The Atlanta Hawks have gained talent but kept the same problems

Three and a half months after turning over half their roster in a blockbuster trade for Dejounte Murray, the Atlanta Hawks and Trae Young changed little about their offensive approach on opening night. If Atlanta is to take the next step in its quest toward contention, that will have to change.

Seconds into their season-opening game against the Houston Rockets, the Atlanta Hawks‘ prized offseason acquisition Dejounte Murray collected a pass near midcourt and went to work. Fresh off a campaign with the San Antonio Spurs that saw the sixth-year pro earn his first All-Star selection, the 6-foot-4 point guard accelerated towards a popping Clint Capela, who was positioning himself along the arc to set a hard screen on a backtracking Kevin Porter Jr.

Once clear of the pick and a full step ahead of the trailing Porter, Murray calmly slithered his way around the showing Burno Fernando and away from the helping Jalen Green into the midrange, pulling up and nailing the type of 19-footer that he feasted on last season as he put up a 21/ 9/ 8 slash line.

One possession later, Murray once again was sparking the Hawks into their offensive set, collecting a defensive rebound on a sprint toward midcourt following an errant layup attempt from Green. Speeding his way into the paint, Murray found his lane toward the rim obstructed by a waiting Fernando, forcing the guard to pull up his dribble to fire a backward pass toward John Collins above the arc.

With 15 seconds still left on the clock, the big man reset the possession with a quick bounce pass to Trae Young near the logo, yet, rather than get to work against the rising Green, Young fired one of his patented half-court treys that got nothing but air.

Less than 60 seconds into a season that will define this era of Hawks basketball, Young and Murray opened the proceedings with the types of moves and shots that they’ve grown accustomed to throughout their respective NBA careers.

While the duo put together impressive stat lines – combining for 43 points, 24 assists (!), eight rebounds, and six steals on 15-for-41 shooting from the field – in an Atlanta victory, the two also offered little indication of any plan to evolve their games to elevate one another or their squad.

The Atlanta Hawks’ offense is effective but predictable

Initially conceived as a team built to maximize Trae Young’s prodigious shooting and passing ability, Atlanta had, over the course of Young’s career, manifested this through a spread pick-and-roll offense that relied on the young guard as the engine, transmission, and whatever other internal combustion mechanism you can think of.

Interestingly, and as has been remarked on before, though Young initially garnered comparisons to Steph Curry thanks to his diminutive frame and willingness to shoot from deep, Trae has always been more similar to James Harden than the Warriors star.

The rest of the Hawks’ roster has, over the years, largely followed their franchise guard’s lead in producing points out of the pick-and-roll.

Whereas Golden State is a hurricane of constant motion and backdoor cuts, swirling around the eye of the storm that is Curry, Atlanta featured off-ball cuts on less than 7% of their possessions in 2021-2022, according to Synergy Sports.

Instead, the Hawks leaned on Young to generate much of their offensive production with the ball – accruing the fourth-highest usage rate among players in the NBA last year who appeared in at least 50 games – raking in an identical (!!) .959 points per possession off of picks and out of isolations, per Synergy.

Even when Young was forced to give up the ball by opposing defenses, Atlanta primarily settled for outside shots, with 22% of their possessions ending in spot-ups.

Against the Miami Heat in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, this type of one-dimensional offensive approach was exposed as Atlanta fell with a whimper in five games.

Check out this clip from Game 5 of that series as an example of how effectively Miami neutered the Hawks’ plan of attack.

Not only does Victor Oladipo anticipate the initial screen coming from Capela on the handoff to Young, smartly rising towards the logo and Young to avoid the contact, but the Heat forward’s perfect positioning, nimble feet, and outstretched arms deny the ball-handler the opportunity to blow by him on his way to the rim.

Deterred from going right, Trae quickly pivoted back toward his left, hoping once again to use the Capela screen to gain separation from the trailing Oladipo, only to find Bam Adebayo immediately switching assignments and tagging him before he could even penetrate the arc.

With both lanes towards the interior closed off and time quickly running down, Young was left with few options to generate a quality look for the trailing Hawks. Even the idea of taking the larger Adebayo off the dribble – itself a dubious proposition – was quickly snuffed out as the quicker Gabe Vincent came flying in to switch onto Young, forcing the Hawks’ leading man to heave a 31-foot jump shot that harmlessly clanged off the front of the rim.

