You can blame Trae Young for a lot of Atlanta’s first-round exit to Miami. He was 22-for-69 from the floor, shot 17 percent from 3, and had as many turnovers (31) as he did assists (31). He didn’t even listen in on the huddle before the last play of their season, so if you want to destroy him, feel free. I’m not going to stop you.
However, the largest reason the team failed to rekindle last postseason’s magic when it made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals is the Hawks themselves. Comparing Young to the player he was traded for on draft night, Luke Dončić, is unfair, but even more unreasonable than that is to expect him to lead the team to consistent playoff success as the No. 1 scoring threat.
Being the No. 1 option is not the same as being the best player on a team. Atlanta can win a title with Young as its best player; it can’t win a title with Young as the de facto scoring threat.
It sounds asinine to say that about a guy who was a top five scorer this year. He averaged 28 points, nearly 10 assists and almost four rebounds with 46-38-90 shooting splits. How on Earth could this hot take artist write that? It’s because I’ve seen this before.
The Portland Trail Blazers, a team I follow to an unhealthy degree, also employ a short-ish, shoot-first, play-defense-last point guard, and I think it’s safe to say that peak Damian Lillard is better than any version of Young we’ve seen. Yet Lillard’s playoff failures are plentiful, and often the formula to defeating the six-time All-Star is similar to the one used to shut down Young. Guard them with bigger players, blitz them on pick and rolls, make their teammates beat you, and live with the insanely difficult shots they do make.
You could even argue that their teams’ runs to the conference finals featured as much luck as it did brilliant play. The Knicks and Thunder were overrated, the Nuggets and 76ers were good but neither Joel Embiid nor Nikola Jokic were MVP candidates or winners yet, and each ran into championship-caliber teams in Golden State and Milwaukee who beat them with relative ease despite injuries to key players.
That doesn’t mean fans should take less joy from replays of Lillard’s series-ending buzzer beater from nearly half court, or Young becoming the best villain at Madison Square Garden since Reggie Miller. However, deep playoff runs with the same roster makeup and blueprint didn’t work for Lillard, and if his series against the Heat was any indication, it won’t work for Young either.
The difference between the two is Dame knows he has to trust his teammates, and Young hasn’t learned that yet. While Portland is belatedly in overhaul mode because Lillard believed in CJ McCollum to a fault, Young doesn’t have a McCollum. What his team does have, though, is enough assets to trade for the next disgruntled All-Star.
The list of point guards 6-foot-3 and shorter who were the No. 1 scoring option on a team that won the finals is short. In fact, it’s not even a list. It’s one name: Isaiah Thomas.
The next closest was Allen Iverson. The Answer reached the finals in a down season for the NBA, but still only managed a single win. (Thank God, too, because it prevented the Lakers from sweeping the playoffs.) Those two slight guards were surrounded by good-to-all-time-great defensive players, which may have worked in the late ’80s and early aughts, but teams are too smart and score too many points to let opponents hide offensive or defensive liabilities. (Thomas was neither, which is why he should get mentioned more as an all-time great. If only he didn’t insult Larry Bird, piss off Michael Jordan, and sexually harass his employees, but alas.)
Chris Paul, the Point God, never made a finals — or came tragically close to one — until he played alongside a true No. 1 scoring option. For as good as Blake Griffin was, he never got 70 in a game. (I think we can agree that the 2018 Rockets were a finals-worthy squad that simply played in the same conference as one of the greatest teams in NBA history.) We saw what CP3 looked like as the guy when Booker was out, and that looked as sustainable as any Hawks or Blazers team in recent memory.
I know Paul isn’t the Clippers or Hornets version of himself. That said, we also know he can’t win a title solely on elbow fadeaways and complementary pieces. He’s perfected the art of game management and exquisitely picks his spots. The Suns needed him to go 14-for-14 from the field to close out the Pelicans because Booker wasn’t 100 percent. It’s possible for Paul to carry a team offensively for a game or two, but inevitably he will need help, like in Phoenix’s Game 5 win when he went 8-18 and got a massive 31 points from Mikal Bridges.
Young is an incredibly gifted passer who could spend most of the 48 minutes setting up teammates while waiting for, and subsequently taking advantage of, scoring opportunities. As currently constructed and coached, he’s of the mindset that the onus is on him to be the franchise, to hit the big shots, to carry the offense.
Trae can still own Atlanta, and mock shiver after deep 3s like a jackass, without being the go-to scorer. Failing to do something only one player ever has done is not a knock if it’s reality. And the reality is these Hawks aren’t those Pistons teams, and Young’s defense isn’t in the same galaxy as that team’s Hall of Fame point guard.
Until Atlanta gets Trae a running mate who can go for 40 and allow him to get 25 and 15 within the flow of the offense, the team and Young are going to be saddled with unreasonable and unattainable expectations and stuck in NBA purgatory.