Bradley’s Buzz: The Hawks got better without Trae Young, which says ... what?

Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray (5) reacts as he leaves the court after hitting a game-winning shot to defeat Boston Celtics during overtime in an NBA basketball game Thursday, March 28, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray (5) reacts as he leaves the court after hitting a game-winning shot to defeat Boston Celtics during overtime in an NBA basketball game Thursday, March 28, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The Hawks are 10-7 since Trae Young underwent hand surgery. That’s a winning percentage of .588. The Hawks’ record in games Young has played this season is 22-29. That’s a winning percentage of .431.

The Hawks hold 10th place in the NBA East. Had they won at a .588 rate all season, they’d be fifth. How many times this century have the Hawks played .588 ball over a full season? Three, most recently in the 60-win season of 2014-15. Or, to put another way, three years before they drafted Young.

In their final two games before he was shelved, the Hawks lost to 12-41 Charlotte and 20-36 Toronto. Over the 17 games since, they’ve beaten the Magic, Knicks, Cavaliers, Clippers and Celtics, all of whom are way above .500. On Monday, the Hawks rallied from 30 points down to beat Boston. On Thursday, they beat Boston again.

The Celtics will be the East’s No. 1 seed. Their first playoff series will come against one of the two play-in tournament survivors. The Hawks are all but locked into the play-in tournament. This time last week, we’d have guessed the Hawks would do well to win a game in a best-of-seven against Boston. We just saw them go 103 minutes – Thursday’s game went overtime – with the mighty C’s and win twice.

Disclaimer time: We’re in the NBA’s silly season, where the good teams are mostly trying to stay healthy – this being the NBA, load management is never a secondary concern – and the bad teams are doing what bad teams do, which is lose. The Celtics deployed most of their regulars in their two games at State Farm Arena. (Jrue Holiday missed the first, Al Horford the second.) They went 0-2.

The Hawks were minus Young – though he managed to incur a technical foul dressed in street clothes Thursday – and also Jalen Johnson, Saddiq Bey and Onyeka Okongwu. In a weird bit of scheduling, the Celtics had three days to mull their first Atlanta loss, whle the homestanding Hawks had a game with Portland interspersed. Then they picked up where they left off.

The Hawks got 16-plus minutes Thursday from non-legends Vit Krejci, Bruno Fernando, Wesley Matthews and Garrison Mathews. In OT, their strategy was simplicity itself. Of the Hawks’ nine shots, Dejounte Murray took eight, making five. He scored all 11 points, the final two coming with 0.1 second left on a high-rise jumper over the defensive ace Holiday. Murray’s line: 47 minutes, 44 points (on 44 shots), 7 assists, 7 rebounds.

When Young was lost, we suggested the next month would be instructive. It has been, though not in a way we could have imagined. Over the season’s first 17 games, these Hawks were 8-9; over the next 17, they were 6-11; over the next 17, they were 8-9. (They were 2-3 in five games that Young was inactive during those first 51 games).

Young goes down and they’re 10-7. A team that did next to nothing from Halloween through Valentine’s Day has played better without its presumed best player.

Since 2017, the Hawks have had only one All-Star – Young, chosen three times. No other NBA player averages 26 points and 10 assists. Over six seasons, we’re become so conditioned to viewing this as Trae Young’s Team that we haven’t seriously considered that the team might be better if it weren’t.

We suspected the Hawks might defend more minus Young. (They could hardly defend less.) We had no reason to believe the Hawks sans Young/Johnson/Bey/Okongwu could score enough to hold up against good competition. (This team hadn’t held up against bad competition.) But here the diminished Hawks sit, not diminished at all. Now what?

If Young is healthy for the playoffs – no date for his return has been announced – do the Hawks tell him to take the rest of the season off? (Surely not.) Should they expect him to blend with a team that has apparently found itself without him? (Has Young ever been one to blend?) Once this season is done, do they continue along the road that, as of the February trade deadline, seemed their only course?

Back then, consensus held that Murray needed to leave. That mightn’t be the consensus today. Owing to last summer’s extension, he’s under team control for longer than Young, and for much less money.

Apart from the second half of a COVID-delayed season and an improbable run to the 2021 Eastern Conference finals, the Hawks of Young have been a mediocrity. To be fair, they were rebuilding around him. Also to be fair, this team always looked, at least on paper, rather good. Only without Young has it played that way.

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