I really do hate to admit this, but it sure looks like these Atlanta Hawks got my ass again.
Two seasons ago, wigged out about the pandemic and in the midst of a cross-country move, I volunteered to write for Razzball hoops and agreed to participate in the RazzJam. A true noob, I spent two of my first four picks on Trae Young and John Collins and then spent the winter watching that team be ground into dust and a bottom-20 finish. Never again, I told myself.
After confusing “never” with “just take a year off,” I once again find myself rostering Young (on another struggling RazzJam team) and Collins and living in a world of hurt. Blinded by the value of threes, points, assists, and elite free throws, I was snagging Trae at the end of the first round with an amnesia patient’s enthusiasm. Collins I was more disciplined about, passing on him in the middle rounds most of the time, but I still bought in during a 30-team dynasty start-up where I now have the privilege of rostering him for at least three years.
The season is still young, no doubt, but it’s not baby-fresh anymore. After 13 games, Collins is treading water as the 52nd-best player in 9-cat while Trae and his grotesque shooting percentage are languishing at 67th.
Yes, my people, these Hawks got another one over on me, at least for now. But will it last?
Let’s start with the good news: Dejounte Murray is killing it.
I was a touch reluctant to buy into either newly-formed All-Star backcourts this past draft season, routinely passing on Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, and Murray (though not Trae Young, of course, more on him later) because I was concerned about fit and couldn’t quite picture how shots and roles would shake out. Now that we’ve amassed enough data to begin taking stock of things, it’s becoming clear that my lack of vision has burned me. Mitchell was a force in Believeland’s early season while Garland missed quite a bit of time, posting top 5 value. Murray’s output isn’t that good, but it’s not so far behind.
It seemed reasonable to think that Murray, who benefitted last year from being the big fish in a small fantasy pond in San Antonio, was in line for a step back playing next to a usage hog like Trae Young. And while that has indeed happened – Murray’s usage has dipped to 25.8% after the career-best 28% last season – the reduced production across the board has been negligible. The rebounds have dipped from 8.3 to 6.3, and the dimes have dropped by one per game to 8.0, but the scoring is steady at 27 per game and the steals (2.2 per game) are genuinely elite.
That doesn’t mean everything is the same for Dejounte in Georgia. The shot diet has changed a bit for Murray, mostly by way of more three-point attempts. At 31.7%, the long ball still isn’t a huge part of Dejounte’s attack, which is good news because he’s still a below-average shooter from there (32%). By volume though, Murray’s 1.9 made triples for the Hawks is a career-best. There still aren’t a ton of free throws to speak of, but he is converting a career-high 87% on 2.4 attempts. An uptick in these areas, along with the massive steal value, has kept the slippage in rebounds and dimes from impacting the bottom line too much. Last year’s 7th-best player on a per-game basis is this year’s 12th-best. That raptor hunts.
And while it appears that Dejounte and Trae won’t be in each other’s way too much, the overall picture looks a lot like a your turn/my turn dynamic that’s producing the very worst kind of shots. Atlanta plays with pace, pushing it at a top 5 rate, and is taking care of the ball better than the rest of the league, but they’re not doing much offensively despite the inviting environment. An adjusted offensive rating of 112 is good enough for only 15th across the Association. The Hawks are middle of the road on the offensive glass, and despite Trae’s 105 attempted free throws (sixth-best in basketball), Atlanta has the second-worst free throw rate.
Worse than all of that is the team’s effective field goal rate of 51.6%, which is good enough for 22nd league-wide. Their problems are three-fold: No team shoots more midrange jumpers than Atlanta; their three-point rate of 30.5% is tied with the Pelicans for dead last in the NBA; and their rim attempts are in the bottom half of the league. Simply put, it’s hard to have a great offense when the shots are coming from the wrong spots at a high volume. The fact that only 55.8% of their baskets come off assists (only better than the Magic, Pistons, Clippers, and Luka Doncics) means that they’re not sharing the ball en route to all these crummy shots. The offense clunks so often that it’s damn near audible.
