Do the Hawks have the ingredients to be great?

Coming into the season, the Atlanta Hawks were one of the NBA’s hardest teams to project. They were coming off a disappointing 43-win season and a resounding first-round defeat, but they were also only 12 months removed from being in a 2-2 deadlock against the eventual champion Bucks in the East finals, with almost the exact same roster.

Under pressure to recapture the team’s 2021 magic and improve its 26th-ranked defense, the front office augmented that roster with an offseason trade for All-Star guard Dejounte Murray, a pricey move that gave Trae Young a fascinating backcourt companion but posed nearly as many questions as it answered. The questions kept coming when the Hawks shipped out young sharpshooter Kevin Huerter to help replenish the draft-pick stockpile they’d depleted with the Murray trade.

Would the team-wide shooting downgrade be offset by improved defense and supplemental ball-handling? Would the two ball-dominant guards complement each other or step on each other’s toes? Three weeks into the season, those questions are still largely unanswered, and the Hawks remain confusing as hell.

There are plenty of positive signs: Murray looks outstanding on both ends, Atlanta’s defensive rating leapt up to 10th (with rim defense in particular proving to be a huge strength), and the starting lineup of Murray, Young, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, and Clint Capela posted a plus-12.1 net rating in 200 minutes. All told, the Hawks are 8-4 despite Young struggling badly with his jumper and interior finishing out of the gate.

But for every green flag surrounding the team’s start, there’s a red one just as large billowing in the breeze nearby. The Hawks’ offensive shot profile is especially troubling: They rank 19th in rim frequency, 29th in 3-point attempt rate, and 29th in free-throw attempt rate. A league-high 39% of their shots are 2-pointers outside the restricted area. At the other end, some favorable opponent shooting luck obscures their poor defensive rebounding, foul-happy proclivities, and limited turnover generation.

It’s hard to overstate how disastrous Young’s defense has been and how much he’s contributed to Atlanta’s aforementioned issues on that end. A big part of the reason the Hawks foul so much and give up so many offensive rebounds is that they allow a ton of dribble penetration, conceding the fifth-highest opponent rim volume in the league. Young is the biggest culprit.

From poor screen navigation to passive switching (he’s basically sitting in a drop against Jrue Holiday in the clip below) to simply conceding blow-bys, Young’s breakdowns necessitate emergency help rotations that crack the team’s defensive shell wide open:


Bally Sports

For all his foibles defending in the half court, Young’s most egregious missteps come in transition, whether that means getting beat down the floor while lazily sauntering back or making no-hope gambles in the backcourt and then neglecting to get matched up. The Hawks’ opponents get out on the break significantly more often and also score 29.3 more points per 100 transition possessions with Young on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s dragging down a unit that’s otherwise been by far the best in the league at defending in the open court.

Atlanta can live with those issues to some extent, because Young is such a special offensive player. Even though he’s shooting 40.8% from 2-point range and 30.6% from deep, his ingenious passing has been the Hawks’ biggest driver of efficient scoring. (They generate 10.8 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.) His jump shooting and interior finishing will come around. In the meantime, there are maybe two or three other players in the league who could juke a weak-side zone defender as badly as Young did with his skip pass to set up a game-clinching three against the Pelicans, or throw the three-quarter-court alley-oop he threaded between two colliding defenders to ice a win over the Sixers.

Young’s deficient defense was the biggest reason the Hawks paid out the nose to acquire a point-of-attack hellhound with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, and to that effect, you could say the addition is working as intended. When Young plays without Murray, the Hawks surrender a disastrous 120.8 points per 100 possessions (the league-worst Pistons allow 117.5), but with both of them on the court that number shrinks to 109.6, according to PBP Stats.

The most impactful way Murray covers for Young is with his help at the nail, where he’s able to use his incredible reach and quick hands to swipe at drivers coming through the middle without totally compromising his positioning. When Young gets hung up on a ball screen, Murray can slide all the way over to stop a ball-handler in his tracks and trust his ability to recover back out to the wing:


Bally Sports

Those Young-only minutes still pose a major problem, though, given that Nate McMillan rightly staggers his two lead guards’ minutes to ensure that at least one of them is on the floor to run the offense at all times.

Young isn’t the only Hawk who’s struggled to stop the ball, though. Hunter, the team’s de facto wing stopper, has been weirdly mistake-prone at the point of attack, leaving driving gaps open when switching and getting beat middle on “Ice” coverages meant to push ball-handlers to the sideline. Second-year forward Jalen Johnson has had his own on-ball struggles, and Aaron Holiday, for as hard as he competes, is limited by his size. As a perimeter defender who doesn’t excel as a low man, Murray can only patch up so much.

To this point, Atlanta’s center rotation has been its saving grace, putting out all manner of fires on the back line. The Hawks may allow a bevy of rim shots, but they rank third in the NBA in opponent field-goal percentage on those shots.

Capela has been monstrous around the basket, looking more like the player who finished sixth in Defensive Player of the Year voting two years ago than the one who limped through last season. Third-year big man Onyeka Okongwu is a jack-of-all-defensive-trades, equally comfortable in back-line help, ball-screen coverage, and in isolation against almost any player type. (He might be the single best Giannis Antetokounmpo defender in the game.) Capela and Okongwu are both good enough at staying connected with ball-handlers in space to allow the Hawks to comfortably execute late switches, with on-ball defenders veering back to take away pick-and-pop threes.

