Saturday, April 16, 2022

Trae Young Is a Miracle


I thought Trae Young was the third-best prospect in the 2018 draft. I didn't think Trae Young would be this good. 

Lon Kruger, the pride of Silver Lake, Kansas, didn't think Trae Young would be this good, and not just because that would raise awkward questions about why Oklahoma kind of sucked during Young's season there. (Don't worry, Lon, the college basketball rules suck, especially as applied to and impacting gifted offensive players.) 

Two-time national champion* Bill Self, who desperately wanted Trae Young to share the backcourt with Devonte' Graham (oooh, foreshadowing) for a season, didn't think Trae Young would be this good. 

*Rock Chalk

Rayford Young surely loves and believes in the son who shares his name, but could any father** convert his hopes for his child into thinking he could be this good. 

**Personal news: I have a lot more thoughts about fatherhood than the last time I darkened these corners.

Travis Schlenk, who was more right about Trae Young (and by a significant amount) than any other decision-maker in the NBA, Travis Schlenk didn't think Trae Young would be this good. 

Trae Young thought Trae Young would be this good. He was right and I am grateful.

A Brief Look Back

I am an Atlanta Hawks fan because the Kansas City Kings moved to Sacramento when I was eight years old, thus I arrived in Atlanta six years after that as a boy without a NBA team. I became fully attached to the Hawks three years later when they traded for my childhood hero, Danny Manning. Terrible trade. Danny Manning is a marvel. These are both true to me.

The Hawks remained compelling without excelling for a half-decade after that, then embarked on a near-decade-long rebuilding process that Al Horford eventually ended with help from Josh Smith and Joe Johnson (in that order). There are countless thousands of words in the archives here about those interesting, poorly owned (thus poorly ran) teams. There are a few things written here about the two excellent pace-and-space Hawks teams that Mike Budenholzer and Danny Ferry built before Budenholzer destroyed them prematurely and unnecessarily.

All of that to say I have no first- or second-hand relationship to the feelings Dominique Wilkins graced Hawks fans with in the 1980s. In terms of the franchise's history, this Trae Young playoff shit feels like that. For me, it's sui generis. Apologies if any of this reeks of a middle-aged man in a state of over-stimulation. Look away if you must. I understand.

With all due respect to the 2020-21 and 2021-22 rosters in their entireties, members of whom will be touched on here and there from here on out (but not in any comprehensive way), and their contributions to playoff and post-regular season success (to-date and any yet to come), Trae Young carrying the Hawks to playoff and post-regular season success (to-date and any yet to come) is personally enriching. Trae Young avoiding and escaping the greatest basketball players in the world* over-and-over again, as their fans chant "Fuck Trae Young," until their shoulders slump in defeat**, then owning the court, shushing and bowing with an air of "I said 'Fuck you' back to you in a way for which you have no possible response" is something that will never grow old.

*Also, the Knicks

**Players and paying customers both, eventually

Cleveland, Ohio - April 15, 2022

In the first half of the play-in game Friday night, every fact-based criticism or perceived doubt about Trae Young was true. He was horrible defensively, and the Cavaliers made the Hawks pay for that in myriad ways: at the point of attack, with off-ball cuts the moment his attention waned, and by taking free paths to offensive rebounds when Young stood and watched a Cleveland shot go up. Offensively, Young struggled to score against physicality (Isaac Okoro and Caris LaVert) and length (the great Evan Mobley and the long-absent Jarrett Allen giving all he had*). His shot selection wasn't ideal (4 long twos and 2 30-foot threes among his 11 first half shots). Compounding it all, his teammates only made one open three off of a shot he created for them. The bedrock belief in Trae Young, NBA player, was that no matter what, his passing would play at this level. In the first half Friday night, that was still true, but it didn't matter.

*Luckily for the Hawks all Allen had left for the second half (3 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 turnover, 3 fouls) was falling down theatrically to no useful purpose at the slightest contact.

That the Hawks were within 10 at the half was down to yeoman's work on the glass by Clint Capela, by that point done for the game and who knows how much longer*, and Bogdan Bogdanovic providing 14 points on 5 shots, effectively shooting better than 100%. Things looked a little grim, even allowing for the possibility of Cleveland reverting back to a league-average three-point shooting team instead of Lauri Markkanen looking more like Dale Ellis' son than Pekka's.

