Trae Young couldn’t lead the Hawks into the playoffs, and it’s time for Atlanta to trade the star guard

The Chicago Bulls scored their 121st point on Wednesday with just under seven minutes remaining. If they’d had a reason to really go for it, they probably could’ve matched or exceeded their season-high of 136. I bring this up because both of those games came against the Atlanta Hawks.

Opponents hitting their season-high in scoring against the Hawks had become a startlingly common trend. There are 29 teams in the NBA outside of Atlanta. Five of them, the Bulls (136), Pacers (157), Mavericks (148), Nuggets (142) and Spurs (135) hit their season-high against Atlanta. The Pacers alone reached 150 points against the Hawks on three separate occasions. Atlanta allowed 135 or more points 11 different times. The Timberwolves didn’t do that once all year.

That’s not all Trae Young’s fault… but it would be hard to keep ignoring what a seismic negative impact he has on Atlanta’s defense. Atlanta allowed 119.1 points per 100 possessions with Young on the floor this season, just half a point off of the NBA record for worst defensive efficiency over a full season. Young has played six NBA seasons and the Hawks have been better on defense without him in each of them. In the first four, Atlanta’s defense produced its best defensive rating during any player’s absences with Young sitting. The trend line here is pretty clear. When Young rests, the Hawks are generally pretty good on defense. When he plays, they’re bad.

That’s more or less what happened when Young missed 23 games near the end of the season. The Hawks went 12-11 with the 18th-best defensive rating in the NBA. Not great. Not terrible. On the year, the Hawks were 14-14 without Young and 22-33 with him (including Wednesday’s season-ending Play-In game). Young has generally made up for those defensive shortcomings by leading a very good offense. The Hawks ranked 12th this year. Not exactly a worthwhile trade for arguably the worst defender in the NBA.

This can be somewhat easily hand-waved by saying that the fit with Dejounte Murray just hasn’t work. Atlanta got outscored by 6.3 points per 100 possessions with both of them on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass. The Hawks had a positive net rating when either played without the other, and in both cases, their offensive rating improved considerably. The eye-test pretty quickly tells you why that is. 

Young wants to run spread pick-and-roll every time down the floor. His priorities, in order, are to get a layup, get fouled, get a clean floater, get a clean 3-pointer, throw a clean lob or kick it out to an open shooter. This is antithetical to Murray’s desire to dribble too much and settle for contested mid-range jumpers. The partnership might be able to survive a “your turn, my turn” compromise if either were consistent shooters off the catch or eager movers off of the ball. Neither have been.

This is probably where you’d chime, having read the headline, and ask “but Sam, if the partnership isn’t working, why wouldn’t the Hawks just trade Murray, the inferior offensive engine of the two?” Well… they tried that. If an acceptable offer had come, they likely would have taken it. The best offer seemingly came from the Lakers. It would have involved their 2029 first-round pick, potentially a swap, and matching salary that reportedly would not have included Austin Reaves. That’s a far cry from the three first-round picks and one swap that the Hawks paid for Murray in the 2022 offseason. It also would have defied the wishes of head coach Quin Snyder, who reportedly wanted the Hawks to keep Murray.

Such a deal also likely would have condemned the Hawks to the purgatory of mediocrity for the duration of Young’s contract. They’d be operating at a draft pick deficit in a trade market that includes half a dozen teams (the Thunder, Jazz, Spurs, Knicks, Nets and Pelicans) with surpluses big enough to outbid basically anyone for any worthwhile player. Free agency isn’t an answer here either. The Hawks have more than $163 million committed to 12 players next season. Just filling out the roster is going to take the Hawks close to the projected $172 million luxury tax. Sure, there’s a bit of relief coming in the 2025 offseason, when Clint Capela’s deal expires, but that space will almost certainly be gobbled up by an extension for breakout forward Jalen Johnson.

All of this brings us back to the headline’s proposal. If all keeping Young would accomplish is another few years of mediocrity, it’s in the team’s best interest to trade him now, while he still has two years of contractual control, than to hold on to him and either lock themselves into another enormous contract or risk him using his impending 2027 free agency as leverage to force a trade somewhere that can’t give the Hawks the assets that they want. And, in this case, there are a few assets that Atlanta should very badly want.

The best-case outcome for the Hawks would be interest in Young from the San Antonio Spurs. Why? Because the Spurs control Atlanta’s first-round picks in 2025, 2026 and 2027. Those picks are the key to unlocking a full rebuild for Atlanta. Get them back and suddenly you’re pick-neutral again. That least opens the door to tanking for better picks, especially ahead of the loaded 2025 draft class. Move Murray in addition to Young and you’re suddenly looking at a pick surplus as you start this rebuild.

But even if trading both is a non-starter, Snyder and the Hawks are both very aware of how to build a competitive team without a megastar. The 2014-15 Hawks won 60 games without one. Snyder wasn’t on that staff, but he was an assistant under Mike Budenholzer in the prior season. He saw the development of that team firsthand.

Obviously, the Hawks shouldn’t expect to build a 60-win team around Dejounte Murray. But if this year’s group could go .500 with him at the helm, it’s worth wondering what it could be with a pile of assets acquired in a Young deal. Perhaps there are even players the Hawks could target that would balance out their roster a bit. Would the Pelicans consider a swap of Brandon Ingram for Young given their wing depth? Even if the deal only includes picks, those picks can be redirected for players in separate deals. In this new, second-apron reality we now live in, somebody is going to try to build a winner with no max contracts. Perhaps that team will be Atlanta.

None of these paths necessarily generate great odds at championship contention, but well, the Hawks have themselves to blame for that after trading Luka Doncic to get Young in the first place. None of the options here are great. I think we can all agree that allowing 131 points to the Bulls in a No. 9 vs. No. 10 Play-In Game isn’t the best one on the board. 

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