The Hawks aren’t good, so Dejounte Murray must go

Struggles aren’t his fault, but Murray has most trade value
Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray (5) attempts a shot against Orlando Magic guard Jalen Suggs (4) during the second half at State Farm Arena, Wednesday, January 17, 2024, in Atlanta. The Hawks won 106-104. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray (5) attempts a shot against Orlando Magic guard Jalen Suggs (4) during the second half at State Farm Arena, Wednesday, January 17, 2024, in Atlanta. The Hawks won 106-104. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

It turns out I gave the Hawks too much credit.

In early December, I opined that they are stuck in the middle. The Hawks aren’t even middling anymore. If a so-called soft roster reset was needed then, then it’s time for the Hawks to consider more drastic moves before the Feb. 8 trade deadline if they are serious about winning.

The Hawks just aren’t a good team. The decision-makers seem to realize it. Starting guard Dejounte Murray has been the subject of a flurry of trade rumors. Apparently, general manager Landry Fields and others in the front office with juice aren’t talking themselves into believing a late-season surge is coming for the Hawks. That happened in 2021 and 2022, but it’s not happening now.

Don’t be fooled by the back-to-back victories against the Spurs and Magic at State Farm Arena. The Hawks (17-23) still stand 10th in the Eastern Conference, with nearly half the season played. They showed the same weaknesses in those wins as they have in so many losses. And those victories came after the Hawks suffered awful home losses on consecutive nights against the Pacers (they set a franchise record for field-goal percentage) and Wizards (they are on pace for one of the worst 82-game records in NBA history).

The Magic had a chance to beat the Hawks despite missing 19 of 26 open 3-pointers through three quarters (per NBA tracking data). Murray won it at the buzzer with a great shot by an instinctive scorer. Hawks coach Quin Snyder said the interplay between Murray and Trae Young at winning time was more significant.

“The last five minutes those two guys were playing pick and roll, (and) we were able to manufacture some good shots,” Snyder said.

That kind of late-game synergy hasn’t happened nearly often enough since the Hawks traded for Murray in summer 2022. Murray and Young have played 111 games together (117 including postseason) for two coaches. There’s enough evidence to determine that the pairing isn’t working. I thought it would, but it’s just not happening.

The Hawks have rightly decided that Murray is the more expendable player of the pair. They won’t get back close to what they gave away to acquire him from the Spurs: three first-round draft picks (2023, ‘25, ‘27) plus a pick swap option (2026). But the Hawks can get valuable assets in return for Murray thanks to the team-friendly deal he signed last summer.

Murray is set to make $26.8 million per year from 2024-25 through 2026-27. That’s a relative bargain for a starting-caliber guard who scores, passes and defends. Several teams reportedly are interested in trading for Murray. The Hawks have a chance to cut their losses and start reconstructing the roster.

They need better defenders most of all. They also need playmakers with size, but they can’t afford to fill that hole while taking back more subpar defenders. The Hawks can win shootouts when their shots are falling, but lose games that require more grit. The Hawks are 15-5 when they score at least 120 points and 2-18 when they don’t reach that mark.

The Hawks aren’t built for defense. The Magic are. They were 21-51 in 2020-21, when the Hawks won 41 games and went to the East finals. The Magic (22-19) have surpassed the Hawks by assembling a team of good defenders around big man Paolo Banchero, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 draft.

“They can throw a lot of different guys at you with different size, different strengths and speed,” Young said. “Some guys are smaller, stronger and faster. Some guys are taller and have more length.”

The Hawks don’t have those options. Their opponents regularly find easy access to the paint. Per Cleaning the Glass, only one team allows a higher rate of opponent shots at the rim. The Hawks lack defensive awareness. They frequently lose track of players cutting to the basket, and only one team allows a higher rate of scoring chances in transition after live rebounds.

The Hawks have yet to solve the problem of building at least an average defensive team around Young. His effort is better, but Young’s size always will be a limiting factor. Murray is slightly built, too. Young needs a bigger backcourt partner. The Hawks need more big, long and versatile defenders all around because Jalen Johnson currently is the only rotation player who fits that bill.

The Hawks acquired De’Andre Hunter in the draft to be a shutdown wing defender. He’s fallen well short of that status because of a lack of intensity, consistency and availability (Hunter is on the injured list again). The 2020-21 Hawks were an average defensive team largely because center Clint Capela was a great backstop. He’s not that guy anymore in his 10th NBA season.

The Hawks will have to part with Murray to fix their roster issues. It’s not his fault that the trade hasn’t worked out as expected. Murray is who’s he always been: a ball-dominant, high-volume scorer in the midrange with playmaking ability. Murray’s defense hasn’t been as good as advertised, but he’s solid on most nights.

The Hawks erred by not following the Murray trade with another major deal. Instead, they dumped starting power forward John Collins to Utah last summer for next-to-nothing. As part of that trade, the Hawks got a $23 million trade exception that expires June 26. That’s essentially a credit that allows the Hawks to acquire a player (or players) without sending out salary.

Will they use all or most of that trade exception? I wouldn’t count on it. The team’s payroll is nearly $10 million below the luxury-tax threshold. Meanwhile, marginal veteran players Wes Matthews and Garrison Mathews are playing significant minutes.

The Hawks didn’t go all-in after they got Murray. Now it appears the experiment is nearing its end. The Hawks were no better with Murray last season than they were without him. They’ve since gone from middling to something less. At least the front office sees it.

Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray (5) walks off of the court with Atlanta Hawks forward Saddiq Bey (41) and Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela (15) after Murray made the game-winning two-point basket as time expires during the fourth quarter against the Orlando Magic at State Farm Arena, Wednesday, January 17, 2024, in Atlanta. The Hawks won 106-104. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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