With just eight players under contract set to return next season, there is either optimism or pessimism permeating down Peachtree Street and all throughout Atlanta. The decision to keep Paul Millsap during this past season sparked déjà vu for some after the front office tandem of Mike Budenholzer and GM Wes Wilcox elected to take a gamble and hold on to Al Horford after the trade deadline last year. Ultimately it cost Atlanta as they lost him to eastern conference rivals the Boston Celtics.
Fast-forward to now and Atlanta has yet again another big offseason decision to make. Their top scoring leader over the past three seasons and one of the most versatile forwards the league has to offer is set for free agency.
“Paul is a 4-time All-star and arguably the best player on this team, probably is the best player on this team, so that is going to be a priority, said Schlenk. For me right now I’ve got to get with Coach Budenholzer and his staff and my front office staff. Over the next three weeks, we have to hammer out a plan for the future. Paul is certainly going to be a priority.”
Millsap arrived in Atlanta along with Mike Budenholzer four years ago. The pair has successfully made the playoffs each season. During this time frame, they notched a #1 Eastern Conference seed in 2015 as well as a top-six defensive rating over the last three seasons. All this, and yet sustained success without a trophy to show for it doesn’t mean anything in the end.
Schlenk on the other hand values the consistency the organization has maintained over the years and space they now have to make possibilities a reality.
“For 10 years in a row, this franchise has been in the playoffs. Most of the time when guys take a job at my level their inheriting a bad team. I am inheriting a good team with a nice foundation that has some flexibility and that’s what we will look to maintain. As we get to a position where a trade or acquisition comes available for a superstar we will be in position to do that.”
“Superstar” — the response hastily and repeatedly heard with regards to what it will take for the Hawks to finally sip champagne. It is a rhetorical question to ask in all honesty. Aside from Dennis Schroder, and the developing Taurean Prince there aren’t many hybrid roster assets. Moreover, Atlanta’s draft choices have not panned out over the years — and without the ability to attract big free agents the team struggles to become a legitimate threat to the King from Akron.
In order for a drastic shift in expectations and trajectory, Atlanta will have to become much more aggressive making moves to acquire big talent. They have done well-shedding contracts over the past two seasons despite signing the hometown kid Dwight Howard to a three-year $70 million deal last summer. They currently have just $62,399,872 in team payrolls on their books — fifth lowest in the league.
Schlenk enters into an organization that has stayed clear of paying the NBA’s tax luxury since the 2002–2003 season — Jason Terry was just a third-year player. Yes, different ownership at the time, but nothing has changed in their efforts when it comes to watching the bottom line. Maybe it has cost them championships, maybe it hasn’t — even though the 2004 Pistons did win a title with just the 17th highest payroll — times have changed and biting the bullet may not seem so bad as the Cleveland Cavaliers did for their 2016 championship that cost them $54 million in luxury taxes.
Championships cost money.
“I don’t think it makes sense for a franchise to go into the tax unless you are competing for a championship, said Schlenk. “Being fiscally responsible with these gentleman’s money that’s not right. But if we are where we make a move its going to put us in tax by a few million dollars, but give us a better chance to win a championship. That’s when I will go to bat and knock on Tony’s door and say this is something we need to do because it will get us to where we want to go.”
A successful style of basketball arrived in Atlanta along with Mike Budenhozer in 2013. However, taking on the president of basketball operations position after Danny Ferry’s departure in 2015 appeared to be one job too many for Budenholzer. The team has taken a step back the last two seasons (eliminated in the semi-finals in 2016 and the first round this season) and ownership ultimately felt an individual with Schlenk’s team building knowledge and vigor was needed.
“We have tried to win every year, said Owner Tony Ressler. “There is no doubt that over the past two years what we’ve seen, and what I’ve said, is the goal is how do we make better decisions and how do we have more firepower in the front office. With a comfort level that we can get to the next level. We feel that Travis absolutely has that understanding and has seen it firsthand. As we learned in our reference checks, Travis understands every part and does the work. Understanding players, recruiting players and understanding what makes a franchise player-friendly. All of these are critically important for us.”
Friday marked the beginning of a new era in Atlanta Hawks basketball with hopes Schlenk can provide an innovative process towards becoming a powerhouse for a organization that has not reached an NBA Finals since 1961. Not only a powerhouse, but an attractive destination for years to come in a city desperately waiting for prosperity. Not an easy task, but he’s seen this before and played a pivotal role in the turnaround.