The fact that Trae Young is in the top 65 on per game basis despite the ruthless kneecapping he’s doing to your FG% value is a testament to his ceiling. In the context of usage (35.5%), scoring (27.4), and assisting (9.3) alone, you could mistakenly conclude that things are going okay for Trae. Take note, dear reader, things are not going okay. In fact, no one in basketball is doing more damage to your FG% than Young. The rates are just wretched – 37.9% on 22.7 attempts – but what really drove it home for me was when I realized that on any given night Young is contributing 14 missed shots to the cause. With friends like these.
Trae is missing from three (30.4%, a career-low), he’s missing from close (40% at the rim, good enough for the 1st percentile across the NBA), and he’s missing in the midrange (42%). The easy money catch-and-shoot game where Young is playing off of Murray’s drives? It’s not happening. The attempts are up about 4% from last year, but the hit rate is actually down to 27% from 48.1 percent. Even the wide-open looks aren’t falling (a frosty 37%). The only places he’s not missing from are very far away (9/21 on threes from 30+ feet out) and from the free throw line, where he’s converting on 90% of his 8.8 attempts per game. That last bit is the important part.
Young’s ability to sustain a high volume of free throws has been a lifeline for his scoring, and that parade of free throws should stay steady enough to provide a path out of this hell. The last time he averaged less than 7.3 freebies was his rookie season. I don’t know how long it’s going to take for Ice Trae to heat up, but it will come. In the meantime, the 9.3 dimes (4th best in basketball behind Haliburton, Harden, and Paul) and overall scoring will keep this whole thing afloat for now.
As bad as things are for Young, the outlook for John Collins is much worse. Despite averaging the third-most minutes on the team for the season, the recent trend in MP is cause for concern. During the first four games of the season, Collins was playing 36.1 minutes a game. That number is now down to 29.3 over the last nine, including three of the last four that failed to crack the 30-minute mark. Production, especially offensively, has waned too.
The scoring is really worrying – 12.4 points per (down from 16.2) is an alarming number on its face – but the shooting figures producing that rate are even more frightening. Collins is shooting fewer shots (9.5 now, last year that number was 11.9. Before that it was 12.2, before that 14.8), attempting fewer free throws (2.3 now; previously 3.1, 3.2, 3.4), and converting his field goal attempts at career-worst 50.4%, well below his career average of 55.8 percent. Threes, in both volume and attempts, are down. The only good mark, a career-best 93.3% at the free throw line, is all but certain to come down closer to the high-70s shooter that he’s proven himself to be.
In 9-cat leagues, Collins comes in as the 51st-best player on a per-game basis – a number that is being propped up by his strong first week of games. Over the last two weeks, he’s chipping in at a top-115 rate but the bottom is actively falling out. Last week he was barely inside the top 150 while providing negative value in every category except free throws and turnovers. That last “benefit” of reduced TOs is the faintest lining of silver and is certainly a result of seeing the ball less often.
Averaging 43.7 per game, Collins is third on the team in touches, a stat that sounds better than it is. Murray (70.8) and Young (76.5) outpace JC by nearly double and Clint Capela is nipping at his heels with 39.3. The year-over-year touch trend – last year’s average was 53.6, 52 before that, and 67.5 three seasons back – is miserable. Worse yet, he’s not attacking once he finally gets the rock. Collins is averaging 0.48 dribbles per touch, outpacing only Onyeka Okongwu (0.47) and Capela (0.24) among his teammates. These numbers paint a very clear statistical portrait that compliments what watching Collins often feels like: He seldom gets the ball, and when he does it’s on a lob, an offensive rebound, or a pass to him at the elbow or behind the three-point line. The ball immediately moves again, either as a shot or a pass, without applying any stress on the defense. He’s really not much of a weapon out there.
Collins’ production has declined since Clint Capela pushed him off the five in the 20-21 season, and Nate McMillan’s tenure as head coach has not softened that blow. The trends are bad and the recent run of play is troubling. There were times this week when Collins looked like a player who was starving. He’d dump off a pass to Capela under the basket and see it fumbled or the bunny blown. Overcorrecting at the next chance, he’d barrel into a forced attempt or a charge. If the jumper isn’t falling, forget about it. He’s simply not a priority offensively.
