Trae Young or Dejounte Murray? Hawks must choose after another disappointing season

The NBA’s most indecisive franchise will now have to do the thing it fears most.

It’s time for the Atlanta Hawks to choose.

Mediocre status quo or bold change? Daydreaming about a fluky conference finals run or seriousness of purpose about the future? And perhaps most important of all, Trae Young or Dejounte Murray?

Atlanta’s status as the NBA’s biggest disappointment for three years running is not in doubt after Wednesday’s play-in tournament game. The Hawks lost to the Chicago Bulls, 131-116, and will not advance to the actual playoffs for the first time since Young’s second NBA season in 2020 when the franchise was still in rebuild mode.

This season for the Hawks was, in fact, not a rebuild. Tony Ressler, the team’s principal owner and governor, paid Quin Snyder a ton of money last year to coach a winner. He spent multiple draft picks to acquire Murray, the supposed second star that was supposed to protect Young from the traps and double teams. He built a roster full of big salaries in anticipation of finishing somewhere around the top-four of the Eastern Conference.

None of it worked.

And now the Hawks have big decisions to make — the biggest kind possible in today’s NBA when you have a superstar who is too good to trade in the prime of his career but too flawed to build a coherent contender around.

Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks saw their season end Wednesday with a loss to the Chicago Bulls in the play-in tournament.
Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks saw their season end Wednesday with a loss to the Chicago Bulls in the play-in tournament.

You can, if you want, blame some bad luck for the fact Atlanta finished 36-46 and its season is over on April 17.

The Hawks dealt with a rotten stretch of injuries in the second half of the year, missing burgeoning star Jalen Johnson and Onyeka Okongwu for long stretches and losing starting forward Saddiq Bey to an ACL tear on March 10.

Young himself missed 23 games after hand surgery, only returning for the final three games of the regular season and the play-in. He might have been better served not coming back at all. Young didn’t have enough runway to build his stamina back up, played with a brace on his left hand that limited what he could do with the ball and ultimately struggled in Chicago, making just 4-of-12 field goals, committing six turnovers and finishing minus-27 when he was on the floor.

But the reality for Atlanta is there was no point this season in which the Hawks looked like a good NBA team. There was no sustained stretch of great play, not a single moment in which they were playing for anything other than a third straight trip to the play-in. It was a bad roster that had a bad season.

And now it’s time for a reality check: This is who they are, not the Atlanta team that for a few magical months in 2021 played great basketball and pushed eventual champion Milwaukee to six games in the Eastern Conference finals.

So now what?

Ever since that run in 2021, Atlanta has made one major move: It gave up two first-round picks and a swap to acquire Murray from San Antonio. Everything else has been nibbling at the edges, including some salary-shedding moves to stay under the luxury tax.

They haven’t won a playoff series since.

Young has been a pin cushion for the NBA blogosphere ever since he entered the league, but assigning him the majority of blame for the Hawks’ failures is short-sighted. It’s worth noting that ever since he stepped in the league, no other Atlanta player has made even a single All-Star team. He is an undeniably elite offensive engine with rare skills, and unlike nearly all other players in his age group, he's actually led a team on a deep playoff run.

But it’s also true that his size and defensive limitations make it more challenging to put the right pieces around him. Trading for a second point guard with a good defensive reputation in Murray made some sense in theory. But the on-court reality has been that sliding him to the shooting guard position makes Atlanta too small defensively at both backcourt positions and takes the ball out of his hands on offense, which is where he operates best.

It doesn’t work. And after trying, but failing to trade Murray at the deadline this season, Atlanta needs to figure out which path it wants to take.

On one hand, you can argue that the Hawks should simply get what they can for Murray this offseason — recouping most of the draft capital they gave up to acquire him would probably be welcome — and find a different shooting guard who complements Young better.

But when Young was out, the Hawks managed to go 12-11 with Murray at the controls despite all the other injuries they were dealing with. Though they weren’t as proficient offensively and had to work harder to get good shots, they played better team defense and saw guys like De’Andre Hunter elevate their game in ways they hadn’t previously.

How much of that was shooting variance working in Atlanta’s favor for a few weeks? How much of it was opponents being diminished by injury? How much of it — like beating the Boston Celtics on March 25 and 28 — was playing a team on cruise control before the playoffs?

It’s hard to say. But Murray’s 30-point effort Wednesday on 11-of-21 shooting is only going to keep the debate going about what Atlanta should do.

Though the Hawks have been reticent to make major moves, running it back seems unlikely — if not completely unacceptable. And Murray signed an extension before this season that will pay him a reasonable $28.5 million average salary over the next four years. There’s certainly a reasonable argument to be made that Atlanta should hand the ball to Murray, get a big haul of assets from the Lakers or Spurs for Young and hope that its recent draft picks like Johnson or Kobe Bufkin ascend to All-Star status.

At the same time, giving up on Young would be a huge risk. He’s a top-10 level offensive talent under contract for three more years, and maybe the Hawks could leverage Murray this offseason for something that will move the needle from annual play-in participant to a real threat in the East.

Either way, Ressler and general manager Landry Fields have to make a decision. They can't move forward until that choice is made: Murray or Young. There’s no more waiting. It’s time for Atlanta to make a tough call. And no matter which direction the Hawks go, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Atlanta Hawks must make decision: Trae Young or Dejounte Murray?