Is Trae Young’s injury a prelude to what’s next for the Hawks?


“If you chose not to decide you still have made a choice” — Rush

The Atlanta Hawks seem to be the basketball embodiment of this classic song lyric (“Freewill,” 1980), preserved for multiple seasons in the amber of averageness with more or less the same team while stumbling over what direction to pursue next.

I’ll get to this a bit more below, but since replacing the front office in late 2022, it’s staggering how little has changed in Atlanta. The Hawks have been wildly aggressive about extending their own players (an amazing six of their top eight players have signed extensions with the franchise; Jalen Johnson will make it seven this summer) and phenomenally passive about acquiring anyone else’s.

But recent events may push us into pondering a more active offseason a bit earlier than we might have expected, as Trae Young’s hand injury will keep the Hawks’ All-Star sidelined for the foreseeable future. Young will be re-evaluated in four weeks after requiring surgery Tuesday for a torn medial collateral ligament in his left hand; Atlanta will have played 16 games without him by then, and “re-evaluated” doesn’t mean the same thing as “return.”

Thus, this stretch possibly gives us a window into Atlanta’s potential “Young or Murray?” future. With a record of 26-32, no tanking incentive beyond this season because of the picks owed to San Antonio in a reckless 2022 trade for Dejounte Murray (perhaps the cause of their gun-shy approach since) and a cap situation that likely will require some gymnastics over the next two years, the Hawks can’t just sit still.

Um … right?

Actually, don’t put it past them.  The defining element of Atlanta’s season has been the total inability to complete a transaction of any kind. While the Hawks were in the midst of not trading Murray at the trade deadline, for instance, they also failed to complete any other deals, including minor ones that might have improved a clearly deficient bench. While we don’t have a wire tap into the front office — it takes two to tango, and maybe they just had a bunch of lame offers — it’s the continuation of a wider trend.

Since ending our long national nightmare by finally trading John Collins on June 26, the Hawks have not engaged a single meaningful transaction. The only 15-man roster moves they’ve made were signing draft picks Kobe Bufkin and Mouhamed Gueye, signing Wesley Matthews to a minimum contract and netting an extra second-round pick in two separate salary-dump trades involving TyTy Washington and Usman Garuba. They did not use their nontaxpayer midlevel exception nor their biannual exception despite having room below the apron to use both.

Atlanta returned 11 of the same 15 roster players from last season, and the top eight players in the rotation are the same except for Johnson replacing Collins. Unbelievably in the current NBA, the Hawks have played the entire season with the same 15-man roster and two of the same three two-ways; the team’s only transaction since opening day has been to replace Miles Norris with Vit Krejčí as the third two-way. Even that felt more like a non-move: Krejčí was on the team last season, although you probably didn’t notice, as he only played 165 minutes.

So paralyzed by inaction are the Hawks that, despite multiple injuries and a glaring need for another center, they have spent the last two weeks with an ineligible player on their roster without replacing him. Guard Trent Forrest has been active for the maximum 50 games under his two-way contract yet has neither been signed to the active roster nor released to make way for another two-way player.

I should emphasize that this was not a resource or tax issue. The Hawks are $10 million from the luxury tax line and have the league’s largest active trade exception ($23 million) from the Collins deal. Despite that, they did not use any exception money this offseason and opted to ride with Garrison Mathews and Wesley Matthews as their ninth and 10th players in the full-strength rotation instead. Yes, one can argue there were hopes second-year pro AJ Griffin would take those minutes, but Quin Snyder soured on him from almost the second Snyder parachuted in midseason last year, and Griffin has done little on the court that might have changed his mind.

Even as the disappointing season has worn on, there have been no moves. None. Mathews and Bruno Fernando showed up in the Justin Holiday salary dump at the 2023 trade deadline that got the Hawks under the luxury tax line; both had non-guaranteed contracts, but the Hawks just kind of never got around to replacing them. Now, with Young and Onyeka Okongwu injured, they’re guys the Hawks are counting on. Matthews and Mills are 37 and 35, respectively, and are pretty clearly cooked, but the Hawks have given no sign that they’re looking to replace either in the buyout market.

