Hawks inconsistent amidst season of expectations

Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young fist-bumps shooting guard Dejounte Murray in a Game 3 130-122 win at home over the Boston Celtics that happened during the 2023. // Photo courtesy of Brynn Anderson, Associated Press

Coming off a first-round exit in the 2023 playoffs against the Boston Celtics, the Atlanta Hawks seemed destined to make another playoff push in 2024. Under first-year head coach Quin Snyder, they pushed the Eastern Conference’s #2 seed to six games where the last three games of the series were decided by a margin of under ten points. All-Star point guard Trae Young averaged a solid 29 points and 10 assists on 40% shooting from the field while All-Star shooting guard Dejounte Murray averaged 23 and six assists on 45% shooting from the field. However, the backcourt duo could not get their shots to fall in the second half of Game 6. 

Going into Snyder’s second season, the Hawks front office traded away longtime power forward John Collins to the Utah Jazz for forward Rudy Gay and a second-round pick in a move designed to create more financial flexibility. Atlanta then added guard Kobe Bufkin in the first round of the 2023 NBA Draft.

Trading Collins also opened up minutes for third-year small forward Jalen Johnson. The combination of Johnson, forward Saddiq Bey and stretch forward DeAndre Hunter figured to give the Hawks plenty of options in the frontcourt. Behind Young and Murray, second-year guard AJ Griffin and veteran sharpshooter Bogdan Bogdonavic profiled as excellent bench shooters to provide an offensive spark. Atlanta’s center duo of Onyeka Okongwu and Clint Capela offered different skill sets — Capela’s size and physicality helped him collect the fifth-most rebounds in the NBA last year while Okongwu’s defense and offensive flashes made him a helpful rotation piece. All told, the combination of lineup depth and complementary skills made a playoff berth seem like a foregone conclusion for the 2024 squad. 

Unfortunately, the Hawks have not lived up to that billing. At the time of writing, their record of 16-23 is good for 11th place in the Eastern Conference. On the season, they rank eighth in offensive rating but last in defensive rating. Young’s 26 points and 10 assists lead the team in both categories while Capela’s 11 total rebounds leads the team in said category. 

Amidst the disappointment of the season, there are certainly positives. Jalen Johnson has developed into the team’s best defender. His 15 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists are all career-highs, on an impressive 57% from the field and scorching 40% from three-point range. During his month-long absence, the Hawks’ defense fell apart to the tune of a putrid 124.3 defensive rating. Bogdan Bogdanovic has also been phenomenal from three-point range, shooting 37% on over eight attempts per game. His high-volume shooting and defensive competitiveness has made him into an indispensable part of Atlanta’s rotation. 

After dropping their first two games against the Charlotte Hornets and New York Knicks, they went on a four-game win streak before alternating between one to two game runs of losing or winning for much of late October and November. Young got off to a slow start, going eight for 35 across his first two games. He began to round into form before Johnson left the lineup with a wrist injury. The Hawks then opened December with a four-game losing streak before returning to their inconsistent ways for most of the month. In 2024, they look largely the same: a talented roster that struggles to gel together. 

Part of the Hawks’ inconsistency can be attributed to a lack of synergy between Young and Murray. When Atlanta traded for Murray, his perimeter defense, which earned him an All-Defensive Second Team player nod, was supposed to compensate for Young’s deficiencies on that end. Instead, Murray’s defensive rating has reached career-worst numbers of 116 and 121 respectively in his two seasons as a Hawk. Outside of Jalen Johnson, Atlanta lacks a consistent perimeter defender. As a result, the Hawks yield the second-worst three point percentage in basketball. While the defense looks better when Johnson and Okongwu are subbed in, Okongwu is essentially defended as a non-shooter from three-point range. This causes a reduction in the offensive spacing. 

Young’s ball-dominant style — he has the third-most possessions this season — has also turned the offense into Murray and Young taking turns with the ball. This has caused Murray’s name to feature in trade discussions as a candidate to be moved elsewhere before the trade deadline on Feb. 8. 

A Murray trade would confirm that the Hawks view the 2023-2024 season as unsalvageable. It would be prudent to evaluate the roster and decide to either buy or sell assets at the trade deadline. Murray, Bogdanovic and Capela could all interest contending teams. However, it is clear that the status quo cannot continue for the Hawks if they want to make a playoff run in 2024 and beyond.