Hawks

Young Era in Atlanta Facing Its Darkest Point

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Everything isn’t always as it seems. Look no further than Trae Young and the once-promising Atlanta Hawks.

In 2020-2021, the Hawks finished 41-31 before earning their way to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2015. On paper, Young impressed during Atlanta’s impressive playoff run, looking like the most fearless star on the court for back-to-back series against New York and Philadelphia.

Since then, it’s been mostly downhill for Young and the Hawks franchise.

Last season, Atlanta finished 43-39 before getting trounced by Miami in five games in the first round of the postseason. It was a wake-up call for a team who believed could make some noise in a semi-open Eastern Conference.

With that mindset, the Hawks made some substantial changes this past offseason, from acquiring All-Star guard Dejounte Murray and drafting Duke wing AJ Griffin to shipping off 2021 playoff hero Kevin Huerter to Sacramento.

Despite a busy offseason, the wheeling and dealing haven’t translated to regular-season wins. The Hawks currently sit at 17-16 and seventh in the Eastern Conference. Outside of that outlier 2021 postseason, Atlanta will likely finish as an around-.500 team who will lose in the first round of the playoffs.

With Young in Atlanta, the Hawks put together far worse seasons based on the final record. Based on what’s happened this season, however, Atlanta faces arguably the most challenging crossroads ahead with Young as the franchise’s cornerstone.

What’s gone wrong this season?

The Hawks continue to deal with looming problems both on and off the court.

According to Shams Charania, Young got into an “exchange” recently with current head coach Nate McMillan. The issue revolved around Young’s availability in a recent game versus Denver. Coach McMillan gave Young an ultimatum: play off the bench or don’t suit up. Young opted to miss the home game entirely.

Based on reporting from The Athletic, this isn’t the first time off-the-court problems have loomed over Atlanta’s locker room. To an extent, chemistry concerns remain the biggest catalyst for the Hawks’ struggles this season.

That’s only been half the battle. On the court, Atlanta hasn’t elevated in any one particular area.

For starters, Young’s play continues to be underwhelming this season. Yes, he’s averaging 27.5 points and 9.9 assists per game, but broadly speaking, the impact isn’t there.

The Hawks rank 18th in offensive rating despite possessing some pretty skilled offensive players on its roster. Across the board, Atlanta’s offense is not elite from a statistical front:

Atlanta’s Offense By The Numbers (2022-2023):

  • Three-point percentage: 27th
  • Three-point attempts: 26th 
  • Free throw attempts: 26th
  • Assists: 21st 

Furthermore, it doesn’t help Young is shooting a career-low 41.5% from the field and 31.1% from three on some pretty high volume (21.1  attempts/game and 7.3 threes/game).

Atlanta mostly gets its offense inefficiently through isolation scoring, post-up opportunities, and tough mid-range jumpers. The Young-Murray duo plays out more as a “my turn, your turn” scheme than a legitimate offense the Hawks typically play as.

Defensively, Atlanta is struggling across the board, especially on the perimeter. The Hawks rank bottom-five in the league in opponent two-point makes and attempts, free-throw percentage and rebounds. That’s come mainly from poor play by Young, Murray and the rest of Atlanta’s perimeter players. There have been too many cases of easy drives inside that have led to free throws, second-chance points and easy shots inside.

And if anything, the Hawks’ defense should be worse. The only positive for Atlanta is allowing the sixth-lowest three-point attempts and percentage by opponents in the league. As we know with outside shooting, that can easily regress back to the mean with a snap of a finger.

Overall, the Hawks have shown flashes, but it hasn’t been pretty so far this season.

The difficult path forward

Moving forward, Atlanta faces a brutal situation across the board with managing the current roster.

The first, and most notable, is the lack of a fallback plan. From an asset perspective, the Hawks forked over four first-round draft picks to acquire Murray, who made the 2022 All-Star Game as an injury replacement. Keep in mind, Murray is only under contract through the 2023-24 season. After that, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent heading into his age-28 season and will definitely garner a massive contract extension.

(Note: all three picks the Hawks sent to San Antonio to acquire Murray are with him not under contract. That includes two unprotected first-round picks in 2025 and 2027 plus a pick swap in 2026).

The Hawks’ cap situation isn’t any better. The franchise basically locked itself into this roster. Young signed a five-year, $207 million extension that keeps him under contract until 2027. Ditto for John Collins (five-year, $125 million signed in 2021 offseason), De’Andre Hunter (four-year, $95 million which kicks in beginning in 2024), and Clint Capela (two-year, $46-million extension that ends after the 2024-2025 season). And that’s before getting to Murray’s extension and making signings around the margins.

It’s a boatload of money for a team basically stuck in the NBA’s purgatory. What comes next is nothing short of a difficult path forward.

What’s Atlanta’s ceiling with Young?

Hindsight is 20-20. In retrospect, Atlanta would absolutely take back its draft-night deal with Dallas, where it acquired Young by giving away Luka Doncic.

Both stars are still young, but Doncic’s career so far runs laps over what Young has accomplished.

Of course, it isn’t fair to compare Luka to Trae. But there is this question to answer: is Trae Young a legitimate franchise cornerstone?

Yes, the counting stats are there. After all, he’s only the second player in league history to average 25 points and nine assists per game for his career. The other is the great Oscar Robertson.

On the other hand, Young is a below-44% career shooter who is a net-negative (times a million) on defense. And unlike most superstars, the individual numbers don’t necessarily mean he’s elevating his teammates or the franchise as a whole.

Outside of that outlier 2021 successful playoff campaign (which has its own flaws, as detailed here), the winning isn’t there. The Hawks are just 150-186 in the regular season with Young with just two postseason appearances. Is it possible to make a Finals run with a small, borderline All-NBA guard shooting below 45% from the field without any defensive effort? It’s an enormous hill to climb.

Hawks Embrace Defense, Versatility with Murray Trade

The outlook moving forward for Atlanta remains uncertain. Based on what’s developed this season, a major shake-up could be on the way.

How that plays out remains a mystery. What isn’t a mystery is that staying pat will neither do Young nor the Hawks any favors.

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About Dominic Chiappone

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