Trae Young-less Hawks limp to finish of lost season

Credit the Hawks for hanging in there without Trae Young.

They entered this weekend with a 4.5-game lead on the Nets for the final postseason play-in spot. The Hawks led the Nets by 2.5 games when Young hurt his hand Feb. 23. There’s still a chance the Hawks will be in position to play their way into the postseason when Young returns in three weeks or so.

If that ends up being the case, then Young should play. The Hawks ought to do everything they can to make a push for the postseason. But we’ve reached the point where none of that is going to make much difference in the big picture. This is a lost season for the Hawks.

They weren’t good when they were healthy. The Hawks have stood 10th or worse in the Eastern Conference since Dec. 2. Now they are a hobbled team that’s hoping to sneak into the play-in tournament.

If the Hawks pull that off against a tough closing stretch, then making the real postseason would require two road wins against teams ahead of them in the standings. That’s a lot to ask from the Hawks when injuries are thinning a roster that wasn’t deep to begin with. The list is a lot longer than Young and starting forward Jalen Johnson, who just returned after a three-game absence.

Saddiq Bey’s gritty play had helped keep the Hawks afloat. Then he sustained a torn ACL on Sunday. Center Onyeka Okongwu has missed three weeks. Johnson was finding his rhythm again when he hurt his ankle. The one potential silver lining of injuries to the veterans hasn’t materialized because young players also are hurt.

Rookie guard Kobe Bulfkin, a first-round draft pick, is out with a toe injury. He’s played only 74 minutes in non-garbage time (per Cleaning the Glass). Rookies Seth Lundy (back) and Mouhamed Gueye (arm) are out, too. They’ve played zero meaningful minutes for the Hawks.

The Hawks have done as much as can be expected without Young and the other rotation players. They are 5-4 without him (not counting the game late Friday at Utah). The defense has improved. The Hawks ranked 27th in defensive efficiency before Young was injured. They ranked sixth defensively over the nine games without Young before Friday.

That’s a big difference. But context reveals it’s not a true representation of how good the Hawks are on defense without Young, and not just because of the small sample size.

Nearly every opponent they faced during that stretch struggles to score against any team. Five of the games were against teams ranked among the bottom 10 in offensive efficiency. Three opponents were missing key scorers: Paolo Banchero (Magic), Donavan Mitchell (Cavaliers) and Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle (Knicks).

The Hawks are better on defense without Young, even if not by as much as that nine-game stretch suggests. He has the worst defensive rating among Hawks regulars (difference in points per possession allowed on court versus off). The Hawks haven’t been so bad on defense with Young on the court since his rookie season. I think roster construction explains some of that regression, but Young must own his part.

However, Young’s defensive limitations must always be viewed in balance with his unique offensive talents. See how the Hawks have labored to score since he’s been out. The Nets, a below-average defensive team, held the Hawks to a total of 199 points in back-to-back victories. The Hawks couldn’t score efficiently against the Magic and Trail Blazers, two bottom-tier defensive teams.

Dejounte Murray has done what he can to pick up the offensive slack left with Young out. He’s averaged 25.9 points and 8.1 assists as the lead guard. But Murray’s hunt-and-shoot midrange game works better when he’s the second option. His score-first instincts aren’t as conducive to winning when the offense flows through him more frequently.

Young’s specialty is scoring at a high rate while also getting his teammates high-quality shots. That’s why the Hawks are a better team with Young leading a modest group of teammates than they are with Murray doing the same. The Hawks became an elite offensive team once they put competent veterans who can shoot around Young.

That’s why I still believe the Hawks should trade Murray and get back big wings and forwards who can form a better defensive nucleus with Young. That’s easier to do than dealing Young and trying to find another player with his offensive gifts.

In the meantime, the Hawks will try to win enough games with Young out so that there will be meaningful games to play when he returns. Young helped the Hawks win at Miami in a play-in game last year. Then he stole Game 5 at Boston in the first round before the Hawks lost in six.

Making the play-in again will be tough. The Hawks finish their West trip with three star-studded playoff contenders: Clippers, Lakers and the Suns. After the trip, the Hawks will play championship contenders in five of their final 13 games: versus the Celtics (twice), versus the Bucks, at the Nuggets and at the Timberwolves.

The Hawks weren’t meeting modest expectations when Young was available. Oddsmakers set over/under win total for the season at 42.5 games. The Hawks were on pace for a 35-47 record before Young’s injury. Healthy or not, the Hawks have been barely worthy of a play-in spot.

Maybe the Hawks hang on to earn a play-in bid and then Young carries them to the postseason again. The reward likely would be a first-round series against the Celtics, who are even better than last season. Another beatdown from Boston is the best-case scenario for the Hawks in this lost season.