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The Hawks have pushed their chips in, but what hand are they holding?

San Antonio Spurs v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Casey Sykes/Getty Images

After taking a significant step back in 2021-22 from the dizzying highs of a 2021 postseason run, the Atlanta Hawks have been dead set on shuffling the deck this offseason. As soon as exit interviews at the conclusion of the season, you could feel a sense of uncomfortable stagnation with what had recently transpired. From the players to the coaches to the administrative level inside the organization, virtually everyone indicated a need to break through a metaphorical glass ceiling.

In the first round of the most recent playoffs, the Miami Heat displayed a master class on how to sever the roots of Atlanta’s seemingly dangerous offensive attack — one that finished second in offensive rating in the regular season. The Heat showed numerous bodies at Trae Young during virtually every attempt to run a set offense, and they dared anyone else on the Hawks to beat them. Young was forced to defer his offensive duties, scoring just 15.4 points and dished out 6.0 assists per game and his true shooting percentage plummeted to just 46.1% across the five game series. The Hawks as a whole put up a ghastly 104.1 offensive rating, down 11 points per 100 possessions from the regular season.

This level of overdependence on one player to run the show on offense clearly demonstrated that the Hawks had no counter or extra gear to overcome dedicated defenses who aggressively hedge screen actions.

Thus, rumors and reports almost immediately swirled around acquiring players who could either provide an outlet for when opponents trap, or simply improve the Hawks’ 26th ranked defensive finish. Available players who ticked both boxes would be hard to find, surely.

On Wednesday, the Hawks sent a partially guaranteed Danilo Gallinari, a 2023 first-round pick via Charlotte, 2025 and 2027 unprotected first-round picks, and an unconditional pick swap in 2026 to San Antonio for the rights to Dejounte Murray.

Murray is coming off a season where he averaged north of 21 points and 9 assists per game while turning his 6’10 wingspan and defensive tenacity into high level premier perimeter stopping. In just six seasons in the NBA, Murray has developed into a silky smooth on-ball navigator who can just as equally make his way to the rim as he can pull up and bury mid range jumpers.

There’s no doubt that the Hawks are an improved team in the short term, and it may well prove to be very beneficial in the long run. But while those future first round picks don’t feel tangible to fans at the moment, it’s very possible that a few bad breaks hand the Spurs a golden ticket to high level talent at the top of future drafts.

After moving from New Jersey to Brooklyn about a decade ago and changing ownership hands in the process, the Nets were looking to make a big splash upon arrival from across the New York Harbor. Ultimately, however, the Boston Celtics were the ones reaping the rewards from an ill-fortuned Brooklyn Nets move centered around Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett acquiring back in 2013. In return, the Celtics received three unprotected first round picks every even year from 2014 to 2018, as well as unconditional pick swaps in the two odd years in between.

Those picks and swaps would end up netting Boston Jaylen Brown in 2016 and Jayson Tatum in 2017 — via a trade down with Philadelphia after landing number one overall pick in the lottery — among other assets and players in the process. That haul has helped lead the Celtics to numerous Eastern Conference Finals since as well as the 2022 NBA Finals, and that player duo figures to be a franchise cornerstone for a long time.

After the first departure of LeBron James from the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010, the Cavs were looking to remove salary and rebuild their roster. On the flip side, the Los Angeles Clippers would looking to add to a roster stuck in a cycle of mediocrity. Mo Williams, a one-time All-Star signed to a relatively expensive contract, and Jamario Moon were traded at the 2011 deadline from Cleveland to Los Angeles for Clippers guard Baron Davis who was nearing the end of this career. To facilitate this deal, the Clippers unwisely included an unprotected pick despite being likely bound for the draft lottery.

As fortune would have it, a 2.8% chance in the lottery turned into the number one pick of the 2011 draft, which Cleveland used to draft star guard Kyrie Irving.

Don’t get me wrong: dangling picks to entice San Antonio into surrendering Murray is not the issue here. He’s a young, talented, and currently underpaid emerging star in this league. Murray will make just $34.2 million over the next two seasons, and he reached his first All-Star Game in 2022 suggesting his true value is that of a maximum salary player. His ability to guard at a high level and attack off the dribble in advantageous situations makes for a picture perfect fit for what the team needs going forward.

But having to forgo protections on the picks, even if as little as top-4 to protect an unlikely lottery jump, may prove to be shortsighted and burden the franchise for years in the event of bad breaks. What happens in the case of a fluke injury? Or in the case of a locker room fracture? Murray has the ability to walk at the end of the 2023-24 season, as no realistic extension — up to a 20% raise in the first year over his current salary — is feasible. The dynamics of a team change so rapidly, and there is a long precedent of organizations projecting long term success only to see fortunes quickly come crashing down.

There are likely more moves to be made for Atlanta in the coming days and weeks. The salaries of the Hawks under contract for next season already push the team above the luxury tax threshold of around $150 million. There’s still a question as to whether the ownership will want to pay that tax, but if they decide to not, a valuable piece will have to be moved for salary relief.

Let’s not overthink this too much, however. There’s a much better chance than not the Hawks are still winning at a high rate in four seasons’ time, with a young All-Star guard duo given the chance to grow together and find synergy on the hardwood. Acquiring one star player is hard enough in this league, but there’s a chance the Hawks have put two top-30 players below the age of 26 on the same team with a path to building out a true contender.

This move is a gamble, no doubt about it. While it’s much more likely the Hawks will be in the upper third of the standings as opposed to the lower third as far out as 2027, there’s just no telling what the future holds. The chips will fall where they may, and the Hawks may need to up the ante by acquiring parts to raise their regular season floor and prevent a collapse with little to no draft equity to save them. Atlanta will see in the coming years if fortune truly does favor the bold.