There are positive counting stats – boards and blocks – but I’m fearful that those will taper off as well if the minutes continue to slip. As someone who bought into Collins for the long haul this summer, I’m concerned that a course correction isn’t coming as long as he’s in Atlanta. After being floated in trade talks for literal years, a parting of ways could actually be a saving grace here. Considering the challenge of getting Trae Young right and better in sync with his new backcourt mate, it’s hard to think that McMillan will prioritize finding creative ways to get his talented but obviously ill-fitting forward back on track. The Hawks aren’t doing themselves any favors in the trade market by not featuring Collins. Feed him and free him.
Waiting in the Wings/Further Down the Pecking Order
Murray’s arrival seems to be having zero impact on Clint Capela, who is eating on the glass, finishing lobs, and turning back shots at more or less the same rates he always has. It’s all scraps for Capela, but he scraps alright. Minimal usage (15.6%) was anticipated and has indeed come true, but there’s enough value in 12 boards, 1.5 blocks, and 58.3% shooting from the field to keep CC in the top 50 on a per-game basis. Reports of his demise and the impending ascension of Onyeka Okongwu have been exaggerated. If starting all 12 games doesn’t reassure you, the 27.2 to 19.9 MPG gap should do the trick.
Does anyone do less with a starting job than De’Andre Hunter? A fixture in the starting lineup since his rookie year, Hunter’s never had a season when he played less than 29 minutes a game and has precisely one top-100 season to show for all that playing time. Bad news, comrades: this ain’t the top-100 season. Fifteen points per game on below-average percentages, four boards, no dimes, no stocks, and just 1.5 triples add up to a top-250 player in 9-cat fantasy this year. You can be forgiven if you bit on the PT promise, but it’s long past time to move on in standard leagues.
Both Justin and Aaron Holiday are in town now and are firmly in the way. They’re both seeing just under 20 minutes per game without having the decency of cracking the top 250 – a familiar routine for those who have stared at the Holiday brothers’ MP on the waiver wire. I’d expect Aaron’s minutes to be absorbed by Bogdan Bogdanovic when he finally finishes ramping up from knee surgery, but Justin may stick around just to frustrate those who are looking to get longer peeks at rookie AJ Griffin and second-year wing Jalen Johnson. Both young players find themselves at the bottom of the rotation in Atlanta but have nevertheless shown flashes. Griffin’s shooting stroke from three (45.8% on 2.7 attempts) is certainly encouraging, while Johnson’s defense (eight steals over his last six games) is ahead of his offense at this point. I like both and have shares of each in dynasty leagues, but they’re quite choked for opportunity as the roster currently stands.
Considering their early-season successes – at least relatively speaking; the Hawks are 8-5 and tied with Cleveland for third in the conference – it’s hard to foresee any drastic changes coming soon. Atlanta possesses a small but nevertheless positive net rating of +0.2, which puts them right in the middle (15th) of their peers. Not great, but not so bad that this particular group hasn’t earned more rope. Moreover, the Hawks are three-quarters of the way through a brutal 13-game stretch of schedule (featuring Milwaukee three times, Philadelphia twice, Toronto twice, Boston, Cleveland, New Orleans, and Utah) that they’ve navigated capably enough so far by winning five games and dropping four. There’s hope that things start clicking once the caliber of opponent slips a bit, but I’m not terribly optimistic about that.
The most efficient offense Nate McMillan has ever put together as a head coach was last year’s Hawks team. That group finished second in the NBA in offensive rating, scoring 116.5 points per 100 possessions. Every other team of his, including those middling Indiana squads, finished 11th or worse when compared to the rest of the league. Given the personnel on the roster, greater offensive output than what we’ve seen so far seems like a reasonable expectation. Trae Young getting his shot squared away will act as the rising tide that will lift some of these teamwide numbers — his massive role in the offense and the negative drag of his misses simply contain too much gravity not to impact the whole. Still, I’m not sure that McMillan will be the one to (finally) re-integrate John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, or either of the baby birds on the bench into the Hawks’ two-engine attack. Trae will start hitting more shots, hopefully sooner rather than later, but the looming return of Bogdan Bogdanovic represents the addition of another large piece to a puzzle that’s already a bit wonky. Maybe Nate has a plan and Bogi will snap in seamlessly, bringing the picture into focus and unlocking the offensive potential roosting in State Farm Arena, but that strikes me as a whole lot of wishful thinking. The reality might really be much more simple.
The Hawks got my ass again.