Things have arguably been choppier for Atlanta at the offensive end of the court, where it feels like Young and Murray have barely scratched the surface of their potential. Young still mostly just stands around whenever Murray handles the ball in the half court, sometimes wandering completely out of frame. Can you spot him here?


Bally Sports

Young can be useful even when he chills in the hinterland, because he pulls a defender out there with him and allows Murray and Co. to operate in more spacious four-on-four scenarios. But to completely remove himself from a possession, save for a halfhearted attempt to present a late target for an impossible kickout pass, leaves a lot of meat on the bone.

It’d be nice to see more of this instead:


MSG

That’s Young mashing 7-footer Mitchell Robinson with a back screen in Spain pick-and-roll, opening up a dunk for Capela because RJ Barrett was reluctant (as any defender would be) to leave Young for even a split-second. It’s the same reason Steph Curry’s off-ball screening has been such a devastating weapon for the Warriors’ offense for the last decade. Dangerous shooters make dangerous screeners, and it’s vexing that Young and the Hawks don’t take advantage of that more often.

At least Murray’s drive-and-kick chops are coaxing Young to take more shots off the catch. After launching 83% of his threes off the dribble over the last three seasons, catch-and-shoots now account for more than a quarter of Young’s long-range tries, and he’s been assisted on half of his 3-point makes (up from 22% last season), per NBA Advanced Stats.

That uptick is entirely Murray’s doing. He accounts for 14 of Young’s 24 assisted baskets this season, nine of which were 3-balls. Only one player assisted on more Young threes than that all of last season, and it was Capela … who did so a whopping 11 times. Young hit just 27.3% of his catch-and-shoot threes so far, but his track record suggests that will change. He connected on 42% of those looks for his career, including 48% last year.

Murray is also adapting to a different role after getting used to running the show in San Antonio, and he could certainly stand to amp up his cutting, relocating, and off-the-catch attacking to make himself more of an off-ball pressure release for his new backcourt mate. The good news is he’s proven to be enough of a spot-up 3-point threat (39.4%) that defenses won’t help off him when he’s stationed on the strong side. (Atlanta is deliberate about placing him there when Young is doing his middle pick-and-roll or iso dance.)

Apart from doing their best to stay out of each other’s way, there hasn’t been a ton of active cooperation between the two in the half court. Even their attempts to help each other out can be clumsy. This crunch-time possession against the Jazz was a perfect example:


Bally Sports

The Hawks were in a “Pistol” alignment, with Murray dribbling toward Young in the corner and Capela up top ready to screen for either of them. Rather than sprinting into a handoff and jump-starting an action that utilized both guards, Young cut baseline to try and clear out the side for Murray to attack one-on-one. An admirable notion, but it just wound up putting a help defender under the basket to contest Murray’s poorly timed drive.

There are two ways to look at this. You could be dismayed that the duo has yet to figure out how to effectively work in concert, or you could be encouraged by the fact that the Hawks have posted a sterling 117.2 offensive rating with them on the court despite their lack of immediate synergy and Young’s uncharacteristically awful shooting. I’d lean toward the latter. Considering the fit is likely to get smoother over time, it’s safe to say they’ve established a high floor.

For now, the one place Murray and Young are truly jiving is in transition, and their open-court dynamism is Atlanta’s offensive lifeblood. Young has gotten the bulk of his catch-and-shoot threes by streaking down the wing trailing a stampeding Murray, while Murray has been the beneficiary of Young’s laser-guided hit-ahead bombs.

Murray creates a positive feedback loop with his ability to generate takeaways at the top of the floor and kick-start uber-efficient jailbreaks the other way. Atlanta ranks fourth in the league in transition frequency and first in points per possession following live-ball turnovers, per Cleaning the Glass. Murray’s 2.3 steals per game rank second to OG Anunoby, and he’s also a strong defensive rebounder who likes to push the pace after ripping the ball off the rim.

It’s especially important for the Hawks to get out and run because on top of the Young-Murray half-court clunkiness, the team has real spacing issues. Not only does it rank second-last in 3-point attempt rate, it’s also 25th in 3-point percentage after finishing 17th and third in those categories a season ago. That’s the biggest reason the Hawks’ offense has dipped from second overall to 14th.

Neither of their centers can space, Hunter and Collins are so-so shooters on low volume, Murray has improved but is still under 33% from deep, and the bench doesn’t offer any solutions outside of rookie AJ Griffin (who’s made a strong case for more playing time). When the Hawks’ sets run static, this is what the floor is liable to look like:


MSG

Maybe that helps explain why Young is shooting 43% at the rim and Murray is getting there less frequently than he ever has.

This is where the Hawks sorely miss Huerter, who’s scorching the net to the tune of 50% on 7.5 3-point attempts per game in Sacramento. (All due respect to Justin Holiday, a strong team defender and capable shooter, but that deal feels like one Atlanta might like to have back.) It’s also where they miss the injured Bogdan Bogdanovic, who’s recovering from knee surgery and still has no timetable for a return.

Take it all together, and you can interpret this team’s early results and process in pretty much any way. There are indicators of regression, and of better days ahead. The defense looks bad, but might somehow be good. The Young-Murray backcourt isn’t really clicking, except it kind of is.

The Haws are all over the map. All we can do is await the next signpost.

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