Bradley’s Buzz: What if the Hawks play better without Trae Young?

Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray (5) dribbles against Orlando Magic guard Anthony Black (0) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Feb 25, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray (5) dribbles against Orlando Magic guard Anthony Black (0) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Feb 25, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)

Generally speaking, it’s not a good thing when your best player can’t play. These being the Hawks, the rules don’t apply. As loopy as it sounds, Trae Young missing a month is what this franchise needs.

To suggest this team has underachieved is to understate. This is the NBA’s biggest flop. It’s 66-73 since acquiring Dejounte Murray, 35-43 since hiring Quin Snyder. Landing an All-Star guard and a proven coach should have produced an uptick. These being the Hawks, matters got worse.

This month’s trade deadline came and went without the anticipated Murray move. The Hawks are 3-3 since the deadline, all the losses against sub-.500 teams. No matter what they’ve done, nothing has worked. They’re in the worst place an NBA team can be – not good enough to win but, owing to the draft picks sacrificed for Murray, not positioned to tank.

Come the summer, the Hawks must take measures to get unstuck. That figured to mean moving Murray – you can kick a can only so far down the road – because the only other option is dumping Young, which still seems unthinkable. He’s the only NBA player averaging 26 points and 10 assists. To trade such a talent is to surrender. But what if such thinking is, as is often the case with this oddest of organizations, wrong?

This is Young’s sixth NBA season. In 2021 – when Nate McMillan replaced the overmatched Lloyd Pierce and the team drew within two games of the NBA finals – there were moments we believed this scrawny guard could take this team anywhere. There have been few such moments since. McMillan is gone. John Collins is gone. Young remains, and he’s still a very good player. So why isn’t his team good?

For those of us who insist that Young isn’t what’s wrong with the Hawks, the next month will be instructive. A team that hasn’t spent a day above .500 since November is 1-0 since he tore a ligament in his hand. Yes, that’s the smallest possible sample size, but still: Hours after announcing their All-Star would miss a month, the Hawks beat Orlando, a winning team, and held it to 92 points.

These Hawks have played 57 games. This was the second time an opponent failed to break 100. It was the first time in more than two calendar years an opponent was held to 92. (Note: Paolo Banchero, the Magic’s best player, didn’t play.)

We know Young has the ball a lot. (He’s 12th among NBA players in usage rate.) We know he’ll put the ball in the air. (He’s 13th in shots.) We know he’s not a total ball hog. (He leads the league in assists.) We also know he’s not Dennis Johnson at the other end. (He’s 303rd in defensive win shares.)

Smallish guards tend to be defensive liabilities. Then again, Golden State seems to have done OK with Stephen Curry. To their credit, these Hawks rank fourth in scoring. To their chagrin, they’re next-to-last in points against. With Young, minuses have come to override pluses. Without him … well, we’re about to find out.

The Hawks would never have scheduled a month of such discovery, but here it is. My guess is that life sans Trae will go the way you’d imagine – fewer points for and against, a slightly worse winning percentage – but what if it doesn’t? What if the Hawks, counterintuitive though it is, are better without their best player?

Should that happen, they’ll still face a massive summer decision. It just won’t involve Dejounte Murray.

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