Hawks

Hawks Embrace Defense, Versatility with Murray Trade

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Heading into next season, the Atlanta Hawks are focusing on one goal: winning.

Atlanta is looking to bounce back after a disappointing 2021-2022 campaign.

The future looked bright for the Hawks after a surprise appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2021. But this past season, Atlanta dealt with injuries, inconsistent play and defensive struggles. 

The Hawks finished the season 43-39 and limped into the playoffs before losing in five games to the Heat in the first round.

Now, Atlanta is looking to soar to greater heights. 

Their solution: giving All-NBA superstar Trae Young a new backcourt sidekick.

The Hawks traded Danilo Gallinari and three first-round picks for Spurs all-star Dejounte Murray.

Murray quietly had a breakout year in San Antonio, making strides as a scorer and playmaker while maintaining his impact on the defensive end:

  • Dejounte Murray (2017-2021): 10.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.3 SPG, 45% FG, 33% from three
  • Dejounte Murray (2021-2022): 21.1 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 9.2 APG, 2.0 SPG, 46% FG, 33% from three

Murray’s usage and offensive output increased without a drop in efficiency or defensive effort. Murray submitted his best statistical season by a landslide:

Heading into next season, the Hawks are hoping Murray can fill in the team’s biggest holes from last season while complimenting Trae moving forward.

Murray Boosts Atlanta’s Dreadful Defense

The Hawks have been one of the league’s worst defensive teams since Young was drafted in 2018:

Atlanta’s Defensive Rankings in the Trae Young Era:

  • 2018-2019: 30th in Opponent PPG, 27th in Defensive Rating
  • 2019-2020: 30th in Opponent PPG, 27th in Defensive Rating
  • 2020-2021: 12th in Opponent PPG, 21st in Defensive Rating
  • 2021-2022: 21st in Opponent PPG, 26th in Defensive Rating

Individually, Trae is arguably the worst defender in the NBA. His lack of size and effort make him a defensive weakness for teams to target:

Because of Young’s inherent defensive flaws, Atlanta has needed to commit resources to fill in the gap.

Before acquiring Murray trade, Atlanta traded for veteran Clint Capela, moved up in the 2019 Draft to select De’Andre Hunter, and drafted Onyeka Okongwu in the past four seasons alone.

Atlanta’s offseason has proven one thing: the team is committed to building around Young.

Murray gives the Hawks an immediate defensive boost on the perimeter. His size, wingspan and IQ allow him to match up with the league’s best scorers.

In 2022, Murray led the league in steals and was one of the NBA’s best off-ball pests. Murray can impact Atlanta’s team defense as a primary or help defender.

Heading into next season, Atlanta will be facing a gauntlet of superstar perimeter players from contenders in the Eastern Conference. Murray will give the Hawks a fighting chance against these offensive stars.

Murray Addresses Atlanta’s One-Dimensional Offense

Atlanta’s predictable offense was an obstacle the Hawks also needed to manage this offseason.

Trae Young is one of the league’s highest-usage superstars in the league:

Young’s Career Usage Percentage (min. 2000 minutes played)

Atlanta has built a heliocentric system around Trae Young.

But in the postseason, the Heat smothered Young, completely taking away the Hawks’ offensive spearhead:

Trae Young 2022 Stats (Regular season vs. Playoffs)

  • Regular season: 28.4 P.PG, 3.7 RPG, 9.7 APG, 46% FG, 38% from three
  • First Round vs. Miami: 15.4 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 6.0 APG, 32% FG, 18% from three

With the acquisition of Murray, Atlanta is hoping Young can become a bigger threat without the ball.

Murray (9.2 APG in 2022) was fourth in the league in assists this past season. Given his improvement as a ball-handler and playmaker, he can set up Young with better scoring opportunities.

More importantly, the Hawks believe Murray can become a secondary scorer when Young isn’t in the game.

Without Young, Atlanta was one of the worst offensive teams in the league. By acquiring Murray, the Hawks look to maintain their scoring output in non-Trae minutes.

Moving forward, however, there are two big concerns with Murray’s fit with Young on offense.

First, Murray’s jump shot isn’t a reliable tool on offense yet. This past season, Murray shot under 33% from three on limited volume. If the Hawks start Capela or a non-shooting center like Okongwu, spacing around Trae could be a problem.

Additionally, Murray’s ability to carry an offense hasn’t been promising so far. In the past two seasons, the Spurs ranked 21st and 18th in offensive rating when Murray was the team’s best offensive player. 

Given his limitations as a shooter and scorer, there is a certain ceiling for how good an offense can be with Murray as the go-to star.

The Bright Future Hawks? Not Necessarily.

Atlanta is betting that Murray can bolster the team’s defense while diversifying their offense.

The Hawks went all-in to acquire Murray. Atlanta gave up their unprotected 2025 and 2027 first-rounders, plus a pick swap in 2026. 

Interestingly, Murray is only under contract until 2024. The trade is a gamble for Atlanta with high risk. Essentially, the Hawks are banking that Murray can fit with Trae Young and be willing to re-sign in two years. 

Also, there’s the predicament of whether Murray will be willing to play with a high-usage player like Young?

In San Antonio, Murray played within a team construct on offense. Young will be the most ball-dominant player Murray has ever played with. Will Murray’s strengths as a playmaker and on-ball creator be mitigated by Young’s dominance with the ball?

Now, Young and Murray could be one of the league’s best backcourt duos if the pairing works. Atlanta could easily finish as a top-six seed in the East. 

But that brings forward an interesting question: how good is Trae Young?

In four seasons, Atlanta is just 133-170 with Young on the team. He has put up fantastic counting stats, but the numbers haven’t translated to playoff success just yet.

Even in Atlanta’s Conference Finals run in 2021, the Hawks took advantage of a fatigued conference and owning one of the NBA’s longest offseasons. Young’s best playoff performances were against the Knicks and Sixers, two teams with defensively-flawed guards.

Against an elite defense like Miami, Young was totally outmatched.

Now, Young faces a critical year to prove 2021 was not an anomaly.

Last year, the Hawks could never find their identity. This year, Atlanta is counting on Dejounte Murray to give them a new one.

About Dominic Chiappone

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