It makes sense that rebuilds take longer these days. It stinks too, franchises selling bad basketball like junk bonds, but the incentives nudge them in this direction: taking advantage of the lottery system, artificially deflated rookie contracts, a soft cap that, once you exceed it, you’re going to have a tough time getting back under. So you spend two or three seasons in the basement of the standings, collecting capital and preparing for what you hope is going to be a very successful half-decade or more. That it almost never works out this way speaks perhaps to your insufficiencies, hiring the wrong coaches or backing the wrong 19-year-olds, but also the long odds you’re working against. You hope that the fans and your bosses appreciate the idea as much as its imperfect realization.
The most unfortunate byproduct of these rebuilds—the losing itself is a product-product; it’s done on purpose—is that the league is littered with young players who have no definition. The Process didn’t proliferate to the point that teams are, as the Sixers seemingly did for a while, drafting injured prospects because they are injured and therefore guarantee the franchise yet another trip to the lottery, but who can say with confidence that they have a handle on what Miles Bridges or Wendell Carter bring to the table? Measuring them isn’t tricky so much as impossible. Their teammates are lousy and they spend a lot of time operating in the vacuum of games that were lost in the second quarter. You can identify things you like about them, the way they move and their one-on-one play, but this is only the broad outline of what they are, and a rumor of what they could become.
Trae Young, in his second season: 29.6 PPG on a 59.5 true shooting percentage and 9.3 APG with 4.8 turnovers per night. Atrocious, atrocious defense. The Hawks went 20-and-47, the fourth-worst record in the league. Over two seasons, we’ve discovered Young’s style—a hyper-twitchy, feint-heavy dribble attack that seems to move in several directions at once, limitless shooting range—and that it more or less works in the NBA, which is no mean feat for a small guard, but beyond that, the haze thickens. There’s a strain of thought among the basketball commentariat that every player is fraudulent until their team starts to win games, like if you’re truly good, you can will the other eight guys in the rotation to stop sucking, or that Devin Booker suddenly doubled his talent when the Suns went on an undefeated run in Orlando a few months ago. This is asinine analysis, but it reveals a truth about human perception, how we don’t trust what we know until it’s tested. Trae Young is a good player, and at just 22 years old, he has the as yet unshaped ability to be special. But he hasn’t been tested one bit.
The Steph Curry comparisons don’t help him. I spent much of the layoff between the NBA’s corona-induced work stoppage and its resumption researching and writing about free-gunning guards from the 90s and early aughts, and what stands out about that era, especially when you’re living inside it for several months, is that Michael Jordan was the standard, and the standard was wholly unattainable. Every six-foot-six-ish guy with a jumper and a decent handle wanted to be like Mike, and they weren’t close. It was a stroke of accidental genius that Jordan took terrible shots and canned them over and over. The rest of the league tried to replicate that approach, and while J.R. Rider would have hot night here and there, he was mostly just hurting his team. Maybe Jordan was inherently unbeatable, but you certainly weren’t going to beat him at his own game.
Curry takes more efficient shots than Jordan did, so it’s not the end of the world if you try to emulate him and fall short, but he exists in his own category. You can’t do the Steph Curry Thing™ better than he did during his unanimous MVP season. It’s Kareem in the early 70s, LeBron’s two-way action in Miami. Everyone who follows that performance can, at best, do a convincing impression of it. Another trick of perception: declaring that Trae Young is definitively not Steph Curry isn’t an indictment, but it sounds like one.
Buzz around the league is that the Hawks are anxious to compete this season. They’ve been awful for three years straight, and are beginning to drift into that unhappy territory where one rebuild bleeds into the next—see: the Orlando Magic following Dwight Howard’s exit—and fans wonder if they are ever again going to feel something. At some point, you likely haven’t laid the groundwork for a championship, but you need to get going, put some Ws on the board.
Young will be the main beneficiary of this organizational restlessness. He’s done all he can—simultaneously a lot and nothing at all—in the consequence-free space Atlanta has constructed around him. He’s comfortable with the speed of the pro game and knows he can put up numbers. Applying that confidence, translating the skills you’ve used to score 35 points in a blowout loss to less straightforwardly spectacular but more meaningful work, is not a simple thing, but up until now, Young hasn’t been afforded the opportunity to do so. The empty stats and the Next Steph chatter isn’t his fault; it’s just stuff that has happened while he’s been killing time on bad teams. If Atlanta's brass can put a decent supporting cast around him this year, he’s about to stop being incidental to his own public profile. He’ll have agency, win games with clutch play and lose them by making mistakes. This isn’t something you can take for granted, if you’re drafted at the beginning of a teardown. It’s a burden, but also a relief.