Hawks’ next coach will have to solve Trae Young’s puzzle

Lloyd Pierce, like so many coaches, was fired for reasons beyond his control. The Hawks were supposed to push into the playoffs after a painful rebuilding process in their first two seasons in charge. But waves of injuries prevented Pierce from having a full roster, and Atlanta parted ways with the coach on Monday. Those injuries also prevented him from finding an answer to the dilemma that his replacement – whether it’s interim head coach Nate McMillan or someone Atlanta hires this offseason – will have to contend: How much can and should Trae Young play without the ball?

The Hawks gave Young the keys to the offense from day one. He has been one of the guards with the greatest dominance of the ball in the NBA for the last three seasons:

Trae Young’s NBA Ranks

Season Average time per possession Touches per game
Season Average time per possession Touches per game
2020-21 3 8
2019-20 1 7
2018-19 6 14

As a result, Young has racked up massive individual numbers, with career averages of 24.1 points and 8.8 assists per game. But none of that has translated into team success. The Hawks were one of the worst teams in the NBA in their first two seasons and are 14-20 with a net rating of minus-0.3 this season.

There are good and bad things that come with being in full control of the offense. It’s easy for Young to get into rhythm because he always has the ball, but that also means he doesn’t have anyone to set him up for easier shots when he’s fighting. The most telling statistic, according to Synergy Sports, is that only 8 percent of his shots this season have come from catch-and-shoot situations, compared to 39.2 percent where he shoots from the dribble.

It’s an unusual situation for such a young point guard. Trae came to the league after a season in college, and he was immediately one of the smallest players in the NBA at 6ft 1in and 180lbs. He was thrown into the fire immediately. There was no learning period for him to learn the NBA game and develop physically while playing a smaller role on offense.

That is the typical career of players like him. In his early seasons, Damian Lillard played a minor role on a veteran team led by LaMarcus Aldridge. James Harden and Russell Westbrook were forced to share the ball with a super team in Oklahoma City. Steph Curry has never dominated the ball the way Young has because of Golden State’s unique offensive system.

Ironically, the other point guard asked to do everything right away is Luka Doncic, who Young will always be compared to for trading his teams on draft night. Neither has shown much interest in playing without the ball. But it’s also a little bit of chicken and egg. You don’t want to give up the stone because you are not comfortable doing it or because there is no one on your team that you trust to take it?

Young has never had much help in Atlanta. The team’s offense completely fell apart as soon as it left the court in each of its first three seasons. That was supposed to change this season following the signings of Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn. Instead, it’s been the same old story. The Hawks went from an offensive rating of 115.4 with Trae to 101.8 without him. That is the difference between the no. 7 offense in the NBA and no. 30.

Young’s role is a long-term puzzle for the franchise, but the team’s immediate problem has been injuries. Gallinari has played in 22 of 34 games, Rondo has played in 18 and Bogdanovic, who has been out since early January with an avulsion fracture in his left knee, has played only in nine. Dunn hasn’t played at all while recovering from ankle surgery in the offseason. The most significant injury was that of De’Andre Hunter, who injured his knee on January 29. Hunter had emerged as their best two-way player in his second season, and the Hawks haven’t been able to replace everything he provided on both ends of the floor. They are 9-9 with Hunter this season and 5-11 without him.

Atlanta might have waited to see what Pierce could do with the entire roster at his disposal, but general manager Travis Schlenk felt it was time for a change. McMillan, a longtime NBA head coach who was Pierce’s main assistant after spending the past four seasons in Indiana, will be in a good position. You should be more successful than your old boss just because you will have a better team to work with.

There are two red flags this season that may have pushed Atlanta to act now with Pierce. The first is your performance at the decisive moment. The Hawks have the second worst net rating (minus-21.1 in 63 minutes) in the clutch (the last five minutes of a game with a margin of five points or less). They have wasted 11 advantages in the fourth quarter.

The second is the sequel to a story in The athletic about an argument in the movie theater between Young and John Collins. That kind of thing happens all the time in the NBA, but it rarely leaks to the media. It clearly hit Young, who had one of the worst games of his career in a loss to Charlotte (seven points on 2 of 9 shooting and three assists) after the dispute.

The main theme through both themes is the way Trae masters the ball. Collins, who turned down an extension for less than the maximum and will be a restricted free agent this offseason, was frustrated by his lack of opportunities on offense. Despite being on the receiving end of many assists from Young, he wanted the Hawks to play with a more fluid style that allowed multiple players to control the ball. It’s hard to interpret Trae’s lack of aggressiveness against the Hornets as anything more than a comment to Collins, with him essentially saying, “Look what happens when I have a minor role on offense.”

But that argument goes backwards when it comes to a watershed moment. Young takes care of everything in those moments, and he hasn’t been particularly effective. He’s shooting 38.5 percent from the field and 20 percent from three, while dishing out 13 assists and nine turnovers. It’s hard to pinpoint a reason, especially given the small sample size of just 63 minutes, but it can’t help the fact that defenses can get to him, knowing that no one else will start the offense.

Young will almost certainly improve over time in the fourth quarter. He doesn’t have a lot of experience in big games at the NBA level because the Hawks were so bad in their first two seasons. He is still five or six years away from his prime. The question for Atlanta is what their offense should look like at the time.

The Hawks already have the pieces in place to be a perennial playoff team. Their best players have been very effective together this season. Young, Collins, Hunter and Clint Capela have a net rating of over 12.9 in 204 minutes. Combine those four, none of whom are over 26, with two promising wings in Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter, and Atlanta has one of the best young cores in the league.

But the game is played differently in the playoffs compared to the regular season. In the postseason, defenses will force a point guard who dominates the ball to give up the ball. A one-man offense can only go so far. The Hawks aren’t ready for that, in large part because Young isn’t.

This is why your next coach is so important. They will have to design an offense that empowers more than one player. More importantly, they will have to get Young to accept a more balanced system. Pierce had no choice but to let his star point guard be the system in Atlanta. Until Young learns to give that up, the Hawks will always have a roof over their heads.

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