Trae Young is not so much a basketball player as a minor trickster god, appearing to care less about actualizing his own goals than spoiling the dreams of others. And if he can’t do that, he can at least make his foe’s eventual attainment of victory a more roundabout and frustrating enterprise. Young does not appear to want to emasculate his opponents. He does not derive visible pleasure from establishing dominance over them. It is a different variety of competitiveness than the long-valued model, where humiliating your opponent goes hand-in-hand with victory. No, this is something much more playful and mischievous.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
Against the Knicks last spring, Young led the Hawks to a first-round upset. It apparently dealt much of the team’s fan base an intense psychic defeat; you can still find some New Yorkers chanting “F*** Trae Young” at unrelated events nearly a year later. He and the Hawks went on to defeat Philadelphia in the next round – his 29 points and 10 assists per game that series helping to serve as a major catalyst in the long-simmering divorce between Ben Simmons and the Sixers.
And this season, after destroying the Hornets in the play-in – who just happened to fire their coach after that loss – he and the Hawks went on to lull the Cavaliers into a false sense of security before outscoring them by 16 in the second half on their way to earning the No. 8 seed. For a Cavaliers team that prided itself on its defense all year, Young proved immune to their stratagems, taking the shots that Cleveland wanted him to, making them anyway, scoring 32 of his 38 points in the second half. None of these victories really meant much in the macro sense. None of them shifted the NBA’s balance of power, but they did end the seasons of a few who imagined things would go otherwise.
Of course, things did not go so well for Young and the Hawks against the Miami Heat. The Hawks fell in five games, and consistently looked overwhelmed by Miami as the Heat forced Young into unfavorable situations and looks. He had more turnovers than made field goals, shot 31 percent from the field and 18 percent from 3. His assist to turnover ratio was exactly 1. It was a disappointing end to a season that saw Young have his best individual season yet, while also leading a team that disappointed relative to preseason expectations.
Young’s youth still grants him the benefit of the doubt from would-be critics, those who, in a few years, will be sure to pounce if he is unable to lead the Hawks to more than the Eastern Conference Finals. The stakes are not yet very high; one is still more likely to hear talk about his potential rather than his legacy. There is freedom in this, a freedom that he is taking every bit of advantage of. However, that leniency will soon vanish.
If luck favored the Hawks last season, it did no such thing this year. Injuries piled up and the team struggled to find a rhythm with so many core players shuffling in and out of the lineup. Also, last year, while the Knicks and Sixers were both fine teams, each had fatal flaws that were easily exploited. The Knicks had overachieved all year and were due for a fall back to earth. The Sixers, meanwhile, were led by a coach who loves nothing more than blowing leads in the postseason. They were in that awkward period where they weren’t quite in the midst of a divorce with Ben Simmons yet but were nevertheless looking for a reason to officially file papers.
Meanwhile, the Heat, while also rarely being fully healthy this year, are a much more stable organization than almost any other in the NBA, to say nothing about the state of the Knicks or the Sixers. Led by Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra for nearly 15 years, their presence and united sense of purpose gives the team an identity that can, in times of uncertainty, transcend the specifics of the moment. Even with Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry both missing games, the Heat thrived regardless, buoyed by a structure that was enough for them to overcome those individual absences. Trae Young is good enough to exploit a team’s flaws, to chip away at them until they’re all that’s left, but he cannot create them out of thin air.
It’s tempting to call Young fearless, but that would not be accurate. To be fearless is to be aware of the risks and dangers involved and overcome them anyway. Young, however, fails to consider the illogic of firing a 35 shot jumper early in the shot clock or of trying to thread a pass between an opponent's legs. And yet he succeeds often enough that to encourage him to stop would be as foolish as his decision-making initially appears.
Young knows what he can do, but he remains in the process of figuring out how to best utilize his abilities. How can he retain that recklessness so inherent to his game while also working to create a structure that helps his team win when he is not at his best? Can the Hawks find ways to take full advantage of his talent while also relying on him a little bit less? What does it look like to be built around a unique, singular star without being subsumed by their talent? Some players grow by doubling down on their particularities; others have to sand down the rough edges. It is not yet clear which group Trae Young is a member of.
My favorite Marx Brother is Harpo, the troupe’s silent clown, the harpist in a goofy hat and a pink wig. Throughout the group’s many movies together, he finds innumerable creative ways to disrupt someone’s day and I love it so much. Whether he’s stealing a bunch of silverware, foiling someone’s attempts to fold up a card table, or busting out a meat cleaver when asked to “cut the cards,” Harpo is a loveable agent of chaos. He’s not going to ruin your day, just disrupt it a little bit. There is no maliciousness in his actions, only an instinctual urge towards mayhem.
In Game 3 of the Atlanta Hawks first round series against the Heat, Young found himself bringing the ball up the court with just over ten seconds left and the Hawks down by one. He took advantage of the Heat’s failure to set up their defense, facing practically no opposition once he picked up his speed just past half-court, easily driving between PJ Tucker and Gabe Vincent on his way to the rim. Young was cut off by Jimmy Butler once he reached the paint, but by the time Butler leapt, both arms reaching high in the air, Young’s floater had already left his hands and was arcing over Butler outstretched limbs, on its way to give Atlanta a much needed victory.
Young threw a small wrench into the Heat’s playoff designs with his game winning floater in game three, but it was not enough to change the balance of the series. Fans in New York, Philadelphia, and Cleveland already bemoan his penchant for disrupting one’s best laid plans and the role he played in keeping their teams from a taste of further glory. In the years to come, Young will spread these same feelings of frustration throughout the league as more and more teams find their dreams delayed or curtailed thanks to his knack for sly shotmaking and subtle chaos. Coupled with his impish demeanor, Young is either one of the most lovable or annoying players in the NBA depending on your perspective and if he’s already done something to derail your team’s season. Young does not have a harp or a coat with limitless pockets, but he does have an outstanding jumper and tremendous court vision. If you can’t be a champion, being a perennial spoiler can be a nice consolation.