The Hawks have been mired in a notorious run of perfectly average play ever since a thrilling run to the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals. By posting a 43-39 record and a 41-41 record in the two seasons that followed — including an oft-ridiculed streak of games played within one game of .500 — the team did little to dispel the notion that that postseason success was fluky.
A coaching and development staff overhaul in recent months was supposed to represent progression upwards in the NBA standings, but as of today the Hawks are both 6-6 in the regular season and 1-1 within East Group A of the In-Season Tournament group phase.
So, is this franchise cursed to be placed on the treadmill of mediocrity until the end of time?
Well to start, it’s very early (we are through with approximately 1/7th of the season), and so I’m preaching patience with this group. But in the meantime, here are three observations I believe can benefit the Hawks as we move into the second seventh of the season.
Involve Jalen Johnson even more
It’s clear that the biggest revelation from the young season has been the arrival of Jalen Johnson. He has firmly taken the reins of the starting power forward spot and hasn’t looked back. With career highs across the board — including 15 points per game on a blistering 68.5% true shooting percentage — Johnson is currently on the shortlist for Most Improved Player.
With a revamped jump shot and more confidence shooting off of self-creation, Johnson is quickly bridging to the post-John Collins era in Atlanta. Compare his hexbin shot charts from 2022-23 to 2023-24 where blue is better per shot efficiency.
Johnson can still do even more with the ball in his hands, however. He flashed some amazing reads distributing the ball as a connector this preseason that hasn’t quite carried over into the regular season. After averaging 6.3 assists per 36 minutes this preseason, that figure in the regular season is down around his career average of 2.6 assists per 36 minutes.
Quin Snyder’s motion offense promotes fluidity and movement, helping open up opportunities for secondary playmaking. But while passes per game are up from 251 in 2022-23 to 272 this season at a relatively constant team pace, the offensive profile still resembles the Trae Young-centric style from years past.
The straightest line of development would be using Johnson in even more pick-and-rolls to maximize his short roll passing in open space.
Even defensively, Johnson could be given a bigger workload. Tweaks need to be made if the Hawks are to improve on their 25th ranked defensive rating. It may be a good idea to flip De’Andre Hunter’s and Johnson’s role at times where Johnson’s point of attack and isolation defense and Hunter’s team and help defense can better shine.
Johnson has cut his teeth as a disruptor and versatile switcher on defense. Bball Index valued him in the 90th percentile in their database of Defensive Positional Versatility in 2022-23, nearly side by side with Hunter. Similarly, both Johnson and Hunter graded out in roughly the 60th percentile in Perimeter Isolation Grade.
The Hawks are trapping more on the perimeter and rotating behind the play in the new defense this year. And coach Snyder isn’t shy about mixing and matching defensive assignments on a game-to-game basis, so this is an area where he can be even more aggressive in countering bigger wings and forwards who handle the ball.
Still, Jalen’s rim protection is very valuable, and it may be difficult to move him off the backline.
The continued adaptation of Dejounte Murray
The price was steep. Charlotte’s top-14 protected pick. An unprotected 2025 first-round pick. A pick swap option in 2026. An unprotected first-round pick in 2027. Still, through trade, Atlanta had found their man to step into the spotlight as a true secondary option in the backcourt.
While his first season was somewhat unsteady and a step back from his 2021-22 All-Star campaign, Murray agreed on a long term extension with the Hawks in the offseason, alleviating fears that Murray would bolt in 2024. With the core of the team locked in for the foreseeable future, Atlanta looked to build a more symbiotic relationship on the court between the two star guards.
Versatility is an oft-used buzzword in NBA parlance, but malleability is an equally important skill in an ever-changing league where financial realities and locker room drama can rapidly change the makeup of a roster. Dejounte Murray came into the league from Washington as a wiry perimeter defender with a raw offensive game, but over the years he developed into a true on-ball force. Upon arriving in Atlanta to team up with Trae Young, he would have to learn to play off of Young’s initiation — and vice versa — to counter what defenses would look to take away.
So far this season, Murray is shooting a career-high percentage of shots from three (.348 three-point rate), and a large portion of this is due to an uptick is his catch-and-shoot game (59 points from spot up attempts, second on the team to Bogdan Bogdanovic). Shooting more threes is something that has been preached heavily by the coaching staff, but Murray, more than most, seems to be taking it to heart.
This from Friday, Murray rises up off a dribble-handoff from Capela when he sees the ‘under’ screen navigation from Tyrese Maxey.
And this one is a true catch-and-shoot possession. As Trae Young draws a trap and drives, Murray continues to rotate around the arc to find space for a pass.
The improvement in Dejounte Murray’s readiness to shoot off the catch, like him prepping his shooting pocket throughout the possession, has been a huge boon to countering aggressive defenses like the one Milwaukee showed above.
Stay the course
Immediate success was never going to happen overnight. Quin Snyder assumed the role of head coach towards the end of the last regular season without the assistant coaches he would bring in this past offseason.
Even then, the full implementation of ideals and schemes surely couldn’t take hold after just twelve games. With a focus on development and internal improvement, the organization is largely taking a conservative approach with regard to their young players. Setting the culture has been prioritized thus far. So while more minutes are surely on the way for young players like AJ Griffin, the decision has been made to not expose Griffin and other young players to a ‘sink or swim’-type of situation on the basketball court.
After the loss to Philadelphia on Friday night, Trae Young had the following to say, “I believe in our coach, in Quin [Snyder]. It’s going to become a lot easier and natural for us on offense. And the way we play our defense. In preseason, it looked great. And then in the first couple of games, it kind of slipped.”
“We’ve had moments on defense throughout the year where we’ve been really good,” he continued. “It’s just about being consistent with what we’re doing. It’s hard to find consistency when it’s not a habit yet. And we’ll make everything that Quin [Snyder] has done [for] us a habit. And it’s going to work for us in the long run.”
Don’t lose sight of the fact that the Hawks are putting up another top-10 offensive rating at 118.5 points per 100 possessions per Basketball-Reference. Of course, just like in recent seasons, they have paired that mark with another bottom-10 defensive rating (116.5). Ultimately, just as we’ve seen in years past, this team will look to win with elite offense and just good enough defense.
Quin Snyder took a Utah Jazz team stuck around .500 and brought to Salt Lake City the greatest sustained success that franchise had seen since the days of John Stockton and Karl Malone. But that process took course over several years, so patience continually needs to be preached. But with the right buy-in, the Hawks will finally put .500 records in the rearview mirror.
All stats per Basketball-Reference, Bball Index and NBA Stats.