Hawks are right to keep building team around Trae Young

He still ranks among better guards in NBA
Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) dribbles against Toronto Raptors forward Jalen McDaniels (2) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024, in Atlanta. (Miguel Martinez/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) dribbles against Toronto Raptors forward Jalen McDaniels (2) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024, in Atlanta. (Miguel Martinez/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Trae Young played the best basketball of his career for more than a month of this season. Heck, he might have been the NBA’s best player during a 23-game stretch spanning November and December. Young playing that way for more than a quarter of the season is evidence that he’s still the player the Hawks should build the roster around.

That the Hawks lost 15 of those 23 games is proof that the organization still hasn’t built the roster well enough. There have been times when Young has let down the Hawks. Lately, it’s mostly the Hawks letting him down. They have an All-NBA talent at point guard and nothing to show for it except a run to the 2021 Eastern Conference finals that now seems ages ago.

With more than half of this season gone, the Hawks are in danger of not even making the cutoff for the Eastern Conference’s play-in tournament. That shouldn’t be the case for a veteran team with Young as the lead. That’s why roster changes likely will happen before the trade deadline Feb. 8.

The Hawks could get a big haul for Young. He turns 26 in September, so he’s just now entering what typically are the prime years for NBA players. Young is signed through the 2025-26 season with a salary that may not even rank among the league’s top 15 by the time the contract expires (Young has a player option for 2026-27).

The Hawks wouldn’t get equal value back in a trade for Young. That’s why they shouldn’t consider it until they decide to rebuild. The Hawks aren’t at that point yet. They’ll take another swing at improving Young’s team with trades. If it doesn’t happen this season, then the Hawks must at least get back the kind of assets that will make it possible soon: draft picks, good young players, expiring contracts.

Hawks guard Dejounte Murray is on the trading block. Young was on board with the team acquiring Murray in a trade with the Spurs in summer 2022. He’s the most talented teammate that Young has ever had, but he’s essentially a lesser version of Young. The best way for the Hawks to get better is to trade Murray for players who complement Young’s strengths and mitigate his weaknesses.

There was a stretch this month when, at least on the surface, it didn’t seem obvious that Young is the one who should stay. After his fantastic December, Young seemed to be laboring with injuries. Meanwhile, Murray played better as the trade chatter increased. Murray made game-winning shots in back-to-back games against the Magic and Heat while Young struggled against Orlando and sat out the Miami game with an illness.

That was the peak of a couple of great weeks in a good season for Murray. The wider view shows that Young is the better player. Keeping both isn’t conducive to winning. So, Young should stay while Murray goes.

Young is the more efficient scorer. He takes more 3-pointers than Murray and makes them at a high rate, and he earns more free throws by attacking the basket. Murray potentially could feast on spot-up 3′s – he’s shooting a career-high 39% on low volume. Murray instead prefers to dribble and hunt for his shot in the midrange, where he’s making 47% of his attempts (all statistics before Wednesday’s game).

Young is a better and more willing passer than Murray. He’s a pure point guard who scores a lot. Murray’s style is more like a combo guard. Assist-to-usage ratio is a measure of how often a player sets up teammates for scores relative to how often they have the ball. Young ranks third among high-usage guards in that metric. Murray is 16th.

Young isn’t a good defender. He’s gotten a lot better. During his first four seasons, Young had one of the worst defensive ratings in the NBA among point guards (team points per possession allowed on court vs. off). Per Cleaning the Glass, Young’s defensive rating has been about average for point guards since the start of last season, while Murray’s rating has dipped to below average.

Murray’s time with the Hawks could be nearing an end. The experiment of pairing him with Young hasn’t worked. The Hawks are about to start their third round of trying to find the right combination of players to team with Young. After starting this season slowly, Young showed why he’s still one of the better players in the league.

During the 23-game span from Nov. 9 to Dec. 31, Young ranked fifth in the league in points (30.3) and sixth in assists over that time. His effective field-goal percentage was eighth best among players who logged 35 minutes or more. Young had seven games in a row with at least 30 points and 10 assists.

When Young is on, there are only two or three players in the world who can match his combination of efficient and productive scoring and precise playmaking. If the Hawks trade Murray and other players, the goal will be adding players who complement Young’s strengths and mitigate his weaknesses. Do that, and then maybe they won’t lose so many games when Young is at his best.

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