Hawks off to good start, and they’ll get only better

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

The Hawks rank third in the Eastern Conference standings. After a 4-1 start against overmatched opponents, they are 5-4 during a tougher stretch. The Hawks own two victories over the Bucks and one against the 76ers. It’s a good start for the Hawks, but is it sustainable?

I’m answering in the affirmative because, really, the Hawks (9-5) have underachieved. Before Tuesday’s games they ranked 15th in the NBA in offensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass (garbage time excluded). The Hawks are much better than that. Trae Young’s poor shooting is a primary reason why the offense has been so inefficient. No one should believe that will continue.

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The Hawks rank fifth in defensive efficiency, which probably overstates their true ability. But they don’t have to remain that good at getting stops to be a championship contender. Top 15 on defense and top five on offense should put them on that level. That’s realistic.

The Hawks ranked No. 2 in offensive efficiency last season and No. 26 in defensive efficiency. They still have great talent on offense, with Young as the guy who makes it all go. Now they have the personnel and attitude to be an above-average defensive team. The Hawks are on the come.

It shouldn’t take long to find out if I’m right about that. The Celtics (11-3) are in town Wednesday. The preseason favorites to win the East have won seven games in a row. The Hawks play host to the Raptors this weekend. They’ll face the Cavaliers, Heat and Sixers through the end of the month. That’s five strong opponents over their next eight games.

The Hawks will have played 22 games after that stretch. More valid conclusions can be drawn from a sample of that size. I’ve seen enough to think the Hawks will come out of that stretch looking good. At the top of the list is Young’s budding partnership with Dejounte Murray.

Only Luka Doncic and James Harden had the ball in their hands more often than Young last season. Murray wasn’t far behind. That dynamic made it fair to wonder whether the duo could make it work as co-lead guards. I’ve never had any doubt that they would adjust. The early results are encouraging for the Hawks.

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Both guards handle the ball significantly less than they did last season. The decline is 22% for Murray and 18% for Young. That’s had no negative impact on their ability to create offense. Young and Murray rank Nos. 1 and 2 among NBA regulars in the percentage of their passes that result in assists, per Second Spectrum.

The Hawks now have two excellent playmakers getting easier shots for everyone. That was a main part of the rationale for acquiring Murray. Another was improving the team’s defense. Murray has delivered in that area, too.

He ranks among the NBA leaders in deflections and steals again. Murray’s on-court/off-court defensive rating ranks best among Hawks rotation players. There’s a lot of noise in that number this early in the season, but Murray has a long track record of good defensive production. Subjectively, Murray’s defensive energy and grit have rubbed off on his teammates, most important on Young.

The Hawks have a good group of role players around Young and Murray. They are at least seven-deep with rotation-quality players. They’re thin at the wing positions, where Justin Holiday and Jalen Johnson have been iffy. But rookie AJ Griffin already is showing promise as a scorer, and Bogdan Bogdanovic will boost the bench when he returns from injury.

Then there is the coming, inevitable improvement of Young’s shooting. He’s averaging 26.9 points per game, but that’s with 31% shooting on 3-pointers and 41% on 2s. In three full seasons since his rookie campaign, Young hasn’t shot worse than 34% on 3s and 49% on 2s. It won’t be long before Young again ranks among the NBA’s more efficient, high-volume scorers.

John Collins also will make more shots eventually. Collins, a career 37% shooter on 3s, is at 24% accuracy this season. Bogdanovic had a career-best year shooting 3s in his first season with Young and made 37% of his tries last season. Better shooting by Young, Collins and Bogdanovic would go a long way toward shoring a big team weakness.

Meantime, the Hawks have been winning with defense. They rank second in effective field-goal percentage allowed. Making it harder for opponents to score has allowed the Hawks to win even when Young isn’t scoring much.

They blew out the Knicks on Nov. 2 despite Young scoring only 17 points on 22 shots. The Knicks scored 99 points, a season low in seven home games. The Hawks handled the Bucks last week as Young sat out with a leg injury. That was Milwaukee’s least efficient scoring game of the season. It wasn’t any easier for the Bucks on Monday in Milwaukee.

Bucks starters Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday sat out that game. Still, the Hawks have dominated the Bucks twice, once on their floor. And the Hawks got full doses of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee’s superstar rested three times in the past five games. The two he played were against the Hawks.

The Bucks are slightly favored over the Celtics to win the East. They have three losses this season. Two are against the Hawks. That doesn’t mean the Hawks are on Milwaukee’s level, but it’s also no small thing. The Hawks started 5-9 last season, with too many disengaged efforts. Now they are 9-5, with three quality victories in the past week.

The Hawks have some holes that won’t be as easy a fix as the poor shooting. They lack size and strength on the frontline, especially when center Clint Capela is on the bench. Frank Kaminsky apparently isn’t part of the solution, so a fix may need to be made via trade. The Hawks essentially gave away center Jock Landale in a cost-cutting move in July, and now he’s playing well for the Suns.

More size is not a pressing matter for the Hawks now. They have a lot of good things going. The improved defense can last because it’s underpinned by Capela’s renewed bounce around the rim and good work on the perimeter by newcomers Murray and Aaron Holiday. Young will break out of his funk and round into All-NBA form.

Before the season, I predicted the Hawks will finish fifth in the East. They are third after 14 games. It’s early, but based on what I’ve seen, it’s possible that I underestimated the Hawks.