Over the last few weeks, several candidates have emerged, via published reports, to become the next head coach of the Hawks (including Larry Drew, whose current contract is set to expire on June 30). General manager Danny Ferry continues to remain mum on the topic.
Here is a look at the positives and the negatives of the prospective candidates who are reportedly leading the search:
Stan Van Gundy
The son (and brother) of a coach, he learned the game the hard way, coming up from the very bottom of the college ranks at places like Castleton State College and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. Each one of Van Gundy’s teams has reached the playoffs, including his 2008-09 Orlando club that advanced to the NBA Finals but lost to the Los Angeles Lakers. He also owns an impressive 48-39 record (.552) in the postseason. Negatives
Van Gundy has not always shown the ability to get along with his biggest stars, namely Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard, which ended up costing him tenures in both Miami and Orlando.
However, not all would blame him for those situations, particularly the way things ended with Howard in Orlando. To his credit, he reportedly patched up that relationship.
Whether that would render the Hawks an enticing destination for the free-agent-to-be Howard remains unknown. Another negative is that Van Gundy might not be interested in coaching this season.
A former NBA player himself, McMillan brings 12 seasons of head-coaching experience to his next job (if it comes). He has a career record of 478-452 (.514). He has shown the ability to take on a rebuilding project, which the Hawks could be, and to build it into a winner. (Atlanta currently has only three players with guaranteed contracts for next season.)
McMillan’s first team in Portland (2005-06) finished with a 21-61 record. It improved by 11 wins the next season, nine after that and 13 more in 2008-09 for a 54-28 mark. McMillan was a top defensive player in the league, earning All-NBA Defensive Team honors (second group) in 1994 and ’95, which would figure to make that a focus of his teams.
The Hawks have qualified for the playoffs for six straight seasons but have not made it past the second round — something the franchise has never accomplished since relocating to Atlanta in the late 1960s.
McMillan has only guided a team past the first round once: the 2004-05 Sonics, which, incidentally, was his final season as coach of that franchise. McMillan’s general manager in Seattle was Rick Sund, the former Hawks’ general manager who remains a consultant. If Ferry wants Sund’s opinion, no doubt he would have the inside scoop.
McMillan’s postseason record is 14-20 (.412). Reportedly, McMillan has also interviewed with Detroit for its vacancy.
Mike Budenholzer Positives
Budenholzer has worked for the Spurs the last 18 seasons — 16 as an assistant and the last five as Gregg Popovich’s top assistant. In such a position, it would be impossible for Budenholzer not to learn a great deal about putting together a winner in the NBA.
As Ferry has gone through two executive stints with the Spurs, no doubt the men share some kind of personal relationship, which would help them see eye-to-eye. It’s no small thing to have the coach and GM on the same page in terms of team building, similar to the Atlanta Falcons’ pairing of head coach Mike Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff.
Budenholzer has never been a head coach. In one sense, you hate to hold a lack of experience against someone because, at a certain point, there was a time when every great head coach had never had that job. However, the sheer length of time that Budenholzer has spent with the same organization in a subordinate role makes him underqualified — compared to his competitors who have been successful head coaches.
As any first-time head coach will tell you, there is a vast difference in being a head coach and being an assistant: Dealing with media, handling players, working with ownership — so much more time (and stress) is devoted to these other duties that assistants don’t have to handle. For any first-time head coach, there is a certain learning-on-the-job factor.
Ettore Messina Positives
The Italian national has won championships in Italy, Russia and Spain, showing he is not a one-trick pony. If it is accepted in international and club soccer — and it is both accepted and proven — that a coach from another country can have success in a different one, then there is no reason why that shouldn’t translate from sport to sport. (In the NHL, the Columbus Blue Jackets recently hired a general manager from Finland.)
Messina also has NBA experience, working as an assistant for Mike Brown when he was coach of the Lakers. Messina, thus, has several connections to Ferry: through Brown (whom Ferry hired when he was Cleveland’s GM) and through Ferry’s former Duke teammate Quin Snyder, who has worked under Messina as an assistant with CSKA Moscow.
While Messina’s English reportedly is not a concern, the question lingers as to how NBA players, a finicky bunch (although a group with an increasingly international flavor) might accept a coach who is not American. More than that, the European game is different than the NBA game just as college basketball and college football differ from the NBA and NFL.
Some of the most successful coaches in the history of college sports have failed spectacularly as pro coaches. Do the Hawks want to take on the risk of turning themselves into the metaphorical guinea pigs?
Drew has a track record with this club. He has gotten his team to the playoffs three times, twice amid somewhat difficult circumstances, including the loss of Al Horford for most of the 2011-12 season … and Lou Williams and Zaza Pachulia this season.
He would be working with a revamped roster and, perhaps, might not have a headache to deal with in the form of likely free-agent departure Josh Smith, who isn’t the most coachable of players. Drew has been endorsed by Horford, the most important asset under contract for next season, and knows the organization, warts and all. He would not have to learn on the job. Negatives
Did his work the last three seasons represent the high point of what he can do? Certainly, he had a chance in the 2011 playoffs, leading Chicago two games to one in the second round, to score an upset. Instead, the Hawks lost in six.
Again, last season in the first round his team won the first game against Boston, was set to play the second game at home with the Celtics’ best player, Rajon Rondo, suspended. Again, the Hawks lost the series to a psychologically, if not physically, intimidating opponent in six games. Those instances stand as blemishes on his record.