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Can the Atlanta Hawks Salvage the Trae Young Era?

Three years ago, the Hawks looked way ahead of schedule. Now they’re getting lapped around the league. Big changes could be on the horizon.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last Friday’s game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Indiana Pacers was supposed to be a compelling sequel to one of the most riveting bouts of the season: a 157-152 Pacers regulation win in the group stage of the in-season tournament in late November. It was a lawless, ungodly display of offense orchestrated by Trae Young and Tyrese Haliburton, two young offensive engines with similar wiring. But instead of a follow-up thriller, Round 2 served Atlanta its worst loss of the season, mere days after a surprise win against the juggernaut Oklahoma City Thunder. Fourteen different Pacers scored. Haliburton dished out 18 assists in 25 minutes of action with only 10 points of his own. The Pacers made nine consecutive baskets in the final 4:11 of the second quarter, then had a six-shot streak not two and a half minutes into the third quarter. Put together, Indiana made 15 consecutive shots without a miss in under seven minutes of game time.

Allow me to be dramatic for a moment: The 150-116 collapse last week felt existential. The Hawks were dismantled by a team that has built a utopia atop the blueprint that Atlanta had created for itself years ago. One imagines that Pacers lead assistant Lloyd Pierce—who oversaw the beginnings of the Trae Young era in Atlanta—feels absolved: His vision for Atlanta basketball has reincarnated in Indiana, under brighter auspices. Charitably speaking, the Pacers, who have surprised many with a 21-15 record powered by the best offense in NBA history, have given the Hawks a peek at what they ought to look like as they march closer to a potentially roster-gutting trade deadline. A more dire interpretation: After two consecutive first-round exits since their 2021 Eastern Conference finals run, and a record this season that’s closer to the eight-win Hornets than to one of the eight best teams in the East, what if this is as far as a team can go with Young as the alpha and omega?

The Hawks’ entire foundation is built on a miracle. For all the intrigue Trae garnered entering the league as an early Steph Curry acolyte, his career 3-point shooting numbers sit below the league average. Despite this—or maybe specifically as a result—he’s leveraged his reputation as a shooter to establish one of the most intricate pick-and-roll suites (pick-and-Rolodexes?) in basketball history. He’s diverged from the Curry archetype, mastering space and gravity on his own terms: The only other player in NBA history with career averages of at least 25 points and nine assists per game is Oscar Robertson. Trae’s greatest gift is his perception of illusion and how subtle sleights of hand affect others on the court. Some of the most effective pick-and-roll plays are the ones that never happen, the ones that Young rejects as soon as he sees the defense tilt to take away one perceived advantage. In a sense, Young has gamed the system: He is a seemingly inefficient player who paradoxically can power an elite offense in his sleep. Case in point: The Hawks have five players (Clint Capela, Onyeka Okongwu, Jalen Johnson, De’Andre Hunter, Bogdan Bogdanovic) who have logged at least 10 possessions as the roll man in the pick-and-roll this season. Together, they’ve averaged 1.3 points per possession, a rate of offense higher than either Giannis Antetokounmpo or Nikola Jokic in that play type.

Atlanta’s heliocentric offense, which has catered to Young from the second he was acquired, functions almost entirely off of his otherworldly touch, which flows as a gradient in the space between the half-court line and the rim. His reputation as a shooter gives him the space to slither into the lane for floaters, but the setup and movement patterns on his floater are almost identical to how he sets up a lob pass—never mind how Young’s advantage creation with vertical spacers like Capela and Okongwu opens things up on the perimeter. The Hawks offense works the way it does because Young, despite his size, is essentially Yu Darvish on the hardwood, creating a whole array of potential outcomes from a single release point.

But as we’ve seen since Atlanta’s improbable Eastern Conference finals run, there are limits to just how far that heliocentrism can take it. Young’s usage has decreased in each of the past two seasons with Dejounte Murray as his backcourt mate, to its lowest percentages since his rookie season. Still, his usage remains top 10 in the league. Habits, especially those baked into the very fiber of a team’s raison d’être, die hard. The basic thesis of any heliocentric offense is that of Occam’s razor: Enlisting a superstar to make the bulk of the decisions on the court with the ball in their hands is the simplest answer and therefore the most effective one. It’s a cynical way to conceive a team, but there are worse ways of supporting an all-time talent. The lingering question has become whether Young is of that caliber.

Creating a system around Young requires certain concessions—the kind of concessions that Houston ran up against with James Harden at his absolute peak in 2018. The Rockets had two masters of ball control and manipulation in Harden and Chris Paul back then. The idea created adaptive off-ball avenues for CP3, who was always capable in that role, but more than anything, it was to establish an environment in which both superstars could serve as primary creators independent of each other—most of the Rockets’ most effective lineups that year had either Harden or Paul in them, not both.

