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The Hawks Make a Big Bet That Dejounte Murray Can Put Them Back in the Title Mix

After a disappointing follow-up to its surprise run to the East finals, Atlanta agreed to send a robust package to the Spurs in the hopes that Murray can be the perfect complement to Trae Young

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Atlanta Hawks didn’t just take a step backward in the 2021-22 season; they tumbled head over heels after their surprise run to the conference finals, finishing the regular season as the East’s no. 9 seed before sneaking past an injured Cavaliers team to reach the playoffs. The defense was disastrous, many of the role players stalled, and all of the momentum from their 2020-21 playoff triumphs dissipated.

But Hawks brass evidently doesn’t think the highs of the ’20-21 run were a fluke. In this offseason’s biggest trade so far, Atlanta reportedly agreed Wednesday to trade Danilo Gallinari, three first-round picks, and a future pick swap to the Spurs for guard Dejounte Murray. It’s a confident—and risky—win-now move for a franchise still searching for its first Finals trip since it played in St. Louis more than 60 years ago.

Murray, to start, is an excellent young player, and perhaps an even better fit next to Atlanta’s incumbent All-Star guard, Trae Young. Murray has boosted his scoring average every season of his career, from a meager 3.4 points per game as a rookie all the way to 21.1 last season, and developed into an impressive all-around contributor along the way.

He was one of just two players in 2021-22, along with Luka Doncic, to average at least eight rebounds and eight assists per game. And he offers legitimate two-way value, too, as a former All-Defensive Team honoree and last season’s steals champion, with 2.0 thefts per game. By estimated plus-minus, one of the best public advanced stats, Murray rated 20th in the league in overall value.

Murray looks like an inversion of Young, his new backcourt partner. Both players ranked in the top five in the league in assists per game last season, but they otherwise dovetail with completely different, yet complementary, skill sets: Young is a big-time scorer (28.4 points per game last season) with deep shooting range but a tiny frame and immense defensive deficiencies, while Murray is a sturdy defender with a 6-foot-10 wingspan whose shooting inconsistencies (only 33 percent on 3-pointers over his career) are his greatest flaw.

Murray immediately becomes the Hawks’ second-best player behind Young, with considerable immediate and long-term upside. He has a higher floor than the Hawks’ mostly unproven youngsters, yet simultaneously a higher ceiling than the veterans who surround Young; at just 25 years old with two years remaining on his current contract, Murray has ample time to continue his growth.

The most obvious area Murray improves the Hawks as they attempt to return to Eastern Conference contention is on defense, where Atlanta ranked a lowly 26th in efficiency last season. The Hawks couldn’t prevent opponents from penetrating, they couldn’t force teams into tough shots, and they couldn’t force turnovers. That’s an ugly combination, but Murray’s point-of-attack prowess will help.

And if coach Nate McMillan best utilizes Murray’s multifarious skill set, Young could benefit on offense, too. The only players in the league who spent more time on the ball than Young last season were Doncic and James Harden; over the past three seasons, Young’s ranked third, second, and first in average time of possession. Yet if Murray—who has plenty of high-caliber creative experience, tying for sixth in time of possession last season—can shoulder some of that responsibility, and if Young agrees to be engaged off the ball like Steph Curry, rather than Doncic or Harden, then the Hawks’ leading scorer could see his efficiency and opportunities improve, too.

That potential comes with a hefty cost, however. The Hawks sacrificed a future protected first-round pick from the Hornets, as well as up to three fully unprotected selections: their 2025 and 2027 first-rounders, and a 2026 pick swap. San Antonio’s selection of far-off future picks—rather than the Hawks’ 2023 or 2024 picks—is a bet from the Spurs that Atlanta might be a good team in the short term, but that it will faceplant at some point down the road. If that gamble pays off, even if it hasn’t often done so historically, this trade could prove a disaster for Atlanta.

The best way to prevent that possible outcome is to parlay the Young-Murray core into more wins, right away. Atlanta’s roster probably isn’t complete: Power forward John Collins and center Clint Capela both have been featured in trade rumors this offseason, as the Hawks seek a path to more playing time for youngster Onyeka Okongwu in place of one of their higher-paid big men.

But for now, even with Murray on board, the Hawks seem a step or two below the top teams in the East. The defense could still use even more zest, and the bench could become frightfully shallow depending on Atlanta’s next moves. The Bucks, Celtics, Heat, 76ers, and Nets all have more high-level star power than the Hawks. Most trades involving unprotected picks—the Lakers’ deal for Anthony Davis, the Bucks’ deal for Jrue Holiday—involve teams with MVP-caliber superstars just one player away from a title. The Hawks aren’t yet at that height.

Atlanta’s hope is that none of those concerns will matter. It hopes that Young and Murray can compensate for each other’s weaknesses and compound each other’s strengths, that the two All-Stars can jell and grow together and push the team back toward contention both next year and beyond, to the point where the Hawks won’t ever regret giving the Spurs added chances for top picks in half a decade.

Hawks president of basketball operations Travis Schlenk has tried to build his team in Golden State’s image, and he went all-in Wednesday to form his version of Curry and a guard who can at least defend like Klay Thompson. Young and Murray are the Hawks’ backcourt of the present and future. But they’re not as extraordinary as Curry and Thompson, and the rest of the team isn’t at the Warriors’ level, either. After a rotten season, the Hawks clearly felt as if they needed a change. But it sure looks like a big risk for an uncertain reward.