Following last season’s disappointing journey and final destination, the Atlanta Hawks are off to a blazing start to this season. They are 7-3 and not only look like the clear best team in the Southeast division, but also like one of the better squads in the Eastern Conference.
They have played the best team in the East — the Milwaukee Bucks — twice. On the road, they fought the Bucks hard but ended up losing by eight. Monday, without Trae Young in the lineup, the Hawks handed Milwaukee its first L of the season with a 19-point victory at home.
Atlanta made one the bigger moves of the offseason by trading the San Antonio Spurs three first-round picks, a swap, and Danilo Gallinari — currently on the Boston Celtics and out for the season with an ACL injury — for Dejounte Murray. It was a big swing that didn’t get much love.
Many NBA analysts thought the move was a positive, but it wouldn’t make much of a difference for the Hawks in a loaded Eastern Conference, outside of possibly keeping them out of the play-in tournament. There were questions as to how much Murray would help a defense that was the fifth-worst in the NBA last season, and how Young would adjust to another ball-dominant player in the backcourt who also isn’t very tall by NBA standards.
The offense is still a work in progress for the Hawks. Young has been a less efficient scorer with both his field goal and 3-point percentage down, and they are no longer the second-best offense in the league. All that being said, their offense is still sixth-best in the NBA. Young is on pace for a career-low in turnovers while still having a high usage rate, and Murray is having the best offensive season of his career. He’s averaging 22.3 points per game and 8.4 assists on 45.7/35.9/87 shooting splits.
On the defensive end, Murray is making a world of difference for the Hawks. True, he gambles and sometimes gets burned, but he is proving to be worthy of being selected as a second-team All-Defensive player last season. The Hawks are currently the 11th-best defensive team in the NBA, and the on/off numbers with Murray are eye-popping. When he’s on the floor for the Hawks their defensive rating is 21.4 points per 100 possessions better than when he is sitting down. They’ve only played 10 games, so that number will likely come down a bit, but it is clear that Murray’s quickness and long arms are providing the Hawks with a second-strong perimeter defender that they sorely needed to complement De’Andre Hunter.
What the Hawks also needed was someone who can create on offense besides Young. As great as they were on offense last season, the Miami Heat bullied the Hawks off of the floor in five games. Young played some of his worst basketball since early in his rookie season because the Heat swarmed him all series. Without Young creating havoc in the paint off of the pick and roll, and the nickname “Ice” better describing his jump shot than his demeanor, that great offense played one good quarter of basketball in that series.
It’s no longer 2001. The Atlanta Hawks can’t operate like the Philadelphia 76ers did with one small ball-dominant guard and the rest of the team fitting in around him. Not to mention, that 76ers team had the Defensive Player of the Year — Dikembe Mutombo — while the Hawks were one of the worst teams in the league on that end of the floor last season.
In order to prevent that surprising 2021 playoff run that ended in a defeat in the Eastern Conference Finals from becoming a fluke, major change was necessary. The Hawks regressed in a major way last season. In order to hold onto the little bit of national spotlight that they have garnered, another all-star was necessary. Murray not only looks like he’s on his way to his second all-star selection, but also might be the best addition of the offseason.