The Hawks May Have Found the Right Balance

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If Nate McMillan were to commission the basketball gods to hand-craft a test for the Atlanta Hawks, it would probably look a lot like the Toronto Raptors, who have the long limbs to cut off Trae Young and the pluck to attack their opponent in waves. The Hawks, happy to surrender to the first sign of resistance last season, hung on through multiple runs in Saturday’s game against the Raptors, setting the table for the most spectacular play of their young season.

Tied in overtime, Dejounte Murray caught an inbounds pass and found a sprinting Young, who threw a feather-soft 45-foot rainbow lob to rookie AJ Griffin for the game-winner at the buzzer. In 3.8 seconds, the Hawks charted all 94 feet of the court.

“We just kept playing, kept fighting, and didn’t stop playing,” Young said after the win. “It’s a long game. Teams are gonna go on a run. They went on a run, we went on a run. You can’t stop at any time.”

Failure, it turns out, is a better teacher than success. Gutsy comebacks fueled the Hawks’ run to the 2021 Eastern Conference finals, but gave them the false impression that talent alone would carry them again. The next season, rotations were sluggish. Discipline disappeared. Atlanta’s defensive rating fell to 26th. The Hawks started the season 4-9 and eventually lost in five games in the first round of the playoffs.

But now the Hawks are 10-7 in 2022-23, off to their best start in the Young era. Their offense sputtered early, but they’ve also played stiff competition, losing to the red-hot Celtics and and winning two of three against Milwaukee. The Hawks have also played the Pelicans and Jazz, and the Sixers twice. According to Tankathon, they now have the second-easiest remaining schedule in the league.

This season has been a total reversal of the last one, starting with an offseason that rebalanced a roster tilted toward offense. Around this time last year, Hawks president Travis Schlenk described Cam Reddish, the no. 10 pick in 2019, as the perfect basketball player. “If you’re asked, ‘What do you want an NBA player to look like?’ It’s Cam Reddish. Six-foot-nine, long, athletic, and he’s got a ton of skill,” he told me in an interview last year. Schlenk, whom Atlanta hired from the Warriors front office, with designs on replicating the blueprint that rode small ball to multiple championships, had spent most of the Hawks’ draft capital on exactly this kind of player. But that formula needed tinkering.

Sure, the Hawks had an interchangeable set of forwards with versatile skill sets: Kevin Heurter and Bogdan Bogdanovic, 3-point marksmen who can pass the ball across the court like a Frisbee; Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, bulky wings drafted in the 2019 lottery, with varying ability to put the ball on the floor and two-way potential. They could all shoot, handle the ball, make plays, and move laterally on defense to varying degrees, but together they were redundant, wanting the same shots in the same places, while lacking in the rebounding and defense departments. The Warriors didn’t build the NBA’s most successful small-ball apparatus by leaning into shooting and shot creation at the expense of defense. The key was Draymond Green, a 6-foot-6 forward who could rebound like a 7-footer and push the ball ahead like a guard.

The Hawks traded Reddish and Heurter, and used the salary of Danilo Gallinari, an aging offense-first forward, along with a controversial boatload of draft picks, to trade for Murray. Like the Transformers uniting into Optimus Prime, that logjam of wings has been transformed into one 6-foot-10, multivariate playmaking package. Like Heurter and Bogdanovic (currently sidelined indefinitely with a knee injury), Murray can facilitate. He likes the midrange as much as Reddish, but shoots at a searing 44 percent clip from there. He can post up like Hunter, but with an array of fakes and drives that make him one of the most slippery paint covers and pick-and-roll practitioners in the NBA.

Murray is a star who also does role player things, ranking in the 100th percentile for combo guards in rebounding opponent misses. His 6-10 wingspan helps put his steal rate in the 92nd percentile for combo guards, while offsetting Young’s lack of size. In fairness to Young, he put on 10 pounds this summer, and is now showing heretofore unseen fight and communication in Atlanta’s switch-heavy schemes. With John Collins and Clint Capela healthy, the Hawks’ starting lineup finally has four plus-defenders around Young.

Murray has also helped organize Atlanta’s shot diet. Last season, seven Hawks players had usage rates between 16.9 and 22. Murray’s arrival has created a clearer hierarchy. Everything flows from Young and Murray, two superstar hubs at the guard position, like a Bizarro Eastern Conference version of the Booker-Paul Suns. Like Mikal Bridges, Hunter has been the beneficiary of the Hawks’ perimeter-oriented system, leading the NBA in spot-up attempts and running the occasional pick-and-roll.

There have been tradeoffs: While Murray and Young have an easy symbiosis on defense, on offense they’re like an Orange County wife “married” to her aging oil baron husband, playing “together” in that they exist in the same space—which is a lot more cramped since the roster reshuffle also meant the exit of three of Atlanta’s best shooters. Young’s sub-40-percent shooting clip could be an early-season blip, or it could portend season-long spacing issues. Murray, a career 32.7 percent shooter from 3, is hoisting a career-high 5.5 attempts from 3. The continued development of Griffin, a stand-out rookie, will help their spacing. So could the return of Bogdanovic.

And then there’s the even more curious case of Collins, scoring 13 points per game, his lowest average since his rookie season. To harken back to the Suns metaphor, if Hunter is like Bridges, Collins is like Deandre Ayton, the screening Swiss Army knife whose skill set has been marginalized because of the system.

Hypothetically, Collins’s athleticism and touch should fit neatly around Murray and Young. But a healthy Capela and Onyeka Okongwu’s continued development have pushed Collins farther from the paint. Collins is averaging 2.6 paint touches per game, a career low by far. This is the worst possible time for him to be shooting a career-low 27 percent from 3, coming off a broken finger that still swells up after practice, according to an interview with Jeff Schultz of The Athletic.

In time-honored tradition, Collins remains the subject of trade rumors. The Hawks, according to Shams Charania, have opened up preliminary discussions around Collins. The Jazz and Suns have been reported as suitors.

The argument for both sides to part ways is this: Collins could reap more of his potential if he were on a team that featured him, and conversely, he falls a touch short of fulfilling the role the Hawks have asked him to play. But these wrinkles, alongside Atlanta’s offensive woes, feel solvable. Collins found his range in a loss to the Cavs on Monday, and he’s playing some of the best defense of his career by switching on perimeter players and setting the most effective screens on the roster, according to NBA University.

The partnership between Atlanta and Collins remains symbiotic, with enough signs of potential improvement that you have to wonder why his eventual departure from Atlanta seems imminent, as Marc Stein reported on his Substack on Sunday. Stein also noted that the Hawks nearly dealt him to Sacramento in June, in a package centered on 3-and-D wing and former Warrior Harrison Barnes. Now, Collins is being linked in rumored deals for Cam Johnson, another multifaceted wing who would fit well into Atlanta’s offense.

But the Suns, as opposed to the Warriors, might be a more instructive blueprint for Atlanta. Continuity of skill is useful, allowing role players to seamlessly integrate themselves into actions designed for stars, but Milwaukee punished Phoenix’s sameness on offense in the 2021 Finals, allowing them to run the same perimeter-oriented pick-and-rolls and take the same inefficient midrange jumpers all series. The Bucks’ strategy was similar against the Hawks in those playoffs, but Young was simply more effective, and Collins’s presence as a rebounder and Giannis defender was a factor. In fact, Phoenix shored up their depth at the big man position that summer, because the pressure of being the primary line of defense on Giannis and Brook Lopez put Ayton in constant foul trouble. In an increasingly physical Eastern Conference, it might make sense to keep Collins and search for creative ways to maximize him. Isn’t the point of being versatile, after all, to be flexible?

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