Change is right around the corner.
It’s not a hot take to say this year’s Hawks rank among the biggest disappointments — both in terms of NBA teams this season as well as in comparison with recent Hawks iterations. The 2020-21 team similarly failed to launch in the first half of the campaign, culminating in the firing of head coach Lloyd Pierce, but this time around there doesn’t seem to be a second half surge anywhere on the horizon.
There was great optimism, both internally and externally, that the organization had quelled the tumult of the last few years. National NBA writers like Zach Lowe were touting the Hawks as a probable top-5 seed in the Eastern Conference prior to the year.
The tipping off of Year 2 of Dejounte Murray and (full) Year 1 of head coach Quin Snyder and his staff were thought to signal the start of a new era in 2023-24 — an era with a renewed focus on player development and analytical tools to gain edges around the margins.
But the Hawks are now 20-27 and clinging to a Play-In Tournament spot with a net rating that is tanking fast.
And so, it’s increasingly clear that this team just doesn’t have it.
This is a team that leaks points on the defensive end, maybe even at a historic rate. It’s a team with very shallow depth — one where a couple of injury hits to rotation players dooms the immediate and even long term chances at success. And most alarmingly, it’s recently a team with poor offensive spacing due to cold outside shooting, something that was long presumed to be a major strength.
You can even look to Las Vegas to see how much the betting masses were fooled by this Hawks team. Atlanta is an astoundingly bad 12-35 (.255) against the spread (ATS) as of February 1st, which, if it held through the course of the entire season, would shatter the worst recorded ‘ATS’ mark dating back to 2003-2004.
Even the wins don’t inspire confidence.
A Bey follow shot over a very shorthanded Toronto Raptors team last Sunday was too close for comfort. The Hawks built a 35-point lead on the rebuilding San Antonio Spurs in front of a national audience on MLK Day before almost fumbling the entire thing away in the second half. Prior to Tuesday’s win over the fatigued Los Angeles Lakers, you have to go back to mid-December to find the previous comfortable win.
So, how did we get here? Well, the elephant in the room needs addressing.
Reports have circulated about Dejounte Murray’s availability on the trade market for many weeks. We’re now rapidly approaching the February 8 trade deadline, and there’s almost too much smoke for a fire to not ignite in the upcoming week.
The initial Dejounte Murray trade is quickly headed into ‘ill-fated’ territory, especially if the Hawks are forced to sell him for less than they gave up to get him. But the organization needs to accept that assets given up in 2022 — the main pieces being a 2025 unconditional first-round pick, 2026 first-round pick swap rights, and a 2027 unconditional first-round pick — are a sunk cost, full stop. The ramifications of the deal ultimately make the path of building through the draft going forward narrower but not at all impossible.
Murray has averaged a career-best 21.5 points per game to go along with 5.2 assists per game and 5.0 rebounds per game. He has greater confidence in his three-point shot, which has added up to shooting 38% on 6.1 three-point attempts per contest — both marks also among his career-bests. Certainly, he’s still having an outstanding season and is still one of the 60 or so best players in the NBA at this point in time.
Trae Young, too, is as exceptional a player as ever. Surely he’ll be rewarded with his third All-Star selection shortly given his averages of 27 points and 11 assists per game — plus he’s enjoying his best defensive season since entering the league.
But when looking at the results from when Young and Murray have shared the floor, the output has been entirely underwhelming. Any way you slice it — eye test, winning percentage, raw or adjusted plus-minus metrics, or whatever impact statistic du jour — it all paints a picture where one of the pair on the floor is better than both together.
The unspoken buzzword is fit — or lack thereof — with Young and Murray. Despite both being plus spot up shooters, neither are overly prolific off-ball players. And with each players listed at 180 pounds or lighter, there isn’t a lot of defensive bulk to fall back on. Star pairings *should* elevate the performance of the team when sharing the court. But this duo just...doesn’t.
Here is the stat I was trying to cite from memory in this pod.— Wes (@bloghawk) January 20, 2024
Over a sample size of around 6000 minutes across 2022-23 and 2023-24, when Trae and Dejounte share the floor both the ORtg and NetRtg are worse than when it's just Trae on the floor and roughly the same as just DJ. https://t.co/x3TR7FMuHS pic.twitter.com/KkNjLGjaDF
This year alone, Young-Murray lineups have a minus-4.9 net rating, including a 114.5 offensive rating — a number below the Hawks’ overall offensive rating. Among two-player lineups with at least 900 minutes played, that ranks in the bottom-10 of over 70 qualifiers (a sample set heavily represented by the noncompetitive Washington Wizards).
One common thread is the notion that only Trae Young and Jalen Johnson are nearly or completely untouchable in any trade deal. The organization seems intent on building around a two-time All-Star point guard and an athletic and skilled forward who has broken out in his third year in the league.
This combination has the makings of something that can truly elevate the team’s play: a spread pick-and-roll maestro and an elite roll man with complementary skills working in tandem as the staple of the offense. This is the right building block of a team, and it can be a foundational part of the identity going forward — the defensive identity and roles player fits should follow in short order.
Clint Capela — while still very serviceable — is aging, approaching the end of his contract, and there is significant money on the books next season in his direct backup, Onyeka Okongwu. De’Andre Hunter has roughly $70 million remaining on his contract over three years after this season, and he has dealt with chronic knee issues ever since his second year in the league. All are strong candidates to be moved in conjunction with Murray or in separate deals.
Should he remain on the roster, AJ Griffin is sure to benefit if the Hawks decide to take a step back after the deadline. Kobe Bufkin has had a strong, though abbreviated, stint in College Park with the Skyhawks after returning from an injury that knocked him out of service for almost two months. It could be his time. Or Seth Lundy’s time. Or Mouhamed Gueye’s time.
But time has run out on Trae Young and Dejounte Murray together in Atlanta.
I’m not going to pretend to know what the best or most attainable or most realistic deals are out there for the Hawks at the trade deadline. You can follow the rumors yourselves. But it’s abundantly clear we’re reaching the end game with this iteration of the team. It will take a minor miracle to even get to a playoff series at this stage, with Atlanta sitting many games behind the current 8-seed — something would come with a chance to win a home game in the Play-In Tournament to qualify the playoffs — let alone the 6-seed.
It’s always difficult to admit when things are over. But we have ample evidence that there is no new level for this team to reach. There is no real ceiling that can be shattered. And for these reasons, I’m out on the Young-Murray era after just one and a half seasons.
It’s entirely possible that Murray remains on the Hawks beyond the trade deadline — as awkward as that scenario may be. But then this same tired conversation just will be revisited in the offseason.
The singular conclusion: it’s over.
It was a bold, though unnecessary even at the time, gamble at springing the team forward. There’s no need to rehash who or by what mechanism ultimately executed such a pivotal trade anymore. It just didn’t work. And the sooner the bandage is ripped off, the quicker the healing process will be.