Five things to watch over the Hawks’ final 26 games in the regular season

Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan (11) attempts a shot against Atlanta Hawks forward Bruno Fernando (24) during the second half at State Farm Arena, Monday, February 12, 2024, in Atlanta. The Chicago Bulls won 136 - 126. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan (11) attempts a shot against Atlanta Hawks forward Bruno Fernando (24) during the second half at State Farm Arena, Monday, February 12, 2024, in Atlanta. The Chicago Bulls won 136 - 126. (Jason Getz /

The Hawks still have a chance.

Despite some competitive play from the Hawks in the first 56 games of the NBA regular season, they sit in a bit of a precarious position with roughly a third of the season to play.

Here are the five keys we revisited in December as well as the five keys to the season that we listed in mid-October:

Young and Murray finding their groove

The Hawks’ backcourt duo of Trae Young and Dejounte Murray have not quite lived up to the expectations despite flashes here and there. But the Hawks have needed consistency, and their two top guards still haven’t tapped into what will make them the pick-your-poison pairing that many believed they could be.

The two continue to put up strong numbers individually, with Young averaging 26.7 points and 10.9 assists and Murray putting up 21.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. But they’re still figuring out how to play off of each other.

Ahead of the season, Hawks coach Quin Snyder warned that it would be unwise to harshly judge the partnership in year two, just as it would have been in year one. Now with the trade deadline passed, the team will continue to gain insight into how to bring out the best of this partnership.

The Hawks have one of the league’s top isolation players in Murray, who ranks 15th in points per possession (1.17) on isolation plays and 12th in points (3.5). They also have the league’s top pick-and-roll ballhandler in Young, who averages 12.2 points per game on pick-and-roll plays.

So, they’ll have to continue to find ways to lean on the strengths of their two guards.

Continued productivity from young players

The Hawks have dealt with injuries throughout the season, but they seen plenty of productivity from their young players as they focus on internal development. The strong output from Jalen Johnson, Onyeka Okongwu and Saddiq Bey gave the front office some confidence to stand pat at the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

“We’ve seen an uptick with Onyeka,” Fields said Feb. 9. “We’ve seen an uptick with Jalen Johnson. We’ve seen an uptick with the Saddiq Bey, and I can go right down the line even down to College Park (in the G League), where Kobe Bufkin is developing extremely well in that environment. And that’s really important for our process.”

Before his injury, Johnson looked like a strong candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. Since his return Dec. 26, Johnson has averaged 16.6 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists.

For his part, Okongwu has averaged 10.2 points, seven rebounds and 1.3 assists, while also shooting 33.8% from 3.

Bey has had his ups and downs this season but has continued to find ways to impact the game with his drives to the basket and his willingness to attack the glass. He missed one game this season and has averaged 13.5 points and a career-best 6.6 rebounds per game.

As the Hawks look to turn things around, getting even from their young players, especially on Young’s and Murray’s off-nights.

Collective defense

The Hawks have shown flashes of success when they play defense collectively, and that has been the difference maker in those matchups. While their offense has remained relatively consistent with only a few eggs laid here or there, their defense has not.

Through 56 games, the Hawks have the league’s second-worst defense, ahead of only the Hornets. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Hawks have allowed 120.9 points per 100 possessions played which puts them in the 27th percentile.

They’ve struggled particularly in transition defense, with 16.4% of opponents’ points coming off transition plays, with an average of 130.4 points per 100 transition plays.

But in matchups where the Hawks have played connected, they’ve held opponents to 120 or fewer points. In those games, they’re 12-9.

The Hawks still have three players in the top 30 players for steals per game. Trae Young ranks 13th with an average of 1.4 steals per game. Dejounte Murray sits at 26th with 1.3 per game and Bogdan Bogdanovic comes in at 28th, with 1.2 per game.

Remaining as healthy as possible

The Hawks still have not beaten the injury bug, despite Johnson’s return to the rotation Dec. 26. Johnson immediately made an impact, but the Hawks still did not have full strength with Hunter’s absence for 19 games. Both the absences of Johnson and Hunter heavily impacted the team’s play on defense.

When the Hawks did not have either Johnson or Hunter in the rotation, the Hawks needed to dip into their bench. While Trent Forrest, Garrison Mathews, Wesley Matthews and Patty Mills stepped up to fill the void, any knock to the top eight players exposed the Hawks’ lack of depth.

With the Hawks at full strength, the Hawks ranked among the top 10 benches in scoring. With Johnson’s absence, the Hawks dropped to 22. But when the Hawks to relatively full strength, they went 3-1, with the bench scoring 44.3 points in that span, bolstered by Bogdanovic, Hunter and Okongwu.

But that health remained short-lived with center Clint Capela sidelined with a left adductor strain. Though the Hawks had strong performances from Okongwu without Capela, the team’s backup center eventually exited with a left big toe sprain.

Now, with only 26 games left, the Hawks will look to finish the regular season as healthy as possible.

Making up ground

They sit two games behind their closest opponent, the Bulls, to whom they lost their first two meetings of the season, while they’re 2.5 games ahead of the Nets, against whom they split the first two meetings. They are six games behind the Heat and Magic, who hold a tie for the top two spots in the Play-In Tournament. They are 6.5 games behind the Pacers, who have won all three meetings between them.

The Hawks have faced the 14 other teams in the Eastern Conference at least once, and they have a 14-23 record in conference games and a 6-6 record within the division, which potentially could come in handy for tiebreaker situations.

Over the final 26 games, they have 15 matchups against conference opponents, four of which are against divisional opponents.