*Get well soon, Clint, and, failing that and given the contract extension (more to come on that, below), get completely well eventually.

Things got so much better, it's a bit of a shock to look back and remember how long it took for things to get better. The Cavs were up 9 with 3:48 left in the third quarter. To be fair, Delon Wright had only been on the court for 64 seconds of the second half at that point. From the 3:48 mark, it took just 126 seconds of Wright's ferocious, singular perimeter defense paired* with Young's simultaneously accustomed and astonishing offensive brilliance (28 points and 2 assists, 0 turnovers in his final 11:37 on the court) to give the Hawks their first lead. 

*Not since the tag-team, second-half point guard display of Dajuan Harris and Remy Martin in the National Championship game has a you-dominate-defensively-I'll-dominate-offensively partnership looked so powerful. Rock Chalk.

This is not the time or place for analysis of how he did it. Wes Morton beat me to it, and I'm not going to be able to improve on his work, anyway. Rest assured, Trae Young left the Cavaliers grasping at air, chasing ghosts, questioning their faith, helpless, hopeless, ultimately defeated, sitting with that queasy feeling, rare to team sports, that you lost because one person was so much better than you that the whole construct of a team didn't really matter.

The Whole Construct of a Team

For the Hawks to contend regularly for a NBA title, the whole construct of a team matters a lot.

I'm going to circle back to the first section:

Travis Schlenk didn't think Trae Young would be this good.

My argument for this rests on all the things Travis Schlenk has gotten wrong and all the ways he's undermined the many important things he's gotten right, while flailing and failing to build a team that takes full advantage of Trae Young's offensive brilliance and mitigates his defensive limitations. 

Schlenk's rebuild was jump started when John Collins inexplicably fell to the 19th pick of the 2017 draft. Even more inexplicably, Schlenk never warmed to Collins. At least in the sense of never outwardly treating him as a core element of the team's successful future. Maybe Schlenk doesn't value the valor in not fucking up an obvious decision - taking John Fucking Collins with the 19th pick of the draft - compared to being right about Trae Young. Maybe Schlenk was wary about Collins getting to play one year under Budenholzer and thus never operating under any delusions that Schlenk's hand-picked successor, Lloyd Pierce, was the right man for the job. And, knowing that, what about the man doing the hand-picking? What does John Collins think about him?

Oh, supposition regarding my perceived foils, I've missed you. Also, I love John Collins. He's great. Trae  Young and John Collins. Build around that. That's my pitch.

If this piece has a purpose beyond extolling Trae Young, it is this: Travis Schlenk screwed up acquiring Trae Young. Hard to do, I know. Schlenk was more right than he knew about Young, but he lacked the ability to weigh his desire against the value of what he held - the rights to Luka Doncic. Listen, I'm more than okay Trae Young is the Atlanta Hawks' franchise player and Luka Doncic is not. Young's game is significantly more aesthetically pleasing and his whole deal is more appealing than that of the sour, doughy Slovenian, whatever the difference in provable, on-court value. But when you're holding the rights to a guy who's going to finish fourth in the MVP vote in less than 24 months, you've got to get more than one extra pick for him. You've got to get every scrap of value to build around your franchise player with an Achilles' heel. Building a team isn't about getting every decision right. That's impossible. It's about giving yourself enough chances to survive the decisions that don't work, for reasons within and out of your control.

Schlenk would further explore this gap between the object of his desire and the value of his assets in the 2019 draft, feeling flush with the lone extra pick from Dallas, and spending two first round picks on De'Andre Hunter, an excellent college player who looked physically slight, unable to create his own shot, and uncertain to be able to defend in space. Barring a brief, jarring, and fascinating 18 games* at the start of the 2020-21 season, Hunter** has looked physically slight, unable to create his own shot, and uncertain to be able to defend in space over more than 3,500 regular season minutes of below replacement-value play. 

*Like you, dear reader, I also frequently think, "Well, if the Hawks add the good version of De'Andre Hunter to what they have..." The Hawks stunk during the brief flowering of the good version of De'Andre Hunter. He was the only thing worth watching in January 2021. Probably just a coincidence. But I wonder...

