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The Hawks Have Changed Everything, Except Trae Young

Atlanta has orbited around its star point guard since drafting him. But after two disappointing seasons, a front-office shake-up, and a head-coaching change, the Hawks might be ready to move on this offseason.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Only two years removed from a trip to the Eastern Conference finals, the once-promising Atlanta Hawks are now spiraling. A play-in berth last season led to their first-round annihilation by the Heat, triggering a front-office makeover and an eventual head-coaching change. On Tuesday, they’ll face the Heat again, this time in the play-in, with the stakes even higher and the face of the franchise’s future potentially hanging in the balance.

With the offseason approaching, league sources say the Hawks’ front office has the green light from ownership to do whatever it wants to with the roster, which includes considering trade opportunities involving All-Star point guard Trae Young.

This should come as no real surprise considering what’s transpired over the course of the season. In March, Hawks owner Tony Ressler told The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz he’s neither opening nor closing the door on any players being moved. Months earlier, Shams Charania and Sam Amick reported on escalating tensions between Young and former head coach Nate McMillan, leading to team meetings and questions about Young’s leadership. Players reportedly sided with the coach over their star player. Things got so ugly that TNT’s Chris Haynes reported that Young could request a trade this summer if the Hawks fail to make “inroads’’ in the playoffs.

Regardless of Trae’s desire to stay, it could be the Hawks that decide to change course following a likely early exit from the play-in or the postseason.

After former general manager Travis Schlenk stepped down in December following the Hawks’ shaky start, a new regime was tabbed to call the shots: general manager Landry Fields, assistant general manager Kyle Korver, and head coach Quin Snyder, who was officially hired in February.

League sources say during months of negotiations in the lead-up to his February hiring, Snyder demanded—and now wields—significant influence over personnel decisions. Though Atlanta’s front-office dynamic is described as a collaborative effort, many high-level decision-makers from opposing teams believe that it’s now Snyder who has the final say.

In any case, it’s typical for incoming management to restructure a team in line with their own vision. So, that begs the question: What do the Hawks and Snyder hope to build?

Hawks players have mentioned the motion concepts that Snyder is introducing, and while there have been glimpses of movement, it’s nothing close to the scale of his best offenses in Utah, where he coached for eight seasons and boasted a .585 winning percentage. Most notably, the Hawks are playing at a brisker pace—from ninth in possession time under Nate McMillan to first since dismissing him, per Inpredictable. The Hawks half-court offense still stagnates though, best exemplified by Young dribbling the clock out for 24 seconds at the end of regulation in Atlanta’s loss to Philadelphia last Friday.

However, given the limited practice time during the season and the fact that Snyder has yet to assemble his own coaching staff, it’s unrealistic to expect drastic changes from Atlanta in the middle of a season. The Hawks have gone 10-11 since inking Snyder to a five-year deal in February. A transformation will have to wait until the next training camp.

Young has always resisted sustaining off-ball activity though, even after pushing the old front-office regime to move three first-round picks for another ballhandling guard in Dejounte Murray last summer. The Hawks hoped that Murray would weaponize Young, reminiscent of his Oklahoma days, when he played more like Damian Lillard, using screens and handoffs.

It would’ve been a game changer this season if Young had tapped into his college style. Trae can be shifty moving without the ball when he wants to be, and he’s shot 40.3 percent on 3s off the catch over his career. But of the 52 qualifying players to make over 40 percent of their catch-and-shoot 3s since 2017-18, Young is the only player with under 1.5 attempts per game, according to Second Spectrum (minimum 500 attempts).

No matter the coach or the personnel, when Young doesn’t have the ball, he often stands in the corner like a statue or drifts 40 feet from the basket, rarely looking for chances to cut behind sleeping defenders. Young has even displayed an occasional reluctance to shoot on open opportunities. Atlanta ended up witnessing another season of tedious “your turn, my turn” offense.

Snyder will look to tweak these habits to optimize Young and Murray, provided the team keeps both. If he can figure the dynamic out, the Hawks might activate young players like AJ Griffin, Saddiq Bey, and Jalen Johnson—players with skills that could flourish in a system featuring cutting, handoffs, and off-ball movement. A motion offense could also bring out the best of Bogdan Bogdonovic, who just re-signed on a four-year, $68 million deal. But even if Young does evolve and the offense improves, scoring hasn’t exactly been Atlanta’s problem.

Defense has long caused the greatest issues for the Hawks. Their defensive rating has been in the bottom half of the league in every season of the Young era. Snyder knows that, considering the Jazz used to target Young in ball-screen actions and in closeouts. Utah was no different than any other team. Because no matter how hard Trae tries, and he’s tried harder in recent months, there’s still no hiding a tiny guard on defense.

Snyder has invested more playing time in Johnson, who stands at 6-foot-8 and provides size as an interior helper and perimeter versatility. Next season, center Onyeka Okongwu should be elevated to a bigger role. As good as Clint Capela still is, the younger Okongwu outshines him defending in space, giving the Hawks more scheme flexibility.

Unfortunately, their wing defense remains pretty pitiful. Bey has been as frustrating of a defender as he was for the Pistons. De’Andre Hunter continues to underwhelm, lacking the lateral movement the Hawks envisioned when drafting him fourth overall in 2019. Griffin remains inexperienced.

Young is far from the only culprit for Atlanta’s defensive woes. He isn’t even the biggest issue when you consider the Hawks’ so-called stoppers are actually playing like turnstiles. In the playoffs though, even with proper personnel, operating with a smaller guard who gets targeted over and over in ball screens can put an untenable amount of strain on the defense.

Building without Young would dramatically change the complexion of the Hawks. Murray is a dynamic shot-creator in his own right and a far superior defender. But on offense, he settles for too many early jumpers, and he’s been inconsistent on defense, taking too many risks.

Murray was a better player in San Antonio than he was in his first season in Atlanta. No matter what happens with Young, Murray will need to justify the hefty price they paid to land him. But as an upcoming free agent in 2024, he also should be a player the Hawks consider moving this summer, even if the return is less than the three picks they initially gave up. Sometimes, you have to cut your losses in order to make future gains.

The odds are always against a superstar trade unless the player makes enough of a racket to leave the franchise with no other choice. Consequently, Atlanta will most likely use this summer to reshape its roster around Young and Murray, whether it’s with a wing-heavy roster or a Cavs-like double-big frontcourt.

Regardless of how the play-in unfolds for Atlanta, I don’t see Young as the cornerstone of a title team. Much like Lillard’s tenure in Portland, his defensive limitations put a cap on the team’s defensive upside. And unlike Dame, his aversion to playing off the ball restricts the diversity of the offensive system. Young will be only 25 next season and is under a guaranteed contract through 2025-26, though, so a return for Trae would need to be significant. Despite his flaws, he’s still one of the NBA’s most magnificent on-ball presences. Any deal would need to net another All-Star player coming back and/or a group of valuable players and picks.

Despite his accomplishments, there’s still so much left for Young to prove. Is he a championship-caliber face of a franchise or a flashy player doomed to mediocrity? For the Hawks to return to the East finals and take the next step, they must make some tough choices, and either retool around their star or forge a new identity.