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The Next Hawks Coach Will Have to Solve the Trae Young Puzzle

Atlanta fired Lloyd Pierce after injuries caused the team’s playoff push to fizzle out. In the short term, the team needs to get healthy. In the long term, they need to figure out how to build an offense around their star guard.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Lloyd Pierce, like so many coaches, was fired for reasons mostly outside of his control. The Hawks were supposed to make a playoff push after a painful rebuilding process in his first two seasons in charge. But waves of injuries prevented Pierce from ever having a full roster, and Atlanta parted ways with the coach on Monday. Those injuries also prevented him from finding an answer to the dilemma that his replacement, whether it’s interim head coach Nate McMillan or someone Atlanta hires this offseason, will have to deal with: How much can, and should, Trae Young play off the ball?

The Hawks gave Young the keys to the offense from day one. He has been one of the most ball-dominant guards in the NBA over the past three seasons:

Trae Young NBA Ranks

Season Average Time Per Possession Touches Per Game
Season Average Time Per Possession Touches Per Game
2020-21 3 8
2019-20 1 7
2018-19 6 14

Young has put up massive individual numbers as a result, with career averages of 24.1 points and 8.8 assists per game. But none of that has translated to team success. The Hawks were one of the worst teams in the NBA in his first two seasons, and have a 14-20 record with a net rating of minus-0.3 this season.

There’s good and bad that comes with being in total control of the offense. It’s easy for Young to get into a rhythm because he always has the ball, but that also means he doesn’t have anyone to set him up for easier shots when he’s struggling. The most telling statistic, per Synergy Sports, is that only 8 percent of his shots this season have come in catch-and-shoot situations, compared to the 39.2 percent that he shoots off the dribble.

It’s an unusual situation for such a young point guard to be in. Trae came into the league after one season of college, and was immediately one of the NBA’s smallest players at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds. He was thrown into the fire right away. There was no apprenticeship period for him to learn the NBA game and develop physically while playing a smaller role in the offense.

That’s the typical career path for players like him. In his first few seasons, Damian Lillard played a smaller role on a veteran team led by LaMarcus Aldridge. James Harden and Russell Westbrook were forced to share the ball on a superteam in Oklahoma City. Steph Curry has never dominated the ball like Young has because of Golden State’s unique offensive system.

Ironically enough, the one other point guard who was asked to do everything right away is Luka Doncic, whom Young will always be compared to because of their teams’ draft-night trade. Neither has shown much interest in playing off the ball. But it’s also a bit of a chicken and the egg thing. Do they not want to give up the rock because they aren’t comfortable doing so, or because there’s no one on their team whom they trust to take it?

Young has never had much help in Atlanta. The team’s offense has completely fallen apart as soon as he’s come off the floor in each of his first three seasons. That was supposed to change this season following the signings of Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rajon Rondo, and Kris Dunn. Instead, it has been the same story as ever. The Hawks go from an offensive rating of 115.4 with Trae to 101.8 without him. That’s the difference between the no. 7 offense in the NBA and no. 30.

Young’s role is a long-term puzzle for the franchise, but the team’s immediate problem has been injuries. Gallinari has played in 22 of 34 games, Rondo has played in 18, and Bogdanovic, who has been out since early January with an avulsion fracture in his left knee, has played in only nine. Dunn has not played at all while recovering from offseason ankle surgery. The most important injury was to De’Andre Hunter, who hurt his knee on January 29. Hunter had emerged as their best two-way player in his second season, and the Hawks have not been able to replace everything he provided on both ends of the floor. They are 9-9 with Hunter this season and 5-11 without him.

Atlanta could have waited to see what Pierce could do with the entire roster at his disposal, but GM Travis Schlenk felt that it was time for a change. McMillan, a longtime NBA head coach who was Pierce’s lead assistant after spending the last four seasons in Indiana, will walk into a nice situation. He should have more success than his former boss just because he will have a better team to work with.

There are two red flags from this season that may have pushed Atlanta to act now with Pierce. The first is their crunch time performance. The Hawks have the second-worst net rating (minus-21.1 in 63 minutes) in the clutch (the last five minutes of a game with a margin of five points or fewer). They have blown 11 fourth-quarter leads.

The second is the aftermath of a story in The Athletic about an argument in the film room between Young and John Collins. That kind of thing happens all the time in the NBA, but rarely is leaked to the media. It clearly impacted Young, who had one of the worst games of his career in a loss to Charlotte (seven points on 2-of-9 shooting and three assists) after the dispute.

The running theme through both issues is the way Trae dominates the ball. Collins, who turned down an extension for less than the max and will be a restricted free agent this offseason, was frustrated with his lack of opportunities on offense. Despite being on the receiving end of many assists from Young, he wanted the Hawks to play a more free-flowing style that allowed multiple players to control the ball. It’s hard to read Trae’s lack of aggressiveness against the Hornets as anything but a dig at Collins, with him essentially saying, “Look at what happens when I’m in a smaller role on offense.”

But that argument goes the other way when it comes to crunch time. Young is in charge of everything in those moments, and he has not been particularly effective. He’s shooting 38.5 percent from the field and 20 percent from 3 while handing out 13 assists and nine turnovers. It’s hard to point to one reason, especially given the small sample size of only 63 minutes, but it can’t help that defenses can key in on him, knowing that no one else will initiate the offense.

Young will almost certainly get better with time in the fourth quarter. He doesn’t have much experience in big games at the NBA level because the Hawks were so bad in his first two seasons. He’s still five to six years away from his prime. The question for Atlanta is what its offense should look like at that point.

The Hawks already have the pieces in place to be a perennial playoff team. Their top players have been very effective together this season. Young, Collins, Hunter, and Clint Capela have a net rating of plus-12.9 in 204 minutes. Combine those four, none of whom is older than 26, with two promising wings in Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter and Atlanta has one of the best young cores in the league.

But the game is played differently in the playoffs compared to the regular season. In the postseason, defenses will force a ball-dominant point guard to give up the ball. A one-man offense can go only so far. The Hawks are nowhere near ready for that, largely because Young isn’t.

That’s why their next coach is so important. They will have to design an offense that empowers more than one player. More importantly, they will have to get Young to buy in to a more balanced system. Pierce didn’t have much choice but to let his star point guard be the system in Atlanta. Until Young learns to give that up, the Hawks will always have a ceiling.