When I worked with The Dean, Beau Bock, two Saturday’s ago (the day after Atlanta was eliminated from postseason play), I outlined a few routes the Hawks could take in an effort to get at least on track toward competing for an NBA Title. Of course, with only three players (Al Horford, Lou Williams, John Jenkins) under contract heading into next season, discussions concerning personnel were, are and will be paramount in this discussion. But the Hawks don’t get a top pick in the upcoming NBA draft, have forever struggled to sign big-name free agents and, in my opinion, have an established culture that is more about mediocrity and playoff exits than championship aspirations.
Atlanta’s inability to attract elite free agents is a major issue, but its also a rather complex one that most likely wont be solved until the franchise first does something to rectify issue No. 3, the team’s culture of losing. Once the franchise becomes a credible one, elite players will flock to Atlanta, a city they already love to frequent with spare time.
Developing a strong franchise culture, then, is where in my opinion former Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy enters the discussion. He’s out of a job and on the market, but is also the consummate winner. In the past, Van Gundy has been called a frontrunner, criticized for panicking when the going gets tough, under the brightest of lights. But whether these accusations are true is beside the point. The point is that Van Gundy and his teams are almost always there, under those bright lights, competing for conference and league titles.
Stan got his first NBA head-coaching gig in Miami and led Dwyane Wade, Caron Butler, Lamar Odom and an upstart Heat team to an ultra-exciting postseason performance in his first season. After Pat Riley cut his time there short two seasons later, he moved on to Orlando, where he groomed and mentored Dwight Howard, developed the likes of JJ Redick, Ryan Anderson, Courtney Lee, and Marcin Gortat, and led a Howard-Rashard Lewis-Hedo Turkoglu-Courtney Lee-Rafer Alston starting five to the 2008-09 NBA Finals.
Van Gundy’s impressive resume, however, is not even his most appealing quality. Instead, Van Gundy’s value in Atlanta would be twofold: Stan develops young talent about as well as anyone in the league (just ask Dwyane Wade, who has said as much on more than one occasion) and, perhaps more importantly, demands consistency and professionalism from his players. His team’s are forever among the best defensive units in the league, they always overachieve and for the most part play sophisticated, assignment-based basketball. For a team and franchise that doesn’t expect anything better than second-round playoff exits and is content when they transpire, Van Gundy’s detail-obsessed approach would represent a culture shock and, eventually, a culture change.
Sure, Stan’s constant moaning, yelling, and complaining can get old after awhile, but consider that it will be awhile before the Hawks are contending again, and when that time comes the team can move in other, more even keel coaching directions. For now, though, Stan’s basketball genius (really, he knows the game as well as anyone and is a legitimate top three coach along with Pop and Doc), high standards and expectations, league-wide credibility and brutal honesty are just what the Hawks need if they ever plan on mattering again. Quite simply, landing Stan Van Gundy would be the best thing to happen to Hawks basketball since they traded for one Dominique Wilkins in 1982.
Now, with all that said, there is one caveat to signing Stan: stars mean far more than coaches in the player-driven NBA and hiring Van Gundy would all but eliminate the Hawks from the Dwight Howard sweepstakes. D-12 called for Stan’s firing when they were together in Orlando, he likely wouldn’t sign up to play for the coach again, and despite his disappointing 2013 season, Dwight's still one of only eight (by my count) established franchise players in the NBA today. If Atlanta can sign Dwight, it’s an absolute no-brainer…and if hiring Stan prevents the aforementioned from happening, it would be a huge mistake. But if Howard isn’t a part of Atlanta’s future, Stan Van Gundy better be.