Trae Young, an absolute inferno, in last year's regular season: 28.4 points, 9.7 assists, 38.2 percent from 3-point range, 51.2 percent from 2-point range, 60.3 percent true shooting, 33.3 percent usage. Every single one of these numbers was a career high.
Young in five playoff games against the Miami Heat last April: 15.4 points, 6.0 assists, 18.4 percent from 3-point range, 48.4 percent from 2-point range, 46.1 percent true shooting, 27.7 percent usage. He shot 1-for-12 in Game 1, 3-for-11 in Game 4 and 2-for-12 in Game 5.
These context-free stats say less about Young than they do about the state of the team entering the playoffs. Atlanta was never healthy for any significant stretch of the season, and in that series it was not equipped to deal with an elite defense completely committed to taking its franchise player out.
Young hadn't been faceguarded and double-teamed in such relentless fashion "since like high school," he said when the Hawks were on the brink of elimination. If it was not clear by then that they needed more playmaking, Miami eliminated any doubt.
Enter Dejounte Murray, Young's new backcourt partner. The 26-year-old guard established himself as an all-world defender, but has since evolved into a lead playmaker. Last season, with the San Antonio Spurs, he averaged 21.1 points, 9.2 assists and 8.3 rebounds and made his first All-Star appearance.
Young was one of only five players more ball-dominant than Murray in terms of time of possession, per NBA.com. That means they are going to have to adjust to each other. Murray, while an improved shooter, is more reliable from midrange than behind the arc and has nowhere near the gravity that Young does. When Young has the ball, the floor might be more cramped, but maybe that can be mitigated with well-placed passes and well-timed cuts. When Murray has the ball, Young needs to be on the move more than ever before, but maybe that's how his game needed to grow regardless.
It might be clunky at the beginning, but it's difficult to imagine the Hawks' No. 2-ranked offense falling apart, even after losing Kevin Huerter and Danilo Gallinari. At the very least, Murray will stabilize the second unit and improve their transition game.
Atlanta could have found other playmakers, though, and they could have acquired some of them without trading three first-round picks and a swap. Murray cost that much because of what he brings on defense. He's as good as it gets at the point of attack, and he led the league in both steals and deflections. With him hounding elite guards, De'Andre Hunter can take on more suitable matchups and the team can more easily mask Young's deficiencies. If Clint Capela can regain his 2020-21 form, a defense that was dismal last year could make a monumental leap.
The main goals are simple: Diversify the offense, establish a defensive identity and get back on an upward trajectory. Underneath that stuff, though, are lots of unknowns: The future of John Collins, the development of Onyeka Okongwu, the consistency of Hunter, the potential contributions of rookie wing AJ Griffin and second-year forward Jalen Johnson. The Hawks have actively addressed their biggest issues, but they might now have issues with spacing and wing depth. On numerous levels, this season will be a balancing act.
Hawks believer: This was already a conference finals team, and now it has Dejounte Murray! He's going to force turnovers, find easy baskets in transition and pair perfectly with Trae Young. Even when Young is on the bench, Murray will make his life easier. Opposing second units won't be used to dealing with an All-Star guard next to a wing like Bogdan Bogdanovic -- he'll be healthy soon, I promise -- and a big like Onyeka Okongwu.
Hawks skeptic: A conference finals team? That was two years ago, and that team wildly overachieved. Last year the Hawks had the fifth-worst defense in the NBA, finished 43-39 and were thoroughly embarrassed in the first round of the playoffs. You can like the Murray move, but you can't just pretend 2021-22 never happened.
Hawks believer: As far as I'm concerned, it never happened. John Collins, De'Andre Hunter, Clint Capela, Bogdanovic and Okongwu all either dealt with significant injuries during the season or needed surgery afterward. At one point in late December, the Hawks had 13 players in COVID protocols simultaneously. Chaundee Brown Jr. started two games. Young had a stint on the court next to Brown, Wes Iwundu, Malcolm Hill and Cameron Oliver, after which he admitted that he arrived at shootaround "not knowing most of my teammates." Between that nightmare and the endless injuries, it's obvious that the team was cursed. Thankfully, from what I understand, seasonlong curses wear off on July 1, the first day of the NBA calendar. Everything should be back to normal now.
Hawks skeptic: I don't believe in curses. And if the Hawks were really cursed, then how did Young manage to stay healthy and have the best season of his career? Even the new foul rules didn't really hurt him; he just made up for the free-throw dip by becoming one of the best midrange shooters in the league. Did his curse only start in the playoffs?
Hawks believer: This was clearly a sophisticated curse. It didn't need to target Young during the regular season; it took out his teammates and allowed him to "valiantly" drag them to the play-in and ultimately the playoffs, which forced them to play five forgettable games and cost them a high draft pick. Truly terrifying stuff. But again, not something the Hawks will have to deal with this season. Miami's anybody-but-Trae defense won't work now that they have a proper squad.
