There have been 49 seasons in NBA history — accomplished by 17 total players — in which an NBA player averaged at least 20 points and 9 assists per game. Trae Young and Dejounte Murray joined that vaunted list last season, Young for the Atlanta Hawks and Murray for the San Antonio Spurs. Both are ball-dominant point guards who ran their individual team offenses with precision. But then on June 30, the Atlanta Hawks traded for Murray.
Their partnership will be, in many ways, unprecedented.
The NBA has never before seen teammates average at least 20 points and 9 assists per game. There’s no guarantee that Young and Murray will reach those thresholds again, but they will still make history. Never before have new teammates even hit those benchmarks in the season before joining forces. In fact, the only time two players who averaged at least 20 points and 9 assists per game at any point in their careers found themselves on the same team was last season, when LeBron James (reached those thresholds in 2017-18 and 2019-20) and Russell Westbrook (reached those thresholds in 2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2020-21) linked in Los Angeles to disastrous effect. The Hawks aim higher.
The NBA has never before seen teammates average at least 20 points and 9 assists per game.
Young and Murray are used to leading offenses, having both finished in the top 10 in per-game touches last year and in the top six in per-game shots out of the pick and roll. But on the offensive end, not all skills are redundant, and even though both point guards are used to dominating the ball doesn’t mean they won’t complement each other in many ways.
A complementary pairing
Even though Murray finished with a mediocre 3-point percentage last season, that was split between shooting 28.0 percent on pullups and a much more solid 34.5 percent off the catch. Young, for his part, is an elite shooter in practically any situation. That means that Murray might be better placed off the ball to maximize spacing for the Hawks. Furthermore, both Young and Murray finished in the top eight in drives per game last year while shooting approximately 50 percent on shots out of drives. Whichever of them runs the show and initiates the offense, the other should be deadly when attacking from the second side against rotations, either shooting or driving into the heart of the defense and making plays. There is inherent value to stationing a point guard off the ball and letting him find easier reads. Murray is a brilliant straight-line driver, and he’ll have more open lanes to the rim than ever before playing alongside Young. He is fantastic at ensuring his offense limits turnovers, which would port well to any role.
In many ways, Murray may be asked to be a shooting guard alongside Young. The Hawks’ incumbent star likely won’t see a reduction in his touches or his pick-and-roll possessions; he’s too good for that. He’s already one of the best five or 10 offensive players in basketball, and there’s no reason to mess with that. Murray’s job will be to help, not to supplant.
Murray should have little trouble transitioning to an off-ball guard on the offensive end. He is not as dominant a pick-and-roll scorer, creator, or pull-up shooter as Young. And his weaknesses will be ameliorated by Young’s presence. Murray doesn’t help his team create free throws — Young has long been one of the best in the league in that regard. Murray is overqualified to be “just” a shooting guard, but that doesn’t mean his skills will go to waste. If Atlanta wants to emphasize Murray’s skills as a point guard without detracting from Young, there are ways to do that.
Reinventing the offense
The Hawks could try to shift the modern heliocentric model — of which Young is one of the modern pioneers — into one based on two stars as gravitational centers. Murray will obviously run the offense in the few minutes when Young sits. But the redesign could be far deeper than that. There could be some creative play calling, with the Hawks instituting more read-and-react offensive structure to allow whichever guard is on the second side to attack out of pick and rolls, rather than simple my-turn-your-turn designs. And the Hawks might be the team best built for that, with Clint Capela and John Collins both elite screening options — both ranked in the top 25 last year for screening possessions per game, and both ranked in the top 10 for screening efficiency. Either Murray or Young can initiate plays on one wing with one screening partner, and a quick swing could pivot into an immediate secondary pick and roll — with two elite screening options and two elite handling options, the team wouldn’t have to wait for their center to amble to the other side for that secondary attack. Point guards process events rapidly on the offensive end, and the team should try its hardest to create an offense that takes advantage of both guards’ processing speeds.
