Time for Hawks to end Trae Young and Dejounte Murray experiment

To fix team’s issues, one of them must go in trade
Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) and Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray (5) talk to one another during a break in their game against the Chicago Bulls at State Farm Arena, Monday, February 12, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / jason.getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) and Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray (5) talk to one another during a break in their game against the Chicago Bulls at State Farm Arena, Monday, February 12, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / jason.getz@ajc.com)

If you didn’t see the last Hawks game of the season, just think back to what most of them looked like all season, and you’ll get the gist. Trae Young wasn’t himself, and three key players sat out with injuries. Otherwise, the Play-In game loss to the Bulls in Chicago late Wednesday was a bad rerun episode for the Hawks.

The Hawks couldn’t stop the Bulls from getting to the rim to score or kick out for open 3-pointers. Poor offensive possessions led to easy baskets for Chicago in transition. Bulls guards Coby White and DeMar DeRozan went over and through the smaller defenders the Hawks sent at them.

The 131-116 loss ended the season short of the playoffs for the first time since the Hawks stopped tanking in 2020-21. It didn’t reveal anything about the team that wasn’t already clear. The fantasy that internal development can fix what ails the Hawks should have been abandoned well before the final night in Chicago.

The pairing of guards Young and Dejounte Murray isn’t working. The Hawks don’t have enough players who can keep opponents out of the paint or challenge them at the rim. They lack size and athletic ability all around. It’s a poorly constructed team with a 2024-25 payroll that is pushing against the projected luxury-tax line.

That means major changes will require trading one of Young ($43 million salary next season) or Murray ($25 million). General manager Landry Fields already tried to move Murray before February’s deadline. Persistent reports indicate that the Hawks could look to trade Young this summer. One of them must go because there’s no other way to make major improvements to the roster while keeping the payroll below the tax line.

I believe the Hawks should trade Murray and keep Young. It’s hard to find players with Young’s combination of elite playmaking and efficient, high scoring. The Hawks should add more big, long and versatile players around Young. If they decide to move on from Young, then they should get those kinds of players back for a Murray-centric team.

A bold trade is needed unless Fields is allowed to spend above the tax line. The Hawks dumped salary to avoid the tax this season. It’s doubtful that franchise owner Tony Ressler will ever pay the tax. He’s surely not going to pay it for a team that’s going backward with the front office that he assembled.

Hiring Quin Snyder as coach was supposed to help the Hawks break free from their middling existence. They were 10-11 with Snyder to end last season, won a Play-In game as the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed and then lost a seven-game series to the Celtics in six. The Hawks finished 36-46 in Snyder’s first full season to earn the No. 10 seed before getting blown out in Chicago.

Injuries surely played a part in the disappointing season. Young missed 28 games. Jalen Johnson’s emergence as a do-everything forward was one bright spot, but he missed 26 games. Center Onyeka Okongwu (27 games missed) and forwards De’Andre Hunter (25) and Saddiq Bey (19) all were out for long stretches.

Better injury luck might have raised the bar to average. The Hawks should aim higher. They’ve done so since former general manager Travis Schlenk added quality veterans to play with Young before the 2020-21 season. The Hawks tried to raise the ceiling by trading for Murray two years ago but followed that move with salary-dump trades.

The Hawks don’t need to rebuild. They have enough solid-to-good veteran players under contract for next season beyond Young and Murray. That means they have good pieces to offer in trade packages and players they can keep as part of a winning team with a reconfigured roster.

Bogdan Bogdanovic proved this season that he really should be a starter. Hunter looked much better as a bench player (he’s not paid like one at $21.7 million next season). Center Clint Capela still can be effective with a lighter workload. Okongwu is fine as a backup in the right matchups.

The Hawks also have some young players with potential. Johnson is on an All-Star trajectory. The offense should run through him more often. There’s hope that Kobe Bulfkin and AJ Griffin can develop into reliable rotation players.

Given the luxury-tax restraints, there aren’t many ways for the Hawks to sign good, experienced players via free agency. As it stands now, they have only the veteran minimum salary-cap exception available. Re-signing Bey would push their payroll above the tax line unless they shed salary with trades or waivers. The Hawks have about $26 million in trade exceptions, but they are looking to send out salary, not take more back.

One good outcome for the Hawks losing the Play-In game is that they are in the draft lottery. They have longshot odds of getting a top-four pick, but very good odds to win the 10th or 11th pick. The Hawks will get Sacramento’s first-round pick if the Kings win their Play-In game Friday night. This appears to be a weak draft overall, but that doesn’t mean there are no good prospects to be found.

The draft is more about the future for the Hawks. What they need now is a roster rehaul with a focus on veterans with size, positional versatility and defensive chops. Snyder will need to engineer a cultural shift, too, so that getting stops matters as much as scoring baskets.

Those things were evident long before the Hawks lost in Chicago on Wednesday night. The latest version of the Hawks has run its course. The Young-Murray experiment isn’t working. Now one of them must go.