As Trae Young-Dejounte Murray duo falters, ‘numbers speak for themselves’

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) talks with Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray (5) during the first half against the Los Angeles Lakers at State Farm Arena, Tuesday, January 30, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / jason.getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) talks with Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray (5) during the first half against the Los Angeles Lakers at State Farm Arena, Tuesday, January 30, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / jason.getz@ajc.com)

It was January 2023 and Landry Fields could not have been more enthusiastic of the trade to acquire Dejounte Murray.

Newly elevated to oversee all basketball operations, the Hawks general manager was confident that the potentially high-powered partnership of Murray and star guard Trae Young would outweigh the hefty cost paid to the Spurs to acquire him the previous offseason – three first-round picks, a pick swap and veteran forward Danilo Gallinari.

Even though returns from the season’s first 43 games weren’t causing jaws to drop, Fields told esteemed colleague Lauren Williams that he would make the trade again “10 times out of 10″ and that Murray was “a huge piece” of the club’s vision moving forward.

The GM asked for patience. While critics observed that the Young-Murray team wasn’t working, Fields said that “they’re missing the one word, which is ‘yet.’ It’s not working yet.”

Thirteen months later, the Hawks and their fans are still living in “not yet.” Those who watch the team closely can tell you it’s not working, and the numbers can, too, the latter strongly indicating that the Hawks perform worse when Young and Murray are on the floor together compared to when either is playing without the other.

Fields met with media Friday via videoconference to address the club’s not making any trades leading up to the NBA trade deadline. While Murray may have been widely reported as this season’s top trade target throughout the league, Fields said he did not find a deal worth making. Fields was asked how confident he felt, on a scale of 1-10, about the future of the Young-Murray partnership given the visual and statistical evidence that it has not panned out. He did not have the same vigor in defending the pairing that he’d had last January.

“It’s a really good question, and I love how you framed it,” said Fields before giving a response that, on a scale of 1-10 in terms of directly answering the question, was about a 3.

He did acknowledge that “I can’t lie to you, the numbers speak for themselves.”

Fields added that the club was trying to solve the problem by trying to understand why it isn’t working better and also what is happening when Young and Murray do combine for positive results.

“Like, one, what’s the competitive spirit in that particular moment?” Fields said. “Are we being unselfish? Are we moving the ball? Those things, which, from a pass standpoint, you can measure. Like, if things get sticky there, then, yeah, that’s tough. Now, the development to make it simple is like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to continuously move the ball and keep the advantage for the group.’ And, are you willing to do that? Are you not willing to do that? If you are, great. Then we’re going to be better. If you’re not, then, O.K., then we’ve reached a point where we’ve reached a ceiling here.”

A couple thoughts:

First, Fields suggesting selfishness as a possible fly in the Murray-Young ointment seems like a window into his thinking about what why the partnership hasn’t performed better together.

Second, Fields and Hawks leadership have had a season and a half to find solutions he said they were looking for. They made a coaching change in the process. And they still don’t seem to be any closer to answers.

Fields said the following in January 2023.

“It’s like, ‘O.K, put it out there, get the feedback loops going, where are some areas (of improvement),’ as (assistant GM Kyle Korver) was mentioning, just to, ‘O.K, we can pick here, we can nudge there, to try to get it in line with our ultimate vision.’”

He said this Friday.

“For those guys or any particular instance, it’s looking at, ‘O.K, why, when it is working on the court, like, why is that successful? Why are we seeing positive results for that?’”

It sounds like Fields is leading the same exercise with no discernible results, which is a reflection on him. Patience and deliberation are underrated qualities in professional sports, but 1 1/2 seasons is a long time to look for an answer. The Hawks have been on a tear of late, winning six of their past eight, including a 122-113 win over Houston Saturday at State Farm Arena. But in the second year of trying to make Young-Murray happen, they are 24-29 for the season after finishing last season 41-41.

Fields said Friday that analytics models “will tell you, O.K, 100, 200, 300, 400 possessions of anything, that’s a big enough sample size for you to make an informed decision on that.”

After the win over the Houston, Young and Murray have shared the court for 5,735 possessions over the past season and a half, according to the analytics website Cleaning the Glass. If it takes 400 possessions to be adequately informed, Fields should have a Ph.D. in the inner workings of Young and Murray as partners by now.

The numbers that Fields referenced above, from Cleaning the Glass: This season, when Murray and Young have been on the floor together, the Hawks have been outscored by 4.7 points per 100 possessions. When Murray is on and Young is off, the Hawks are better than the opposition by 1.8 points per 100 possessions. With Young on and Murray off, the margin is plus 2.3. The team’s overall average is -1.8.

Phrased another way, the Hawks are seven points per 100 possessions better when Young is on the floor without Murray than they are than when the three-time All-Star shares the court with the player whom the franchise mortgaged its future to acquire.

The offensive efficiency is nearly identical with either Young (121.9 points per 100 possessions) or Murray (121.8) on the floor without the other, but it drops to 116.9 when the two players who both do best with the ball in their hands share the floor.

None of this is news to the Hawks. There’s a reason that Murray’s name was so prominently mentioned in trade talks and that Fields acknowledged the possibility of a ceiling for the Young-Murray duo.

Asked a second time to state his degree of confidence in the partnership working out, Fields said he would bank on the two players wanting to do what they need to do to win, which is different than banking on them doing what they need to do to win, or actually winning.

“I’m very confident in that,” he said. “It that changes, then we’ll see changes.”

It’s a difficult place to be. The Hawks bet big on Murray, appear to have taken it in the shorts and are now having to figure out how to make the best of it. Coach Quin Snyder said prior to the deadline that he didn’t want Murray to be traded. But the fact that Murray was prominently involved in trade talks indicates that Hawks leadership was open to cutting bait.

You can add to it that the Hawks in general, and Fields in particular, have a lot riding on this working out. It was a wager that defines the Hawks, and Fields, as GM, has his name on the betting slip.

Selling off Murray at the trade deadline for far less than what the Hawks paid for him would have been painful and humbling. But what would be worse is holding onto Murray and getting even less for him in the summer, which is a possibility.

The other option is continuing to invest more time and money in Young and Murray and hoping that Snyder can somehow make it work. Perhaps the recent hot streak (the Hawks play the Bulls Monday at home) is an indication that he has unlocked something.

But the evidence of nearly 6,000 possessions would caution you against taking that bet.

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