koonin called Amick’s story “fair” in a radio interview on 92.9 FM.

Today’s view is of a cap-bloated team that is three short first-round picks and only ninth in the Eastern Conference standings.

Today’s vision includes an inexperienced front office and a frustrated head coach trying to get a team back on track.

The view today is of a team struggling just to make the playoffs, putting Fields in a position of weakness in trade talks.

Things worked a lot better when only the basketball people made the decisions.

Ressler declined an interview request for The Athletic.

He released a statement referring only to Fields and new assistant general manager Kyle Korver: “I am very supportive of Landry and Kyle’s leadership and vision for our basketball operations. They are committed to building a highly communicative front office, player-friendly and innovative that makes collaborative decisions. I believe in them and will make sure they have the resources to make us winners.”

This all sounds great. But if the rest of the season goes south, don’t be surprised if Ressler reboots again and tries to hire a new president of basketball operations, along with firing McMillan. It seems to be in their DNA.

The Hawks’ front office is now led by a strange mix: Fields is 34 years old. Korver was a well-respected player, but he’s new to management. There’s also a cap guy who’s friends with Nick Ressler and a pro scout who used to work for a Bay Area media outlet who’s friends with Fields. Meanwhile, three respected members of Schlenk’s staff were fired.

Fields understands why people might look sideways at the new main office.

“Even from my seat, I understand there’s not a lot of experience,” he said The Athletic. “I was born in 1988, I can’t help it. But I take full ownership of our group. Just because someone has all these years N.B.A experience does not necessarily make them wise. I’m not calling experience. I understand that there are certain things that you just don’t know and having people around who do know these things will be very helpful. We still have people on board who have a lot of experience.”

He referred to the media focus on the Hawks’ problems as a “distraction,” adding: “I think we’re still in good shape, but that’s just one part of our story this year that we’re going to have to work on. But I get it. There was a midseason transition and that will always lead to questions and stories.”

Fields addressed the team after Schlenk stepped down, explaining to the players and staff his expectations. He said if anyone had a problem with it, he would try to accommodate them with a trade.

“Some people don’t want to be part of the change and the transition, and I want to honor them in that process,” he said.

Fields maintains that no player (or agent) has asked to be traded, but that shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the Hawks will stay quiet at the trade deadline. The Hawks have been on a downward trend for two years and this will not be an easy fix. At some point, Ressler has to learn that even a billionaire who excels at running a private equity firm is a novice when it comes to running a sports franchise.

(Photo: Brett Davis / USA Today)

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