After a blockbuster trade sent Donovan Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers, many people forgot about the other backcourt collaboration that had been orchestrated earlier this summer in Atlanta. However, the new pairing of Trae Young and Dejounte Murray still has plenty of intrigue around them. And in three games together, the tandem has begun to live up to their billing.
While moments of ‘your turn, my turn’ basketball have transpired between the two All-Star guards from time to time, the Hawks have done a noble job of influencing the duo to play off one another organically.
Three actions they’ve used to help facilitate this symbiosis are curl cuts, off-ball staggered screens, and HORNS.
Ironically enough, curl cuts were suggested as a tool the Cavaliers should deploy with Mitchell and Darius Garland. And for the same reasons that action was a logical choice for them, it has been working for Murray and Young in Atlanta.
The instructions are simple: one guard handles the ball at the top while the other ‘curls’ off a screen, catches a pass in stride, and attacks at a downward trajectory.
The call works because both guards are talented attackers (both finished in the top 10 in drives per game last season), and since one is starting off-ball while the other acts as an on-ball decoy, it negates the defenses’ ability to load up on them.
It’s this same line of thinking that makes off-ball staggered screens an effective option in the halfcourt. The alignment is nearly identical to the curl cut, except instead of curling off of one screen, the subject is striking off of two (which means twice the strain on the defense).
Notice how one screener rolled to the rim while the other popped out for a three? There’s so much optionality available with these off-ball staggered screens, and it’s all accessible to the Hawks because they have great passers navigating through the action (Murray and Young were both top-4 in APG last year).
Lastly, HORNS has many different variations, but it almost always begins with the ballhandler at the top of the arc and two players stationed around the elbow area.
Traditionally, the two players at the elbows are bigs, but in the clip below, we see Young parked in one of those spots. This matters because Young is a far more skilled decision-maker and shooter than most big men, so he presents a challenge defenses aren’t accustomed to when they see that formation.
That specific possession ultimately fails, but the possibilities for Murray and Young in HORNS are endless.
The key takeaway here is that halfcourt possessions featuring these two are best spent having one guard help the other pierce defenses in creative ways going downhill.
Don’t Worry About the Halfcourt Too Much
Along with being a high-end offensive player, Murray is one of the league’s best defensive playmakers. Last season, he led the entire association in total steals per game, and now he’s picking up where he left off, currently sitting at third in the statistic through three games this year.
His thirst for chaos leads to turnovers and transition opportunities that the Hawks were sorely lacking last year. And his box score impact is already being felt in both of those categories. In 2021-22, Atlanta was 16th in opponent turnover percentage and dead-last in fastbreak points per game. They now sit in 8th and 3rd in those measures, respectively.
More importantly, in the context of his fit with Young, these transition forays mitigate the team’s halfcourt possessions and allow them to avoid some of the clunkiness their styles may present.
Speaking of clunkiness, there is one quandary that has already become apparent through their first three outings. To illustrate, let’s first take a look at these two clips:
In the first clip, pay attention to how far out Young is able to lure Cole Anthony and how much easier that makes Murray’s drive to the rim. Inversely, in the second sequence, see how much Josh Christopher feels comfortable sagging off of Murray in the corner and how it enables him to tag a rolling John Collins with no consequence.
I know what you are thinking: why don’t we have Murray work primarily on-ball and let Young space the floor with his threat to shoot?
In theory, that is a splendid strategy. But in practice, this proposition likely doesn’t hold up because Young is the superior offensive engine, and you want the ball in his hands more times than not.
Minor critiques like this may seem excessive, but holes like this are exactly the kind that teams tend to poke in the playoffs. If the Hawks leave the ball in Young’s hands, opponents will sag off Murray and dare him to burn them. And if Atlanta assigns a majority of on-ball duties to Murray, their adversaries will gladly welcome the prospect of having avoided the wrath of one of the great floor generals of this generation.
Still, this potential conundrum shouldn’t be cause for immediate concern. The early returns of the Murray/Young era appear promising, and at the very least, Murray’s presence makes the Hawks a team with questions worth trying to answer. And that’s a wonderful sign in an Eastern Conference that’s as loaded as ever.