While the NBA community waits with bated breath to find out where Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Deandre Ayton and others will play next year, plenty of this summer’s most important deals have already gone down. Let’s check in on the three most aggressive moves so far, which involved a trio of teams looking to make a leap in 2022-23.
The Atlanta Hawks got the party started early, swinging a trade with the San Antonio Spurs for All-Star point guard Dejounte Murray the day before free agency opened. Atlanta paid a steep price, not in players (they only sent away Danilo Gallinari, who will be waived upon completion of the trade) but rather in draft picks: The Hawks sent San Antonio a 2023 first-round pick (which originally belonged to the Charlotte Hornets), plus their own 2025 and 2027 first-round picks and swap rights to their 2026 first-rounder. They then shipped Kevin Huerter to the Sacramento Kings for Justin Holiday, Mo Harkless and a protected first-round pick in 2024. (It’s a Kings pick, so let’s just assume it’ll eventually become two second-rounders.)
For all of that capital, the Hawks got a player who fills their roster gaps well. Even after making improvements in recent seasons,1 Murray is not much of a shooter, but he is an excellent defender who can hold his own in almost any perimeter matchup and is one of the best turnover-forcers in the NBA. Murray led the league in steals last season, making him a key addition for a Hawks defense that ranked 28th in opponent turnover rate.
Murray’s defense will spare Trae Young from the more difficult guard defensive matchup on a nightly basis. And on offense, Murray will serve as a second point guard on the floor (and likely run point solo with Young off the court), able to both take advantage of Young’s brilliant passing (Murray’s 54.4 effective field-goal percentage on drives ranked 34th among 151 players who drove to the rim at least 250 times last season, according to Second Spectrum) and allow Young to better weaponize his shooting by playing off the ball in half-court situations more often.
Last season, Trae had the ball in his hands more than every player in the league save for Luka Dončić and James Harden. That’s a taxing job, and it took a toll on Young’s off-ball movement. Among the 178 players leaguewide who ran at least 1 mile per game on offense, per Second Spectrum, Young ranked 150th in time spent moving fast (as opposed to slow or medium speed). Considering he ranked 21st among that same group of players in maximum speed, that seems like a waste of a weapon who could have thrown opposing defenses into chaos. Murray will allow the Hawks to access that weapon more often, assuming Young commits to utilizing it (which is no guarantee based on his history of not exactly being engaged when off the ball).
Murray is also set to make just $34.3 million over the next two seasons combined, giving him one of the most team-friendly contracts in the league. But the ultimate fate of this trade probably depends on what Atlanta does next. Given the extensive draft capital the Hawks gave up to secure his services, they will likely make every effort to re-sign Murray when he hits free agency following the 2023-24 season.2 That gives Atlanta two years to convince Murray to stick around, and the team will presumably have to give him reason beyond his friendship with Young (with whom he shares the same agency). While they haven’t yet depleted their entire asset cupboard, the Hawks will need to nail whatever moves they make with John Collins and/or Clint Capela, the Hawks’ last remaining high-level trade pieces who could help build around their new Young-Murray duo.
A similar all-in push came from the Minnesota Timberwolves, who sent Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Leandro Bolmaro, the rights to No. 22 overall pick Walker Kessler, unprotected first-round picks in 2023, 2025 and 2027 and a top-five-protected pick in 2029 to the Utah Jazz for three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.
Karl-Anthony Towns should fit with Gobert on offense — at least in the regular season. People can joke all they want about Towns declaring himself the greatest big-man shooter of all time, but the guy has a 53-40-83 shooting line for his career, on considerable volume. He’s also an excellent post scorer and a high-level passer, while Gobert has been one of the NBA’s most effective pick-and-roll dive men over the last several seasons. The duo will give Anthony Edwards3 vastly different ball-screen partners, allowing the budding star wing to diversify his game even more than he did during his sophomore season. Meanwhile, the spacing with Gobert next to Towns won’t be much worse than it was with Vanderbilt.
Of course, this trade was not about offense. It was about defense, and Gobert has essentially been a top-10 defense unto himself for his entire career: Utah ranked seventh, third, second, second, 13th, fourth and ninth in defensive efficiency in Gobert’s seven full seasons as the team’s starting center, despite routinely employing subpar perimeter defenders. So it’s a good bet that he will transform Minnesota’s defense immediately. Gobert remains an elite rim protector, and he is arguably the best in the NBA at executing the league’s most common pick-and-roll defensive tactic (drop coverage, where he lapped the field in fewest points allowed per possession last season, according to Second Spectrum).
