For those at home who began keeping score when the Hawks traded Luka Doncic for Trae Young and swore Atlanta would rue the day, well … it’s three years later and that day hasn’t yet arrived.
What has arrived for both teams is Opening Night 2021, when the Hawks and Young bamboozled the Mavericks and Doncic. This “competition” hasn’t developed like many thought.
If the true scoreboard is team results over individual, it’s pretty clear so far that Young is in a better place and Doncic is in … another place. The Hawks promptly dropped an anvil right on the Mavericks’ collective heads, ripping through a 26-point victory on the strength of depth and defense.
It’s always tricky to forecast an entire season based on a single game, much less one in October. So there will be no crystal-balling here, not now. Yet the makeup of the Hawks around Young seems starkly better than what Dallas has assembled around Doncic and unless Dirk Nowitzki reincarnated is walking through that door, this probably won’t change in 2021-22.
Bottom line: While Doncic is the bigger player and perhaps a bit more special, Young has gone deeper in the playoffs, taking the Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals last year while Doncic and the Mavs bowed out in the first round. This season? Young has a team that should be top-four in the East, while Doncic might fall into the Western Conference Play-In Tournament.
When Young needed help Thursday, he turned to Cam Reddish (20 points in 21 minutes) and John Collins and more in a rotation that reaches 10-deep. When Doncic needed help, he saw Kristaps Porzingis miss 3-of-4 shots from deep and as many turnovers as baskets (four).
And so, again: Which of these two franchise-changing players is sitting prettiest?
Years of deft drafting and shrewd free-agent signings by the Hawks have produced a solid nucleus for Young. Atlanta is front- and backloaded with young talent anxious to rise and gain traction. On some nights this season, the toughest competition in the building will be among Hawks players fighting amongst each other, trying to get burn.
“Nate is probably stressing out trying to find minutes for people,” said Young.
That would be coach Nate McMillan, who has a good problem on his hands. Put it this way: Lou Williams, a three-time winner of the Kia NBA Sixth Man award and still a creative scorer at 34, couldn’t get off the bench Thursday.
“We have one ball and we have to figure out how to have success with one ball,” McMillan said. “Guys have to be comfortable with less minutes.”
The Hawks are bringing Collins, who just signed a fat contract extension; and De’Andre Hunter — their best defender, and one who squeezed Doncic into a poor shooting night (6-for-17) — as well as Clint Capela, who led the NBA in rebounding last season; along with Kevin Huerter and Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari, who are deadly from deep.
They also have Reddish, who flourished in the 2021 playoffs after an inconsistent and injury-filled start to his career, and this is where it gets interesting. Reddish was the bonus from the Young-Doncic trade; Dallas sealed the No. 3-for-No. 5 swap with a first-round pick that the Hawks used on Reddish.
The Hawks surprised the league last year by not only making the playoffs following a midseason coaching change, but also reaching the East finals with a largely inexperienced team.
“We’re establishing a new identity, about who you want to be,” said McMillan. “Last season is behind us. It’s a new year. Everybody’s excited.”
Meanwhile, for Doncic, “It was a terrible game. We couldn’t make nothing.”
It couldn’t have been a worse start for Jason Kidd, the new coach. Nothing worked against Atlanta; his star was flummoxed and his enigmatic 7-foot-3 post player was exposed as the Mavericks shot 33%.
Kidd wants to see Porzingis take advantage of his height by being more of a presence in the post, yet this wasn’t exactly an encouraging first impression. Porzingis struggled against Collins and Capela and maybe it’s not in his nature to create elbow room near the rim.
“I love how my teammates are trying to find me in the post,” he said. “We’re going to have to find that balance.”
The Mavericks didn’t make any wholesale changes to a team that, for the second time in Doncic’s young career, couldn’t reach the second round. Because of their cap situation, all they could do is extend Tim Hardaway Jr. and hope that Porzingis, owed over $100 million over the next three years, can stay healthy and enhance his game.
Fair or not, Kidd finds himself on the spot. His two previous coaching stops were met with mixed results in Milwaukee and Brooklyn. With the Bucks, Kidd was instrumental in the development of Giannis Antetokounmpo even if he wasn’t around to enjoy the fruits of that labor, fired midway through his fourth season and subsequently on the Lakers’ bench when the Bucks won it all in July.
Part of the appeal in hiring Kidd was that, like Luka, he was a point guard savant. The hope being that the synergy between them could be instantaneous, although Kidd chuckled while saying of their relationship: “We’re dating right now.”
Kidd, who was named to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team, added: “He’s way better than I was at his age.”
That’s a rather emphatic endorsement of Doncic and the future of the 22 year old, no matter who’s coaching him. Doncic has either met or exceeded all projections since entering the NBA. His court vision, creativity, shooting and passing are all top shelf. He enters this season as a legit MVP candidate and, at some point — assuming health — he should win that award.
And if that’s the case, a championship is sure to follow; players with his talent are rarely denied that ultimate prize.
Still, it’s all about the help, and there, Young holds the upper hand on Doncic. The Hawks are building something special, flush with assets to keep or to trade. Young is capable of leading the league in scoring and finishing top three in assists, maybe in the same season. There’s not a considerable drop-off between him and Doncic in terms of impact.
Young made a bold and boisterous statement last season when he enraged all of New York by beating up that city’s beloved Knicks and then applying the final silencing with an index finger to the lips.
He also made a fashion statement, one just as loud and much more curious, when he emerged from the locker room Thursday in a T-shirt with peach-colored letters that read: “Atlanta Georgia Saved My Life.”
Young explained how, other than Oklahoma where he grew up, he’s never lived anywhere else. And then there’s this:
“They traded for me.”
Yes, the Hawks did, against all logic, against the wishes of some of their own fans, against the demands of the basketball experts. They placed their faith in Trae Young, surrendering Luka Doncic in the process.
And all the Hawks are asking of Young is for him to save them back.
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