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How the Kevin Huerter Trade May Haunt the Hawks

Atlanta has taken a big step back on offense, while its former sharpshooter is thriving in Sacramento.

It can be hard to make sense of the Hawks.

On one hand, five of their 10 wins have come against teams without winning records, four of which include tank squads like Orlando, Detroit and Houston. On the other hand, they have wins against the likes of the SixersBucks and frisky Raptors. And their last six losses have all come against good teams over .500. Overall, Atlanta enters Wednesday’s matchup with the red-hot Kings at 10–7, with a minus-0.3 net rating. While there are reasons to be bullish on this team—a starry backcourt, talented young players coming into their own, a weak division—there are also reasons for pause. And one issue in particular is rather confounding: the offense.

Through 17 games, Atlanta currently has the 19th-ranked offense in the NBA, behind the likes of the Knicks and Thunder. The Hawks’ 110.8 offensive rating would be the franchise’s worst mark since 2020, when they finished 25th in offensive efficiency. Despite the addition of Dejounte Murray in the summer, Atlanta’s had a Tower of Terror–level drop in scoring since last season, when it finished second in offensive rating. (The Hawks finished ninth in ’21.) And the culprit is staring Atlanta in the face like a baby watching TV: three-point shooting.

Not only are the Hawks not shooting many threes, when they do decide to take them, they aren‘t making many. Atlanta shoots only 28.7 threes a night, second fewest in the league ahead of only the DeMar DeRozan–led Bulls, its sole partner in the Under-30-Threes Club. (It’s not a fun place to hang out.) And adding insult to injury, the Hawks are connecting on a bricky 32.7% from deep, the fourth-worst mark in the NBA.

It’s surprising to see those numbers from a Trae Young–led offense. Atlanta’s current starting five of Young, Murray, De’Andre HunterJohn Collins and Clint Capela has been very solid, and its 114.3 offensive efficiency is nothing to scoff at. But it would also be the worst offensive rating for a Young-led starting lineup in the last four seasons. In 2020 and ’21, each of Atlanta’s two most-used lineups were better offensively than the Hawks’ current starting five.

Part of the issue has been Young himself. His efficiency has ticked down considerably. He’s shooting slightly fewer threes than last year and on pace to shoot at a career-worst rate from three and the field. Coupled with a decrease in field goal percentage at the rim and a slight uptick in floater range, Young hasn’t been quite the same offensive player he was last season when he led the league in total points and assists. The good news is Young has not forgotten how to play offense, and it would be surprising if his outside shooting at least did not improve as the season progresses.

The bad news is the team has lost significant shooting on the perimeter, and the in-house answers aren’t great. Murray is an incredibly skilled player, but the deep ball has never been his strong suit. Bogdan Bogdanović hasn’t played so far this season due to injury, and he was both a volume and efficient three-point sniper last year. Also missing are Danilo Gallinari (sent to the Spurs in the Murray trade, and now with the Celtics) and Kevin Huerter (who was salary dumped after the Murray deal). Bogi, Huerter and Gallo combined to hit 6.6 threes a night a season ago, with none shooting lower than 36.8%. They not only provided points but valuable space for Young to operate. (Even guys like Delon Wright and Lou Williams helped in that regard.)

This year’s team doesn’t have the same juice. Launching from beyond the arc is not Murray’s game. Collins’s shot has fallen off a cliff (36.4% to 26.9%). And the Brothers Holiday (Aaron and Justin) and AJ Griffin aren’t volume shooters.

What would frustrate me as a Hawks fan is at least part of this is self-inflicted. Atlanta didn’t need to move Huerter in the summer, even if his role would have been marginalized after acquiring Murray. He’s been shooting the synthetic leather off the ball in Sacramento, hitting a comical (and frankly, unsustainable) 50% of his 7.4 threes a night for the Kings, who currently have the best offense in the league. (Huerter recently drew comparisons to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson from none other than Kevin Durant.)

Huerter is in the first year of a four-year extension he originally signed with Atlanta, a deal that looks better every time he comes off a handoff and tickles the twine with another three. He was traded for Justin Holiday, Moe Harkless and a future first in a move clearly designed to manage a potential luxury tax bill, and that’s a bummer. Imagine Huerter in a three-guard lineup with Murray and Young, possibly flanked by Hunter and Capela. Cue the Mo’Nique GIF—I would like to see it.

Meanwhile, more names have since popped up in trade rumors for Atlanta, with both Collins and Bogdanović reportedly available for the right price. Perhaps these guys can bring back some of the shooting the team currently lacks. But if the main objective there is to get some money off the books—especially with the cap expected to rise—that would be disappointing!

Huerter returns to Atlanta on Wednesday, and it’s hard not to see him as a symbol of sorts for the big-picture questions surrounding the Hawks. Does this team have enough shooting to truly compete with the best squads in the conference? Is ownership committed to paying for the proper supporting cast around Young and Murray? Couldn’t we have gotten at least one full Paper Boi track? (Sorry, wrong Atlanta.)

Again, all is not lost here. Far from it! Griffin has been very fun to start the season. Capela is a legitimate defensive anchor. Murray has fit in nicely. Onyeka Okongwu lurks as the next underappreciated big man. And the Hawks should be favored to win their division.

Still, for every three Huerter hits Wednesday night, or for all the space he provides his costars, remember there was no reason he couldn’t be doing that for Atlanta. I love that the Hawks made the swing for Murray in the summer. Hopefully the moves that follow from here are more sensible and less financial. 

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