There hasn’t been this much parity in the NBA for a long time. The Denver Nuggets won their first-ever NBA title to top off the 2022-23 season and several heavy hitters are retooling to challenge the defending champs in 2023-24. The Boston Celtics, Phoenix Suns, and Golden State Warriors are among the hopefuls with the best shot at knocking them off. Other teams, like the Atlanta Hawks, are in no man’s land.
The Hawks have of pair of All-Star caliber guards Trae Young and Dejounte Murray, a slew of talented wings, a solid center, and promising youth coming off the bench. However, their current personnel doesn’t appear to have enough in the tank to match the success of the 2021 squad that made the Eastern Conference Finals. Atlanta seems destined to remain a middle-of-the-pack team with its current roster. The Hawks don’t have the look of making a deep playoff run or rebuilding with the help of quality draft capital anytime soon.
The Celtics are the favorites to come out of the East after adding Kristaps Porzingis to a core that includes a pair of All-NBA wings. The Milwaukee Bucks finished first in the conference last season despite getting just 33 games out of Khris Middleton. The Cleveland Cavaliers are fresh off a surprising first-round exit but added much-needed perimeter shooting to complement the defensive powerhouse they’ve built. The New York Knicks have their franchise point guard in Jalen Brunson. While the Philadelphia 76ers are dealing with James Harden drama, they’ve won 49 or more games in five of their last six seasons with reigning MVP Joel Embiid as their anchor. Then there’s the Miami Heat, who consistently beat more talented teams en route to the 2023 NBA Finals and are frontrunners to secure Damian Lillard via trade this offseason. Posting a .500 record won’t be enough for Atlanta.
Young still runs the show for the Hawks and is undoubtedly one of the best creators in basketball. His scoring and efficiency dropped in his first year with Murray, but he tallied a career-high 10.2 dimes per game. Only Nikola Jokic and James Harden surpassed Young’s mark of 13.9 assists per 100 possessions last season. Young has consistently posted quality scoring numbers as a volume shooter as well since entering, but his level of involvement comes with a high price that affects winning.
Young was one of the sixteen players who attempted more than 1300 shots in 2022-23. He ranked sixth in total field goal attempts with 1,390. Only Jalen Green of the lowly Houston Rockets had a worse defensive rating (122) per 100 possessions than Young among that group. Atlanta’s most common five-man lineup last year featured Young, Murray, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, and Clint Capela. That unit’s defensive rating was impressive 110.6, which would’ve been good for the second-best mark in the league last season. In fact, only 12 teams utilized the same lineup for more than 400 minutes last season. Only one posted a better defensive rating than the Hawks’ best group. Mixing and matching different groups with Young just hasn’t been successful, and change is coming in 2023-24.
Collins, who sought out a massive extension before being moved to the Utah Jazz, was an important part of Atlanta’s defensive schemes at power forward. It appears like he’ll be replaced by former Detroit Pistons forward Saddiq Bey, and that could spell trouble for Atlanta. The Hawks forked up 116.2 points per game to opponents in 57 games without Bey last season. That’s not great, but it’s respectable. However, that figure ballooned to 122.6 points per game for the 25 games Bey was in the rotation. Just as a point of reference, the San Antonio Spurs gave up a league-high 123.1 points per game last season. Numbers like that simply don’t translate to winning basketball.
That being said, the Atlanta Hawks will need to make some big decisions next offseason. Rookie extensions are looming for Bey and Onyeka Okongwu. Pistons forward Isaiah Stewart signed a four-year, $64 million contract in July. Okongwu has posted similar numbers with less opportunity and could ask for more thanks to his more impressive defensive skillset. Bey’s numbers are better than both Okongwu’s and Stewart’s thanks to his health history and early chances to play a major starting role. Murray has already agreed to a four-year, $120 million deal that’s set to start in the 2024-25 season. Atlanta might not want to commit spending so much more to role players for a roster that could very well be on the outside looking in come playoff time.
Young’s growing frustrations are apparent, as Nate McMillan resigned last season after tension built between him the the star point guard. Young said “It could be false, could be true, you never know,” to The Athletic in April when asked whether the Hawks’ front office had the green light to trade him ahead of a play-in tournament matchup against the Heat. His five-year, $215 million contract will pay him more than $40 million per season through 2026-27. While he might not be what’s best for the Hawks’ current infrastructure, several teams with cheaper young assets or enticing draft capital could become interested in bringing Young aboard before next season is up, on the premise that he takes on a less ball-dominant role.
Miami could pivot from Lillard should the Portland Trail Blazers stay firm on not being bullied into a trade by their superstar point guard. The Los Angeles Lakers always appear to be at the center of any big-name trade talk and will almost certainly enter the conversation should Young hit the open market. However, the divisional rival Orlando Magic also present an interesting potential partner. Their team is loaded with youth and has constructed its identity around having length and defensive versatility at every position, which seems perfect for supporting Young’s shortcomings.
Needless to say, the Hawks are at a crossroads ahead of Quin Snyder’s first full season at the helm. The best teams have made strong moves to get better and the teams just below the top tier have recreated themselves with new talent. Atlanta needs to do something to keep up, and its best option might be to move one of the game’s best playmakers. Don’t be surprised if Young is in new colors between now and the 2024-25 season.