As trade deadline approaches, middling Hawks options muddled

Hawks coach Quin Snyder, left, talks with guard Trae Young (11) during the second half against the San Antonio Spurs in the Hawks’ annual MLK Day game at State Farm Arena, Monday, Jan. 15, 2024. The Atlanta Hawks won 109-99. (Jason Getz /



Hawks coach Quin Snyder, left, talks with guard Trae Young (11) during the second half against the San Antonio Spurs in the Hawks’ annual MLK Day game at State Farm Arena, Monday, Jan. 15, 2024. The Atlanta Hawks won 109-99. (Jason Getz /

A little less than halfway through the season, the Hawks find themselves in a situation nobody wants to be in.

Before their Wednesday night home game against Orlando, they were 16-23, tied with Brooklyn for 10th in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, the last spot in for the play-in tournament. That’s not where they planned to be, particularly getting run off the floor at State Farm Arena on Saturday by Washington for its seventh win of the season.

The Hawks’ record isn’t poor enough that there’s a clear necessity to sell off valuable pieces to contenders and stockpile assets for next season. But at the same time, sitting in a tie for 10th place doesn’t scream “Playoff contender!”

The next three weeks before the Feb. 8 trade deadline should help inform general manager Landry Fields’ thinking.

Some likely components of his thought process:

The Hawks are an abysmal defensive team, giving up way too many easy baskets in transition by allowing the opposition to beat them down the floor. They have issues with defensive effort, particularly when shots aren’t falling at the other end. Going into Wednesday’s games, the Hawks ranked third to last in the NBA in points allowed per game (25.2) in transition defense.

“Sometimes, it’s like that,” forward Onyeka Okongwu said Wednesday. “The Indiana and Washington (games last week, both losses), you could tell. We just have to compete more. We just can’t give these free layups, free dunks all the time.”

Star guard Trae Young has bought in with coach Quin Snyder after friction with previous coaches Nate McMillan and Lloyd Pierce. His defensive effort level is up, his assists-per-game average was a career-high 10.9 before Wednesday’s game and he does things like call Snyder “cerebral” and ask for patience with the results.

“He needs time, he needs people in there that are going to listen, just give the effort that he says,” Young of Snyder said after the loss to Washington. “It’s a lot. It’s a lot, but it can work. It can really work, and it just takes time.”

After a season and a half, the partnership of Young and guard Dejounte Murray doesn’t look like it’s going to work. Acquired from the Spurs before the 2022-23 season for three first-round picks, a pick swap and veteran forward Danilo Gallinari, Murray might be the most frequent subject of trade rumors on the roster.

“The Trae and Dejounte backcourt has not worked,” an NBA scout told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And I don’t think they’re going to get what they gave up for him, which puts them in a tough spot. They have to swallow their pride a little bit and take a loss, I think, to move forward.”

The defense (and accompanying record) through 39 games has been influenced by the injuries of forwards De’Andre Hunter (out since Dec. 20 with inflammation in his knee) and Jalen Johnson (missed 14 games with a wrist injury), probably the team’s top two defensive players.

Before Wednesday’s game, the Hawks were 4-10 when Johnson was out and 12-13 with him in the lineup. Likewise, the team was 11-13 with Hunter and 5-10 without him.

Snyder probably also could use guard Kobe Bufkin, the No. 15 pick in this year’s NBA draft who sustained a thumb injury in November and has since returned with the College Park Skyhawks.

The team’s record without Johnson and Hunter, neither of whom should be considered indispensable, speaks to the lack of front-court depth, which Fields should address either now or in the offseason.

All that said, there’s enough talent on the roster to know that the Hawks shouldn’t be 16-23, even with the injuries and players adjusting to a new system. Despite being humbled in back-to-back home losses to Indiana and Washington, the Hawks nearly gave away a third in a row Monday to the lowly Spurs, who came back from a 35-point deficit to close to within six points with possession with a little less than four minutes to play.

“You can feel really good about a win, especially on this day (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), but you can also hold yourselves accountable for not being focused in the second half,” Snyder said.

It’s reasonable to ask how high this group can get. Since making the Eastern Conference finals in 2021, the Hawks have had Young, Hunter, Okongwu, Johnson, Clint Capela and Bogan Bogdanovic together in the three seasons since, with a couple of transitions in and out. In 2½ seasons, they’re 100-103.

When the coach cites focus and communication as areas that need to be improved and the star guard acknowledges that the defensive issues aren’t just one or two things but “multiple things,” and that his coach needs players who will listen and give the effort that he’s asking for, those seem like signs that there’s some roster work that needs to be done.

“They just need a new group, hopefully get a little bit of chemistry and then build off of it,” the scout said. “Right now, it could be just addition by subtraction.”

However, any temptation to blow up the roster and tank the remainder of the season ought to be tempered with the reality that, at 16-23, it would be hard for the Hawks to drop far enough in the standings to significantly improve their lottery chances. Five teams had 10 wins or fewer as of Wednesday afternoon.

Going into Wednesday’s games, the Hawks were tied with Brooklyn with the eighth-worst record in the league. A tank job might get them to sixth worst.

On the other hand, the Hawks don’t have their own first-round pick in the 2025, 2026 and 2027 drafts because of the Murray trade (the 2026 pick would be traded to San Antonio if it were higher than the Spurs’ pick). That is either reason to rebuild now and try for as high a pick as possible in the next draft or, conversely, to try to retool on the fly because draft help won’t be coming. The pick shortage obviously is a motivation in trying to sell Murray to replace draft picks.

It would seem there’s multiple directions that Fields could go as the trade deadline approaches. The one he chooses could depend on how optimistic he is about the roster and what happens over the next three weeks.