The Hawks, as noted above, have extended the contracts of every key player except Saddiq Bey (acquired for a staggering seven second-round draft picks at the 2023 trade deadline, once you include the cost of the Holiday trade to get back below the luxury tax line, in the franchise’s last significant acquisition), and that does likely force their hand into eventually making some moves. Between the new collective bargaining agreement, ownership’s aversion to paying the luxury tax and the team itself wallowing in mediocrity, hard choices seem just around the corner.

Since we can’t rule this out, the default non-strategy of just using their draft picks, letting the three free agents (Bey, Mills and Matthews) walk and signing no other players would put Atlanta right at the projected tax line. However, actually doing something, literally anything, would put them over without a corresponding cut someplace else.

This takes us back to the current roster, lumbering along in 10th place in the East and now without its All-Star guard. While a “soft tank” into a higher lottery pick wouldn’t be the worst long-term outcome, this team was built with much higher aspirations. Additionally, Atlanta needs to be competitive in the next three seasons when its draft picks are committed to the Spurs.

Thus, Young’s injury is an opportunity for a sliding doors moment. Atlanta knows what its team looks like without Murray, but it has a lot less information about the other option. That’s about to change: There’s a good chance we’ll have a 20-game sample or so to evaluate the Hawks sans Young, and that’s the first time in half a decade we could say such a thing. Despite his diminutive size, the 6-foot-1 Young has been very durable, missing only 36 of his first 440 games as a Hawk before this injury.

The timing couldn’t be more notable. Young has been the defining player of the last six seasons of Hawks basketball, for better and worse. He is one of the most brilliant pick-and-roll operators in league annals, with deep shooting range, elite touch on full-speed floaters and exquisite timing on lobs to rim runners. He also dominates the ball to an uncomfortable extent, displays little in the way of leadership and is one of the worst defensive players in captivity (his visibly trying harder on that end this season only partially fixed that) on a team that needed consecutive home wins this week to catapult from 30th in defensive efficiency all the way to 29th.

The full package is something most teams would happily pay for, which is why Young makes $40 million this season and has been to three All-Star Games, but there are levels to this. Before the latest round of non-transactions at the deadline, Atlanta spent much of this wasted season waffling over whether to trade Murray to clear out an obvious overlap of money and talent in the backcourt. Murray can play the wing, but his best position is the one already manned by Young. Additionally, those two often shove ace sixth man Bogdan Bogdanović into suboptimal roles, especially on defense.


Atlanta’s Dejounte Murray evades former Hawk John Collins for a layup attempt Tuesday in Utah. (Brett Davis / USA Today)

We also have mounting evidence that the current pieces don’t fit especially well. I ragged on the depth, but Atlanta’s three most commonly used five-man lineups, all of which have a Young-Murray-Clint Capela foundation, have been outscored by 106 points in just 638 minutes, for a yikes minus-8.0 per 48 point differential. Young-Murray combos of any stripe are at minus-6.0 points per 100 possessions and getting torched for a 120.7 defensive rating, according to NBA.com, a figure that is awful even relative to other Hawks lineups. In 2022-23, the same combo was neutral, outscoring opponents by 0.3 per 100; suffice to say they hoped for more impact than this when they dealt for Murray.

However, Murray’s extension has him signed at reasonable money for the next four seasons, and with him at the point, the offense no longer craters in the non-Young minutes. Meanwhile, Young is entering the timeframe in his contract where a frustrated player might push for relocation (he can become an unrestricted free agent in 2026). On the flip side, Young could also sign an extension in August to keep him eating peaches through 2028, although it seems more likely he’d want to see if he can make All-NBA in 2024-25 and qualify for a much bigger bag (35 percent of the cap, plus an extra year) on a designated veteran extension in the 2025 offseason.

