Longtime sports executive Pete Babcock is best known for running the Atlanta Hawks during the tail end of Dominique Wilkins’ time with the team, developing the squad into a playoff fixture throughout the 1990s. A drought hit the squad following a second round sweep at the hands of the underdog New York Knicks in the 1999 Eastern Conference semifinals, though, as the Hawks would not go on to make the playoffs for another nine years – five years after Babcock was shown the door.
In a recent interview with Jeff Pearlman from The Score’s Quazcast podcast, Babcock in part blamed those late lean years on the infamous Time Warner/AOL merger. Time Warner had owned the Hawks for years prior to that merger in 2000, and Babcock points to cost-cutting and micromanaging new staff as a source for the team’s swoon following the fin de siècle. As transcribed by The Score, here’s Babcock’s take:
Whether you're GM or president of the team there's somebody you answer to. Fortunately in my career we didn't have too many situations arise where there was any major conflict over player acquisition whether it's a free agent or trade or the draft because in most cases it was the GM's responsibility and in most situations that I worked in, the owners that I worked for would defer to you and if they weren't happy with it years later they would get rid of you and get somebody else but they let you do your job.
It worked that way in Atlanta for a number of years but then towards the end all of the dynamics changed in Atlanta. We worked for Ted Turner. We had certain guidelines we worked under and we were really able to do what we needed to do to try and improve our team. It seems kind of crazy but as the ownership became bigger in terms of Ted merged with Time Warner which ended up being a real positive thing for the Hawks and the Braves both, but then when they merged with AOL it became a negative thing.
This is my opinion now so some people may not agree with it, but my opinion was it became a negative for both the Braves and the Hawks because AOL Time Warner, the largest media company in the world at the time and maybe still so - I don't know - we represented about one-tenth of one percent of all their holdings. It was actually three teams, the Thrashers, the Hawks and the Braves and we were being asked to cut our budgets. We were being asked to scale everything back and we were like a blip on the radar screen for all their holdings and I don't know whether that was because they intended on selling all the franchises and they wanted to get the numbers down, but that's the direction things were going and it just didn't seem to make a whole lot of sense, certainly if you're trying to win.
The AOL/Time Warner merger became official in January of 2000. The Hawks were eventually sold to their current ownership group in March of 2004, nearly a year after Babcock was let go. Frankly, it’s hard to pinpoint the team’s woes during that spell on cost cutting moves.
It’s easy to pin these things on bad basketball moves, though.
Babcock was probably right to conclude that the 1999 Hawks, though successful in the regular season (they had the winning percentage of a 51-win team during that lockout-shortened season) had probably hit their limit, and that a dose of athleticism was needed for a team that was badly outrun by the Knicks during the postseason. Dealing the declining Mookie Blaylock to Golden State for a pick that would become Jason Terry was the right move, but the deal that sent a similarly declining Steve Smith to Portland for swingmen Jim Jackson and Isaiah Rider did not turn out well. Both were terrific in Mike Dunleavy’s baseline-leaning system the season before, but neither pulled the same your turn/my turn game off in Atlanta under Lenny Wilkens – and Rider (waived before the season ended) was a notorious miscreant off the court in what would turn out to be his lone season in Atlanta. The late Lorenzen Wright was also signed to a huge seven-year, $42 million contract, as the Hawks won 24 games in 1999-00.
Lon Kruger was brought in from the college ranks to take over the following season, never a good sign, signing a massive five-year, $10 million deal four months after the Hawks became part of AOL/Time Warner. Jackson was dealt, but the team continued to lose games. Capped out the previous offseason because of the lingering contracts to Dikembe Mutombo, Wright, and Alan Henderson, the Hawks could only go with a youth movement in 2000-01, losing 57 games along the way.
During that turn the team dealt Mutombo for the younger Theo Ratliff and Toni Kukoc, a move that added long term payroll to the team’s coffers. Flush with their own lottery pick for the first time in years, Babcock went for a win-now move in acquiring Shareef Abdur-Rahim (then making $11.2 million) in exchange for Pau Gasol, who would eventually go on to win Rookie of the Year. Babcock’s capped-out, ill-fitting team would only win 34 games.
Babcock’s response that season was to add payroll again by sending Kukoc to Milwaukee for another high-priced pseudo-star in Glenn Robinson, then making nearly $10 million a year, sending over a lottery pick to Milwaukee along the way. Shockingly, though Babcock and crew promised a playoff berth, a team featuring Glenn Robinson, Jason Terry and Shareef Abdur-Rahim all clamoring for the ball failed to win big in a terrible Eastern Conference, as the capped-out Hawks lost 49 games. Kruger was fired two and a half years into his contract, and Babcock was let go at the end of the season.
Smartly, the next group to take over in Atlanta bottomed out and rebuilt the squad from the ground up, acquiring lottery picks and cap space along the way. Not so smartly, the group decided to use that cap space on Joe Johnson, and blowing multiple lottery picks – passing up Luol Deng and Andre Iguodala in favor of Josh Childress, Chris Paul and Deron Williams in favor of Marvin Williams, and Brandon Roy in favor of Shelden Williams. At least they eventually got Al Horford right.
(As the Hawks fan reading this takes his head out of the oven.)
We have no idea what sort of scouting budget costs AOL/Time Warner may have put in place, or training and medical staff cuts, or any number of cuts that don’t seem obvious from the outside. What was obvious, in the years between 2000 and 2003, was that Babcock was going for a win-now approach with big salaried fringe All-Stars dotting his roster and payroll. That made for some fun teams to watch – the Kukoc-led late 2000-01 Hawks were a blast to behold as Toni and Jason Terry ran screen and roll after screen and roll – but it wasn’t sound basketball planning. Toss in a well-compensated former college coach, never to return to the pro ranks, and you have a big whiff.
The AOL/Time Warner merger was also a big whiff in business terms, but the similarly-timed downfall of the Atlanta Hawks was all about basketball reasons.
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