For anyone doing an autopsy on why the Atlanta offense sputtered so severely in the postseason, the Heat’s performance on that play – in which, in a span of six seconds, they threw three defenders onto Young, fought off two screens, and allowed one low percentage shot attempt – was a perfect encapsulation.

To be clear, that isn’t to dismiss how effective the Hawks offense could be, and largely was during the regular season – ranking ninth in the league in effective field goal percentage, according to Cleaning the Glass – but in a playoff series against an upper-tier opponent given the time to game plan against them, Atlanta clearly had room for improvement.

This realization led President of Basketball Operations Travis Schlenk to turnover eight of their 15 roster spots during the offseason – not to mention part with three draft picks and agree to another swap – in order to acquire Murray from the Spurs in July.

Yet, watching Atlanta work Wednesday night, it was hard not to feel as though the Hawks were simply running the same playbook as years past, with Murray as a (significantly) more talented stand-in for Kevin Huerter.

This sequence, in particular, stood out to me.

Clinging to a five-point lead following a run by Houston midway through the fourth, Young began the set looking to burn Porter off the dribble as Collins rose above the key to set a pick. Anticipating the guard’s aggressiveness off the dribble, the Rockets’ Jabari Smith Jr. switched his assignment and used his long reach to shade in front of the driving guard, slowing his progress.

Having been burned by Collins throughout the game, Houston’s defenders were conscious enough to smother the rolling big man, as Smith not only kept part of his body between Young and Collins but Josh Christopher rose from the post to deny the offense a pocket to get Collins the ball in.

Pause the play at this point, and you’ll notice how the Rockets have flooded the strong side of the court with defenders, essentially leaving Murray to his own devices along the sideline.

For all his virtues as a player, the former Spurs’ 33% mark from deep over his career appears to be less the result of lousy shooting luck and more in line with his actual shooting prowess (or lack thereof) when considering his career 51% true shooting percentage. That the Rockets then would choose to abandon him to flood the paint is hardly surprising.

What was surprising was how the rest of the sequence played out.

Seeing his backcourt mate adrift in the corner, Young lofted a pass toward Murray as the Houston defense scrambled to recover. Just as aware of his own shooting issues as the Rockets, Murray hesitated rather than firing a shot as Christopher recovered onto him and instead chose a drop-pass towards Collins in the post.

While Collins looked to add to an already impressive box score on the night, Young drifted out of the play towards midcourt, leaving the frame and essentially allowing Houston a free safety in Porter stationed at the free-throw line.

Ultimately, and perhaps ironically, the play would end with something of a highlight, as Collins was stifled in the post and bailed out only by a fadeaway three from Murray that beat the buzzer.

However, though the result of the play may have been positive, the process by which Atlanta generated it was telling in showcasing the relative limitations of each of their stars.

For Murray, the willingness of opposing defenses to send help off of him means that the former Washington Huskie standout will eventually have to hit some outside shots to alter the way teams approach him, while Young must resist the urge to check out on plays in which he does not have the ball. For the Hawks to contend, their two stars will have to find ways to make each other better regardless of who has the ball, lest they become bystanders while awaiting their turn to take the wheel.

That isn’t to say that Atlanta is doomed without some sort of reinvention from one of its stars.

By simply being present on the roster, Murray should almost singlehandedly prevent the Hawks from once again being a dumpster fire when Young sits – Atlanta carried an unsightly -28.6 point differential per 100 possessions whenever their point guard was off the floor last year, per CTG.

Combined with his defensive versatility in the backcourt – highlighted for Hawks fans with a superb steal on Jalen Green moments after his dagger three that essentially sealed the victory – and the Hawks should be able to build on their 41-win total from last season to avoid the play-in, on the back of Murray’s addition alone.

Still, for a franchise dreaming of another deep postseason run in a loaded Eastern Conference, it’s clear that Atlanta’s roster must find a way to become greater than the sum of their individual parts if they are to contend with the Bucks, Celtics, and Sixers.

While they may be more talented than their previous iterations, the 2022-2023 Atlanta Hawks didn’t use opening night to prove that they are any closer to making that a reality.