Minnesota allowed opponents to convert 66.4 percent of their shots in the restricted area last season, per NBA Advanced Stats, which ranked ninth-worst in the league. That will almost certainly not happen again with Gobert in town, considering he has ranked no worse than sixth in opponent field-goal percentage when he was within 5 feet of both the rim and the shooter over the past seven seasons.4 Towns ranked significantly lower on those same lists, a clear motivating factor in Minnesota’s decision to pair him with the three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
How Towns will fare defending in space more often is an open question — as is how the Wolves will adjust to likely running a much tamer defensive system than they did a year ago, when they were among the most aggressive defenses in the NBA. Gobert should be able to paper over most weaknesses for at least the next couple of seasons, but it’s worth remembering that the Frenchman turned 30 this offseason, a benchmark after which NBA players tend to decline. What happens when Gobert drops off from being a perennial Defensive Player of the Year front-runner to merely an above-average defender? That day may be coming sooner than the Wolves think, and they’ll likely be paying Gobert more than $40 million per season when it does.
As an aside, in case you’re counting, the Murray and Gobert deals included five unprotected first-round picks, one just-selected first-round pick, one top-five protected pick and one first-round pick swap — all in exchange for two players who were All-Stars but not All-NBA players last season. Sheesh.
The New York Knicks did not surrender nearly as much draft capital to land their man as did the Hawks and Wolves, but they did expend a lot of effort to clear cap space to sign Jalen Brunson (four years, $104 million). In a series of transactions around draft night, the Knicks sent out essentially six future second-round picks5 to shed the contracts of Kemba Walker, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel, while also turning the No. 11 overall pick in last month’s draft (Ousmane Dieng) into three protected future first-rounders. All of that was done with Brunson in mind, to go with adding Isaiah Hartenstein (two years, $16 million) and re-signing Mitchell Robinson (four years, $60 million).
Brunson is an excellent fit for what Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau likes in a point guard. He’s tough and aggressive, he lives in the paint, and (this might actually be the most important part, at least for Thibs) they have known each other for years. The Knicks ran the fourth-most pick and rolls per 100 possession last season, per Second Spectrum, and Brunson is excellent in the action: Among 56 players who ran at least 1,000 ball screens last season, Brunson’s were the 11th-most fruitful when the play resulted in a shot, turnover or foul drawn by either Brunson or a teammate one pass away.
But there are worries that Brunson’s production was the result of his role on the Dallas Mavericks: Second Spectrum classified 799 of Brunson’s 1,691 pick and rolls as “spread,” or coming from a five-out alignment. Dallas’s spacing of the floor with shooters allowed Brunson freer access to the paint than he is likely to get in New York, where Thibodeau almost always has two traditional big men on the floor — at least one of whom is a total non-factor away from the rim. The Knicks ran 2,396 spread pick and rolls last season, out of 6,722 total. That’s a 35.6 percent rate, compared with the 47.2 percent rate Brunson had in Dallas a year ago.
That said, Brunson should be able to form a fortuitous partnership with both Robinson and Hartenstein on pick and rolls, and with Hartenstein on dribble hand-offs.6 Brunson, a lefty, likes to operate from the left side of the floor, which could pose a problem for fellow southpaw Julius Randle (if he’s not traded) but makes for a good fit with RJ Barrett, who was among the league leaders in right-corner 3-point attempts in each of the last two seasons and made 39.3 percent of those shots during that time. Keeping Barrett (also a lefty) on the right side of the floor allows him to get to his left hand as a driver on second-side action, where he should thrive working off the opportunities Brunson creates.
New York is still likely to struggle offensively due to an overall lack of spacing and Thibodeau’s maddeningly archaic philosophy, but the Knicks should — finally! — have point guard play good enough to get a clear evaluation of the young players whom Thibs deigns to put on the floor. Unless more moves are coming, however, New York’s two signings could siphon some playing time (and touches) away from Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin and Quentin Grimes. That would be unfortunate, considering the flashes each has shown to date.