Of course, there is a possibility that Trae was never meant to have such sway over the offense, at least in the way that he’s warped it in the past five years. The Hawks followed a decidedly modern blueprint of roster building in those late 2010s: Landing Young and Kevin Huerter was gambling on a bootleg Steph-Klay dynamic; drafting a pair of big wings in Hunter and Cam Reddish with two top-10 picks was once again stocking up on essentials. But a star never emerged alongside Young, which necessitated the trade for Capela—a player whose fluency in the pick-and-roll was a perfect on-ramp for Young’s prodigious court mapping. Young’s spread pick-and-roll attack became too multifaceted, too brutally effective to stray away from. But there was always the hope that things could one day change. The idea of Young as an off-ball chaos engine has been a dream deferred across multiple front-office regimes and three full-time head coaches. In a Lowe Post appearance in 2020, then-coach Pierce told ESPN’s Zach Lowe that he thought Young “should be the best screener in the NBA.” A year and a half later, then-coach Nate McMillan traveled to Oklahoma during the offseason to work with Trae on “running off the ball; getting the ball being the second, third option; and playing with the ball off of pindowns as opposed to just a pick-and-roll.” This season, Young’s first full campaign with Quin Snyder at the helm, has brought a bit more off-ball seasoning to the mix, though nothing he hadn’t already shown glimpses of in the past. Still, Trae’s trying. He’s already notched as many possessions running off screens this season (15) as he did in all of the 2020-21 season. One of my favorite Trae 3s this season involved him toying with Pelicans rookie Jordan Hawkins, essentially playing tag with him before traipsing into open space on a ghost screen:

These wrinkles show up here and there, keeping the offense fresh. The thing is, there has to be an overwhelming force to dramatically alter the trajectory of an orbit. Trae has yet to play with a star good enough to convince him that playing off the ball is a worthier venture than the efficient pick-and-roll attack he’s already established as a bread and butter. The bet in 2022 on Murray—in a trade that involved four first-round picks, buying high on a career season in Murray’s final year with the Spurs—was made with the idea of installing such a dynamic. Murray, on paper, is more or less everything that Young is not: long and rangy, athletic, a chaotic disrupter on defense. But the pair fumbled their batons in year one, in an awkward my-turn-your-turn dynamic, before Atlanta realized that it still needed Trae to be Trae.

While Murray is in the midst of his most efficient shooting season yet, the backcourt’s lack of synergy remains evident in what has become a lost season. Murray seems like a lock to be traded before the deadline, and whichever team does acquire him will be seeking, at best, a third option rather than the colead that the Hawks once valued him as. Murray’s reputation as a havoc-creating defender has become even more illusory than Young’s reputation as a lights-out shooter; combined with a noticeable decline in Capela’s play as a rim deterrent, a teamwide allergy to recognizing back cuts, and a defensive game plan that allows a ton of attempts both at the rim and in the corners, Atlanta is flirting with some of the worst defense in NBA history. (In an almost pointless display of irony, Young is having the best defensive season of his career. He’s already drawn as many or more charges this season—six—as he had in each of his past three seasons. And he’s actually been solid navigating screens, with his encyclopedic knowledge of pick-and-rolls from the other vantage as his guide. Unfortunately, there is only so much a 164-pound guard can do to drastically improve the margins on that side of the ball.)

The Hawks will, in one way or another, help inform the potential chaos of next month’s trade deadline—and it’s looking more and more likely that they’ll be sellers, hoping to recoup some of the asset loss from recent miscues. Atlanta has been heavily rumored to be interested in Raptors star Pascal Siakam since last summer, but given the state of the team, it’s fair to wonder whether the Hawks are more keen to see what they can get out of developing the version they have at home. Johnson is the only player outside of Young deemed “untouchable,” according to Yahoo’s Jake Fischer, and it’s clear why. The breakout third-year forward has been the sole beacon of hope to come out of this season. Johnson presents a brand-new archetype for Young—and a chance for the star guard to evolve into something different. Young’s puppet master tendencies have been enabled by the types of big men he’s played alongside: Capela, Okongwu, and the departed John Collins are all athletic play finishers who lack the ability to alter the two-man-game dynamic in any demonstrable way. Johnson can operate as a similar cog in the machine, but he’s also arguably the second-best passer on the team (perhaps even the second-best player, full stop), capable of making plays in the short roll:

And making difficult corner-to-corner passes seem commonplace:

The allure of a Ben Simmons–esque point forward (who also shoots 3s at an above-average clip) is exactly the kind of catalyst that could shift how the team operates moving forward. At the very least, it could give the ol’ pick-and-roll a new lease on life. As Atlanta leans out its roster and refocuses on the future, it’ll be imperative to give Johnson as many on-ball creation reps as he can handle.

But things for Atlanta could get a lot worse before they get better. The types of players the Hawks need—big, defensively sound wings who can hit a 3 and actually be relied on to do both on a consistent basis, unlike the ones they already have … and a star on a level similar to Trae himself—are exceedingly rare, and the sort of players that teams hold on to, especially given that buyers in the trade market are likely to be teams with deep postseason aspirations. Atlanta jumped the gun on its development arc, and it’s paying the price. All that’s left to explore in the Trae Young era is what it could look like once it breaks the heliocentric paradigm that has proved to be fool’s gold. There are no guarantees that it’ll last long enough for the franchise to find out.