2023 Orlando Magic Playoff Lessons: Atlanta Hawks’ chemistry takes time

The Atlanta Hakws took a gamble in pairing Trae Young and Dejounte Murray. The lesson from their first year is that the duo needs more time. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
The Atlanta Hakws took a gamble in pairing Trae Young and Dejounte Murray. The lesson from their first year is that the duo needs more time. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports /

The Atlanta Hawks feel like a team in some turmoil.

Three seasons ago, the Hawks reached the Eastern Conference Finals and seemed like a team on the rise. They had a dynamic and star-making point guard in Trae Young that was sure to attract eyeballs to the team and keep them competitive. They had young players and key veterans eager to help the team take the next step.

Then . . . Atlanta flamed out. The Hawks were still good enough with Young to make the playoffs and win in the Play-In Tournament, defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers to take the last playoff spot. But falling to eighth was not the order of the day.

So the Hawks did what any team would do when they faced a disappointing season. They worked to try to make their team better.

The acquisition of Dejounte Murray was meant to remedy one of the biggest issues they had in that 2022 Playoff series against the Miami Heat — the amount of pressure Young had being on the ball all the time. The Heat in that playoff series put multiple players on Young and played him physically, wearing him down.

This is what a team is supposed to do, of course. They learn from their playoff defeats and spend their offseason trying to plug those holes.

Dejounte Murray was an All-Star caliber player and gave the Hawks a second scorer the team desperately needed — and perhaps was not getting from John Collins.

So what went wrong? Did something go wrong?

The Atlanta Hawks did the right thing in trying to learn from their playoff mistakes. But such a major change clearly needs some patience to work and help the team grow.

Despite stellar seasons from both Young (26.2 points per game and 10.2 assists per game) and Murray (20.5 points per game and 6.1 assists per game), the Hawks found themselves right back in the Play-In Tournament, upsetting the Heat to earn the 7-seed.

The Hawks still played well in that series thanks to Young’s individual brilliance — especially his showing in Game 5 to force the series to a sixth and ultimately decisive game.

But this is not where the Hawks wanted to be. They wanted to get back to the level they were at in the 2021 season — the Eastern Conference Finals.

Atlanta certainly had some depth and injury issues preventing them from reaching their true potential — De’Andre Hunter missed 15 games, Clint Capela missed 17 games and Bogdan Bogdanovic appeared in only 54 games. But there was something more to it.

The pairing with Young and Murray just felt off. The duo spent a good chunk of the season trying to figure out how to play together. Especially for Young, playing off the ball was a major struggle and adjustment.

Atlanta had the seventh-best offense in the league at 115.5 points per 100 possessions. But the team again struggled to establish much defensively, something the team hopes to correct under coach Quin Snyder, who was hired in the middle of last season. Atlanta ranked 22nd in the league on defense at 115.4 points allowed per 100 possessions.

After Snyder was hired on Feb. 26, the Hawks ranked fourth in the league in offensive rating at 119.5 points per 100 possessions and 26th in defensive rating at 118.3 points allowed per 100 possessions.

The duo of Young and Murray had an offensive/defensive rating split of 115.0/114.6 (+0.3 net rating) for the season but a split of 111.7/121.1 (-9.4 net rating) after Snyder arrived in February. The duo went 103.0/117.8 (-14.8 net rating) in the playoff series against the Celtics.

Young for his part indeed struggled off the ball. He had a rough shooting year overall making only 42.9 percent of his shots and 33.5 percent of his 3-pointers. But he hit on only 37.0 percent of his 1.3 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts per game according to Second Spectrum.

The Hawks clearly had something that worked, even if for just a little while. And the idea of getting an extra ball handler to try to get Young some easy shots was a sound conclusion to make after their playoff loss in 2022.

It was a major change and any change of that magnitude takes patience to try to make it work. Growing teams need the time to grow. And Atlanta still has a lot of potential for growth even as the team seems to have gotten stuck in the mud of the Play-In Tournament.

The Hawks clearly were not panicking or changing course. They still believe in playing this guard duo together. They did not change course with that duo.

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While there are a lot of exciting up-and-coming teams in the Eastern Conference (including the Orlando Magic), the Atlanta Hawks are still among the teams jockeying for position. And with both Young and Murray, nobody should count them out.

A second year under their belt should make them more effective and better. The Hawks are not a team anybody should be sleeping on.

Then again, patience is a tough thing in the NBA. Everything is constantly changing in the league. And typically, if a team is not getting better, it is typically getting worse. There is very little standing still — as much as the Magic have bet on internal improvement to advance the team forward.

These kinds of pairings with stars learning each other take time to build. And the Hawks needed a full year to figure themselves out. They had at least a quarter of the season to learn from their new coach in Snyder.

Atlanta though did change.

They traded Collins in a salary dump. They appear to be ready to move on from Clint Capela too with Onyeka Okongwu having a solid season last year. And while getting Bogdan Bogdanovic will give them a stellar shooter off the bench, the Hawks are not measurably improved.

The July 2022 trade of Kevin Huerter for Maurice Harkless, Justin Holiday and a 2024 conditional first-round pick, proved to be a decision the team regrets.

Atlanta did it appears try to get in on trading Pascal Siakam to bolster the roster more meaningfully. But the team enters the season seemingly in the same grouping as the team was last year.

Their patience will need to matter more for this team to find success. It is essential now to their success as more will be put on Young and Murray’s plate to carry the team. In the end, it seems the Hawks have put a lot on their plates again — the exact thing grabbing Murray was supposed to relieve.

Patience has its limits. But new things take time to cement. And journeys for successful partnerships are not unusually multi-year journeys.

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The question for the Hawks — and for any team really — is how much patience can a team have?