If Head Coach Nate McMillan and the Hawks wanted to be even more creative, they could run Horns Out sets, with a point guard stationed as the screeners on each elbow, with layered options for different styles of play initiation that weaponizes the skills of both guards together. Such options could include guard-for-guard screens, Spain screens, or practically endless possibilities to transform the unique combination of point guards into chaos the defense has to solve. The Miami Heat and Minnesota Timberwolves use versions of inverted Horns. The Brooklyn Nets tested the waters on Horns Out with guards as both elbow screeners last year when James Harden was on the team.
But creativity will arguably come in brief bursts, and there may well be a clear hierarchy with Young continuing to run the show most of the time. As it stands, the Hawks already had the second-best half-court offense in the league last year by running a huge portion of corners-filled pick and rolls. Murray could do little more than stand in the corner, and the Hawks would have an elite offense. Murray will arguably help most when Young sits — when the Hawks’ offense plummeted. But the trade makes the most sense on the other side of the floor.
A vital defensive boost
Defensively, Young has never been able to compensate for his lack of size or strength. He has never even cracked the 30th percentile in defensive on/offs, and the Hawks were 4.2 points per 100 possessions worse last season on the defensive end with Young playing. Neither have the Hawks been able to compensate for Young. Atlanta had the 26th-best half-court defense last year — because Young plays a lot. (The Hawks were slightly above average on the defensive end with Young on the bench.)
Murray should help dramatically. He’s an elite ball stealer, shot blocker, and rebounder at the guard spot. Young has never played alongside an off-ball guard with his incredible athletic gifts. (The closest would probably have been Kris Dunn in 2020-21, but due to injury Dunn played in only four games. The two never shared the court.) Murray is 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, giving him enough size and length to switch far down the positional spectrum. Last year, the Spurs were 2.4 points per 100 possessions stingier on the defensive end with Murray playing. No guard on a Young-led Hawks team has ever reached that mark while playing at least 1000 minutes (10-15 minutes per game) in a season.
Murray will be the lockdown point-of-attack defender that the Hawks have never had in the Young era. He’ll guard opposing lead guards, particularly in isolation and the pick and roll, giving Young the opportunity to guard elsewhere and try to stay out of the heat of the action. Murray can switch onto wings if Atlanta wants to play a modern, flexible defense, or he’ll offer excellent rearview contests if Atlanta wants to play drop. The Hawks have never had a guard able to do that at an elite level alongside Young. Last year, De’Andre Hunter had to do a large amount of “guard” duties on the defensive end. Having Murray in the fold will allow him to shift back to where he’s most comfortable as a wing stopper.
Will it work?
None of this guarantees success. There are elements that need improvement for Atlanta. Young will still need to become a better defender. He can start possessions off the ball, but he’ll still need to be able to hedge and recover, rotate correctly, and offer more rigidity when forced on the ball — improving in ways similar to how Steph Curry has for the Golden State Warriors. John Collins will need to become a better rim protector and self creator. Clint Capela will need to return to his status as All-Defense-caliber back-end stopper. De’Andre Hunter will need to improve even more as a connective passer. But those are all internal goals. Perhaps they won’t all happen together, but it’s likely some of them take place.
Most of all, that’s what Murray’s addition means to Atlanta — the requirements for this team to take the next step to a title contender depend on in-house progression. Those are controllable. The Hawks have never had a player like Murray during the Young era, and they’ve needed him desperately. Now they have him. It’s worth asking whether the Hawks will allow both players to be themselves. This is a new type of player combination, after all, and the only realistic precedent of James and Westbrook was an utter failure. Fortunately for Atlanta, they can simply ask Murray to be a shooting guard and enjoy his contributions as an overqualified sidekick to Young who solves defensive problems. Or they can try to legitimately innovate on the offensive end and see what two true ball-dominant point guards can do together. Either way, the Hawks finally have the flexibility that they’ve lacked for so long.