Thus, the question to at least ponder in Atlanta for the next 20 games: Is it possible the Hawks might end up with a better team, once we include salary considerations and trade returns, in the wake of a Young trade, even if Murray is not the better player? Or is the drop-off offensively with Murray as the leading man just too severe?

Underscoring this question is the fact that Young isn’t for everyone; teams that already have ball-dominant guards won’t be pursuing him, while some contenders may see him as too vulnerable on defense to justify an all-in plunge for his offensive superpowers.

Ironically, the window of opportunity that appears to be opening is one with the team the Hawks almost sent Murray to: the Lakers. We already have a pretty good idea of what the contours of a Murray trade might look like, but this summer would also lend a perfect storm of opportunity for a Hawks-Lakers accord on Young.

Obviously, the biggest issue is the basketball fit in Los Angeles. The Lakers are desperate for shooting (28th in 3-point frequency), and one area Young has shown real progress this year is taking catch-and-shoot 3s rather than needing to dribble into them; he’s taking 2.1 catch-and-shoot 3s per game, basically doubling his rate of the previous two seasons.

The Lakers also need another perimeter creator to take some of the strain off 39-year-old LeBron James, especially during the regular season. James, for his part, has shown he’s more than willing to share the load with the likes of D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves; surely he’d be happy to let Trae cook for 37 minutes on a January back-to-back in Portland.

Defensively, meanwhile, Young’s greatest weakness is offset by the elite rim protection of Anthony Davis; as much as Capela had Young’s back during the Hawks’ best moments, Davis is at another level entirely. It goes without saying that Davis also would be an elite rim runner and alley-oop threat in the pick-and-roll with Young.

Additionally, the timing lines up on draft capital. After the season, the Lakers would have three first-round picks available to send to Atlanta in a deal, including unprotected firsts in 2029 and 2031 (the other pick would likely be at this year’s draft, assuming New Orleans defers its right to an unprotected Lakers pick to 2025). That would make it possible for the Hawks to offset the picks lost in the Murray trade.

Matching salary combinations also work; they likely involve the Hawks taking back some unwelcome dollars and a repeat of the “Reaves-or-Russell” haggling that torpedoed the Murray talks in February, but it’s not an intractable problem. Rui Hachimura, Reaves and Gabe Vincent gets this to the red zone on salary match; all that’s left is negotiating on adding small contracts as each team fights to stay below the tax apron.

Normally taking on money with years left would be unpalatable in a swap like this, but remember that the Hawks wouldn’t be trading to tank; they owe unprotected firsts to the Spurs in 2025 and 2027 and a swap in 2026. (Seriously, great trade, guys.) Atlanta would get back another legit player in Reaves, a big wing in Hachimura to replace the disappointing Bey and still likely land just below the tax line. If they execute the trade just after the first round of the draft ends on the night of June 26, the Hawks could also recycle the $23 million Collins exception into a slightly bigger one for Young (Reaves would also have to accept a haircut on his trade kicker to fit this).

Finally, there’s the Klutch factor. Young is signed with the agency helmed by James’ longtime pal Rich Paul, and the Klutch-to-Lakers pipeline has been a notable feature of the Laker landscape since James signed there in 2018. (Murray, I should note, also is a Klutch client.)

Of course, I need to emphasize that I’m getting waaaaay ahead of myself. The Hawks have a third of a season left to play, and that likely will show some cards regarding how competitive the team could realistically be in any post-Young future. (One helpful side effect: Actual minutes for rookie first-rounder Bufkin.)

Atlanta could very well decide to move Murray this summer and keep rolling with Young, or continue indefinitely along its current path of inaction. But in the franchise-level big picture, Young’s injury is by far the most interesting thing to happen in a mostly forgettable season. How the Hawks fare without him over the next month or so seems likely to have major implications for what could be a very eventful summer in Atlanta … or not.

(Top photo of Trae Young and Austin Reaves: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)





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