The Atlanta Hawks were desperate for another star.
After that unexpected joy ride in the 2021 playoffs, their underwhelming showing last season in the much-improved Eastern Conference was a major problem for all involved. Pressure from ownership was rising – again – especially with Trae Young’s supermax extension about to kick in for the 2022-23 campaign.
The high stakes meant it was high time to make another move; to raise the collective ceiling on this group that had shown so much promise two postseasons ago.
The five-game first-round loss to Miami made clear how badly the Hawks needed a secondary perimeter playmaker next to Young. The organization believed this was a need before the series, sources told The Athletic, and that was only highlighted by the Heat’s ability to hound Atlanta’s All-NBA guard and force him off the ball at an unprecedented level. Atlanta didn’t have the scoring or the playmaking threats to make up for Young being completely taken out of the game by Miami’s physicality and length.
Enter 2021-22 All-Star Dejounte Murray, the San Antonio Spurs guard who is headed to Atlanta in a trade for Danilo Gallinari, a 2023 top-16 protected first-round pick via Charlotte, 2025 and 2027 unprotected first-round picks and a 2026 pick swap that’s also unprotected, sources told The Athletic. It’s a win-now move if ever there was one, a clear sign that the Hawks are committed to maximizing the Young era while shoring up a defense that ranked 26th in points allowed per 100 possessions last season. But it’s also a hefty price to pay, the kind of make-or-break, mortgage-your-future move that will be monitored and scrutinized for years to come.
The Hawks are hoping this goes well enough that Murray will want to stick around after his current deal expires in the summer of 2024 (he’s owed $16.5 million and $17.7 million in the next two seasons). Murray is eligible to sign a three-year extension this offseason worth up to $74.7 million after incentives, but it’s unlikely he agrees to one now after the All-Star season he just had with the Spurs. In the short-term, the Hawks simply must find a way to contend again in an Eastern Conference with Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Miami and Brooklyn remaining as formidable as ever.
Just a week ago, Landry Fields, Atlanta’s soon-to-be general manager, said the front office was “mandated to get better, and we want to get better.” The Hawks are better, and there’s potential for even more improvement in the coming days.
With all signs continuing to point to a John Collins trade in the Hawks’ near future, it’s hard to handicap Atlanta’s potential for next season and beyond without knowing their return in that widely expected deal. Sources say the trade conversations for this Murray deal involved Collins at first, before the Spurs pivoted.
It’s also possible the Hawks explore trading either Kevin Huerter or Bogdan Bogdanovic, who may be headed for bench roles as a result of the Murray addition. Huerter signed a four-year, $65 million deal last offseason, while Bogdanovic is owed $18 million this season and recovering from offseason knee surgery that’s expected to sideline him through training camp.
Murray was the only player to average at least 21 points, nine assists and eight rebounds last season, with only Luka Dončić and James Harden coming close. Murray isn’t a threat from the perimeter, shooting just 33.3 percent from 3 in his career and just 32.7 percent last season. He’s not Klay Thompson to Young’s oft-cited basketball doppelgänger, Steph Curry. Not even close.
While Murray is one of the better scoring guards in the league inside the perimeter, making 44 percent of his midrange jumpers and 64 percent of his attempts at the rim, he had a 26.8 usage rate that far surpassed that of Huerter (16.9), the Hawks’ off-guard incumbent. Murray will need the ball, and Young may need to master the art of playing off the ball like, well, Curry. This will be an adjustment for Young and Murray, as the two All-Stars each played 100 percent of their minutes at point guard last season, per Cleaning the Glass.
Yet since Young entered the league, the Hawks have always believed they could fully unleash the best version of Young if he embraced moving off the ball. That skill isn’t entirely new for Young, who did it extensively in his AAU days alongside Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. In his limited off-ball attempts at the NBA level, Young has been brilliant. This past season, he scored 1.3 points per spot-up possession, ranking in the 97th percentile, per Synergy Sports. Young made 48.1 percent of his 77 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts last season.
Now that Young has a running mate in Murray, who can run the show with or without him on the floor, the Hawks can unlock their superstar’s full offensive arsenal. All it took was Gallinari’s partially guaranteed contract, a horde of draft assets and a few tense days of negotiations.
As the Hawks and Spurs talked about the deal late last week and through the weekend, there was a sense of confusion and disbelief from some of the involved parties on the Atlanta side. Were the Spurs really willing to part ways with a 25-year-old who is widely seen as one of the best under-the-radar talents in the league? Would they really welcome a full-on rebuild during Gregg Popovich’s twilight years? The Hawks knew the price would be high to land Murray, but the chance to solve so many of their problems by pairing him with Young in their backcourt was too good to pass up.
Then came the unnerving silence. Sources say the Spurs went quiet for an extended period early this week, with Hawks officials wondering internally if San Antonio might have been retreating from the possible deal or, perhaps, gaining momentum in trade talks elsewhere. Time was of the essence on the Hawks’ side, as Gallinari’s $21.45 million contract for this season was set to fully guarantee by Wednesday evening.
Yet while The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski reported that there were Murray-centric talks between the Spurs and Minnesota last week, the Timberwolves’ front office clearly wasn’t comfortable going all-in to land him. The Knicks were reported as a possible Murray landing spot, but a source with knowledge of their discussions said they did not talk to San Antonio about him. Atlanta, meanwhile, was clearly determined to find another elite wing talent.
While the Murray talks were evolving, sources say the Hawks were monitoring Brooklyn’s situation closely and – like so many other teams around the league – seriously preparing for the possibility that Nets star Kevin Durant might ask for a trade. While Kyrie Irving’s decision to opt in for the final year of his contract brought a quick end to the Durant chatter, the Hawks’ interest spoke volumes about the scope and urgency of their search.
In the end, Murray was their man.
(Top photo of Dejounte Murray: Brett Davis / USA Today)