**Only two months younger than John Collins, mind you.

Hunter was presumed to be the perimeter defensive lynchpin to augment Young's offensive brilliance. He has not been that. And his failure to be that has been augmented by the wing depth beyond him mostly comprising a younger, worse player and visions of De'Andre Hunter future:

Schlenk made a great decision to trade for Clint Capela. Even better, he got him cheap. Like, even if it doesn't work out, it's not damaging. Boy howdy, it worked out. Nine months later, Schlenk made another great decision: drafting Onyeka Okongwu. You've got three years of a center under contract, in his prime, that fits perfectly alongside your franchise player. You have that center's successor in place, with ample runway to learn the league and how to play with your franchise player before Capela's contract expires. Perfect roster management in the short- and long-term.

Then, inexplicably, less than a year after that, well after Okongwu validated all optimism in him during the 2021 playoffs, Schlenk signed Capela to an extension that doesn't go in effect until the summer of 2023. Again, Schlenk overvalued what he wanted - Clint Capela's 2020-21 production - without properly accounting for the assets he held - both Onyeka Okongwu's cost-controlled potential production in 2023-24 and Capela's modest future trade value (remember you got him cheap for a reason, Travis). 

The duplication of resources at a single position for marginal gain in this instance is very reminiscent of the overlapping investments in John Collins and Danilo Gallinari while backup point guard and perimeter defense went either ignored or were addressed unsuccessfully. Which is weird, because two of Schlenk's unmitigated successes: drafting Kevin Huerter and signing Bogdan Bogdanovic, means he doesn't even have to find genuine two-way players to shore up those areas, just some long, athletic, ruthless characters who want to punish the other team for daring to take their turn with possession of the ball.

Case in point, Delon Wright, another great Schlenk signing who struggled to get on the court this season despite bringing everything the Hawks most needed to the court. If your head coach is going to be tempted to play the flickering specter of the great Lou Williams instead of Delon Wright* over and over again, you've got to make the whole rest of the bench Delon Wrights. You're the GM, you can control that without being a dick that undermines the head coach.

*Which is especially galling when the goal should be to identify every minute you can get Delon Wright on the court instead of De'Andre Hunter and indulge them with absolute gluttony.

See, Travis Schlenk is a scout guy. He's not a numbers guy. He trusts his eyes and his gut and not necessarily in that order. But he's not finding guys who can contribute in the second round* or off the street. If there's a difference in this series against the Miami Heat that's more complicated than John Collins and Clint Capela being hurt, it's this. Going down the Heat roster in order of minutes played (minimum 1,000 minutes): Duncan Robinson, Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, and Caleb Martin are all undrafted free agents. Gabe Vincent is probably just a guy, but the other three are all useful rotation players**. 

*The other missed opportunity of the 2018 draft: selling the 34th pick instead of taking Devonte' Graham and shoring up the second unit on the cheap. Could have spared us Brandon Goodwin, Rajon Rondo, and 2021-22 Lou Williams.

**In Miami, at least, maybe the real difference is Eric Spoelstra.

The Hawks have had to invest heavily, via first-round picks and free agent dollars, to build a flawed roster around Trae Young. A roster that cannot play effective defense despite Capela and Okongwu. Those substantial investments are augmented, in terms of minutes played, almost exclusively by guys born in the first half of the 1990s. Solomon Hill's season was over on December 5th. He still played more minutes than Jalen Johnson* this season. Those investments will eventually, push up against the restrictions of the salary cap, forcing Schlenk either to make shrewd decisions he's not shown an aptitude for, nor really an interest in, or choosing between available moves that don't make the Hawks any better, just different, with a whiff of appearing decisive primarily as a means of staying in his job.

*Jalen Johnson may end up on the positive side of Schlenk's ledger. His athleticism stands out, at least in the context of his teammates. He didn't shoot the ball impressively in his limited G-League minutes, but he's 20. You'd like to see him play.

Trae Young is succeeding, magnificently and with style (for miles and miles). Travis Schlenk thought he had to build the right team around Trae Young's unique brilliance in order to experience post-season success. He's already gotten some rewards without building that right team. Trae Young keeps buying him more time. It's fun for now, but Schlenk has to start approaching the level of his signature acquisition. He owes it to Trae Young's miraculous talent.