The Atlanta Hawks team that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals had a completely different identity than the one that was bounced in the first round by the Miami Heat. We saw Trae Young and other role players rise to the occasion against the Knicks, Sixers, and even the Bucks.
Ice Trae averaged nearly 29 points and 9.5 assists per game during the team’s playoff run. But there were contributions up and down the roster. Who could forget Kevin Huerter‘s heroic performance against Philly in Game 7? There was a different confidence level in the 2020-21 playoffs compared to the most recent postseason. Another stark difference was the toughness and defensive mentality. A physical Miami team intimated the Hawks as Young shrunk, and nobody else alleviated those struggles. Because of that, Travis Schlenk and company had no other choice but to mix things up.
The team has made a few moves, and they reveal a new team direction. The Hawks traded for Dejounte Murray, sending the Spurs multiple first-rounders and Danilo Gallinari. Then, they dealt Kevin Huerter to the Kings. In exchange for Huerter, the Hawks received veterans Justin Holiday and Maurice Harkless, as well as a lottery-protected 2024 first-round pick from Sacramento. Dipping into free agency as well, the Hawks signed Aaron Holiday.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem like the front office really upgraded outside of Murray, but that’s not the case. The club is trying to surround Trae Young with a defense-first supporting cast, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“The identity defensively has been, well that’s something we’re going to have to build into,” GM Landry Fields said. “That’s been part of the reason why we haven’t taken that step. We have to have an everyday hard-hat approach to our defensive capabilities. … The identity piece is going to come when we see it consistently.”
Beginning with the crown jewel of the offseason, Murray is an excellent defender who can hold his own in any perimeter matchup, forcing turnovers at an obscene rate. He led the league in steals last season, making him a key addition for a Hawks defense that ranked 28th in opponent turnover rate. Murray will be able to take the more difficult guard matchup on a nightly basis, which will make it easier for the Hawks to hide Young.
Even though Delon Wright had excellent production for the Hawks last season, he decided to walk in free agency. Ideally, the Hawks would have liked to bring him back, but after acquiring Murray, Wright probably felt he would have more opportunities elsewhere. The Hawks replaced him with Aaron Holiday, who began his career with Nate McMillan in Indiana.
After 41 games in the 2021-22 season with the Wizards, Holiday was traded to the Phoenix Suns. He averaged 6.3 points, 1.9 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game last season. Defensively, he was in the 83rd percentile of deflections and 66th percentile in forced turnovers.
If you haven’t noticed the trend yet, let me go on. Justin Holiday and Maurice Harkless are more of the same. Holiday is in the 69th percentile of deflections, 60th percentile in forced turnovers, and can defend multiple positions. Harkless is in the 91st percentile in deflections.
Kevin Huerter wasn’t a bad defender by any means, but the Hawks acquired two players who are just as good defensively, if not better. Combined, they will also cost less than Red Velvet. The Hawks are surrounding Trae Young with tougher, defensive-minded players, and we can expect that to continue moving forward.