Hawks skeptic: This is toxic positivity. This is deranged. In your weird little fantasyland, were there trade rumors about Collins and Capela? Do you have any concerns about the price the Hawks paid for Murray or how he'll fit with Young? Any thoughts on the Kevin Huerter trade or Hunter's uneven development? Are there any supernatural factors that lead you to believe Atlanta is on the right track?
Hawks believer: Why are you constantly asking me questions? I thought this was a discussion, not an interrogation. I'll indulge you, though, and answer them in order: The Hawks paid the going rate for Murray, a premier defender and high-level playmaker who, at 26, is four years younger than Jrue Holiday at the time of the Bucks-Pelicans trade, with an extra year remaining on his contract. Murray is exactly the kind of defender this team has needed next to Young, and his presence will lightly nudge Young's offensive game toward off-ball movement. I love the fit, and I think the Huerter trade was a natural follow-up maneuver -- the front office recouped a first-round pick, gained some financial flexibility and added Justin Holiday, a low-usage wing who will tie the room together (and, as a bonus, is happily reunited with brother Aaron Holiday). Hunter still has All-Defense in his future, and I'm expecting a career year on the offensive end now that he's healthy and the team is more balanced. Supernatural factors? Just the post-curse bump.
Hawks skeptic: OK, no more questions. I can't take your answers seriously, and it's time for my takes: The Jrue comparison seems to justify the price on the surface -- similar players, similar trade packages -- but it actually illustrates why the Hawks overpaid. Jrue was Milwaukee's missing piece, the guy that put the team over the top. Murray is definitively not that for Atlanta, but he has similarly cost the front office most of its draft capital moving forward, which severely limits its ability to make the kind of upgrade that could actually put the team over the top. I get the Huerter trade in theory, but it's hard to get excited about a backup wing and a protected pick. The way the roster is constructed now, Hunter really needs to pop. I am scared by how often he's been sidelined the past couple of seasons and a bit spooked by his inconsistency as a playmaker, but at this point they have no choice but to extend him before the season starts because they're clearly counting on him.
Hawks believer: Scared? Spooked? I know Halloween is coming up, but you need to chill. Like I said, there's no more curse. This is going to be the most fun iteration of the Hawks yet. They had an unbelievable offense last season, and now it's going to be more interesting. Young's pick-and-roll game will be even more devastating when it's sprinkled in a bit less frequently or after the defense has already had to make a rotation. They'll play at a faster tempo, with more flow, and you're going to hear from some of the young guys. The internet will love Jalen Johnson's passing, and AJ Griffin will make so many 3s off movement that you'll forget about Huerter entirely.
Hawks skeptic: I'm interested in Johnson and Griffin, and I'm curious about the Young-Murray fit. But this whole thing the Hawks are building feels shaky. I still won't be surprised if Collins is traded in the next few months, and if they really believe in Okongwu, then they'll have to trade Capela eventually. This current configuration feels like a bridge between the team that made the ECF and a fully reimagined one, which will presumably surround Young with more athleticism, defensive versatility and, ideally, shooting in the frontcourt. And because the East is significantly better than it was even two years ago, reaching those heights again feels like a pipe dream. Atlanta's going to have to fight like hell just to finish above the play-in.
The curiosity: AJ Griffin
The 19-year-old Griffin wouldn't have been available to the Hawks at No. 16 in the draft if not for his injury history. He is at once an upside play and a decent bet to contribute immediately. Prospects who can shoot like him -- off the dribble, off movement, off the catch, setbacks, turnarounds, etc. -- do not come around often.
The Atlanta Hawks have a lot to look forward in AJ Griffin🔥 @whoisAG21— B/R Hoops (@brhoops) October 8, 2022
13 PTS | 4-8 FG | 3-5 3PT pic.twitter.com/6FgyY9kDki
But this is a team with serious short-term aspirations. Nate McMillan is going to make Griffin earn his minutes, and that means he can't be a big liability on defense. If you believe that he struggled on that end in college because he was still working his way back from knee and ankle injuries, then maybe he can be the rare player who looks better as a defender in the NBA.
One more thing
Johnson played most of his minutes with the G League's College Park Skyhawks as a rookie, and he knows he has a chance to change that. You can tell just by looking at him, apparently.
"He walks differently," McMillan said at media day, via the Associated Press. "It seems like he's really matured in just a year's time. He knows that he's got to battle and compete for those minutes."
Some analytically inclined observers might scoff at a statement like this. But perhaps the Hawks have pioneered technology that measures the pep in one's step.