The Hare and the Tortoise
A moment in time that will go down in NBA folklore for decades to come is June 21, 2018.
That day, at the NBA Draft at Barclays Center in New York City, saw a trade executed early in the first round involving two players who look to be perennial All-Stars, and whose trajectory places them as high chances to make the Hall of Fame when their careers are over. I am, of course, talking about Luka Doncic and Trae Young.
Two players whose careers will forever be linked due to a deal on draft day that saw them swapped for the rights to one another (in addition to Atlanta receiving a first-round pick the following season), the comparisons between Doncic and Young haven’t stopped since they first stepped foot on an NBA court.
With Dallas, Doncic quickly became the face of the franchise and earned starting guard minutes over Dennis Smith Jr – a top lottery pick just a couple of seasons earlier. His displays of a mastery of play-making at the highest level and ability to score at will putting to rest any doubts that lingered around him post-draft. With Atlanta, Young started all 81 games he appeared in and his insane heat checks from behind the arc made him a household name before his 21st birthday.
Luka Doncic and Trae Young being traded for one another during the 2018 Draft is the moment that guarantees they will forever be compared to one another. Credit: Yahoo! Sports
This is where many of the similarities end, however. During the 2020 Covid-interrupted season, the Mavericks were able to secure the 7th seed and for the first time in Doncic’s career, his Mavericks were heading to the Playoffs. Trae Young, on the other hand, saw his Hawks fail to even warrant an invite to ‘The Bubble’ down in Florida, compiling a 20-47 record prior to the League’s shutdown in March. With the two franchise faces compared at every stage of their careers thus far, Young was forced to watch Doncic begin to craft his post-season legacy from his living room.
Doncic didn’t disappoint in his Playoff debut, dropping 42 points and having a near triple-double as he commanded the flow of the game against a much lauded LA Clippers defensive unit. He got to the line at will, converting on 14 of his 15 attempts and didn’t look intimidated by any moment that came his way. Fast forward to game 4 and he racked up a 43 point triple-double and hit a buzzer beating three to tie the series at 2-2. Doncic had well and truly arrived on the big stage in front of a national audience, while people hasn’t uttered Young’s name in nearly 6 months.
In a shorted off-season window between the Finals and the start of the new season, Trae Young, after seeing the success of Doncic, hounded the President Travis Schlenk to improve the roster around him. Despite reservations about the timeline of the team from many analysts and fans, Schlenk and the Hawks front-office did just that.
They offered above market value contracts to unproven wing Bogdan Bogdanovich to poach him away from Sacramento, aging and injury riddled veteran Danilo Gallinari and even threw an extension the way of forward John Collins (he declined the offer but later signed for an additional $35 million over the duration of the deal). They also signed back-up guards Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn in an attempt to sure up the bench with playoff experience and additional play-making.
Young got what he wanted, but analysts were confused by the decision of the front-office to go this far in reconstructing the roster in one off-season, particularly given the signing of dual wings Bogdanovich and Gallinari. While experienced, both loomed as preventing recent lottery picks Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish (the player drafted with the additional pick gained from Dallas in the original Doncic/Young deal) from getting valuable minutes early in their career to continue their development alongside Young.
While Trae Young sat at home during the Playoffs in Florida during the Pandemic, Luka Doncic was building his Post-Season legacy. Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty images
The moves had the desired effect for Atlanta, with the team rocketing up the standings and finishing as the 5th seed during the 2020-2021 season, and drawing the New York Knicks in the first round. Young has been adamant that he, given the chance, could dominate on the big stage just as well as Doncic had the season before, and relished the chance to play at Madison Square Garden in front of a raucous New York crowd.
Put simply, he dominated, essentially averaging 30 points and 10 assists and leading the team to a comfortable five-game series victory – something Doncic had failed to do as the Mavericks again fell to the Clippers in the first-round in the Western Conference.
From there, Young would continue to dominate, upping his play-making as the team were able to upset the 76ers in seven games to advance to the Conference Finals and face the Milwaukee Bucks. Young came out firing, dropping 48 points in a Game 1 win, before an ankle injury forced him to miss games 4 and 5 and the Hawks were eventually eliminated in Game 6.
It didn’t matter in some ways though, as Young had proven himself to be every bit as dominant as Doncic in the surrounds of the post-season. There were some analysts who went as far as suggesting Young affected winning more than Doncic too, given the Mavericks had failed to win a series in Doncic’s tenure in Dallas thus far. The Hawks, in making the moves they did during the 2020 off-season, had given Young the help he needed to make noise in the Playoffs, but in doing so, had also handcuffed the team and limited their scope for improvement due to a lack of salary cap space going forward.
Enter the 2021-2022 season, and those deals began to haunt the Hawks on the court. The rash signings and accelerated timeline the Hawks had put in place meant their margin for error was minimal, and it showed. The Hawks had slumped to a record of 17-25 at the half-way point of the season, and by the time the Play-In Tournament arrived, Gallinari and Bogdanovich had combined to miss 35 games. Production in their absence was also sporadic from Huerter and Reddish whose development had been delayed due to a lack of playing time behind the aforementioned pair. The Hawks made the Playoffs after two clutch wins in the Play-In, but ultimately fell to a Miami team who didn’t need Jimmy Butler or Kyle Lowry to close them out.
Trae Young looks on during the Hawks' 4-1 series loss to Miami. Credit: Bleacher Report
Doncic, on the other hand, had started the season slowly but careful, calculated moves by the front-office had seen the team turn their fortunes around. They traded Kristaps Porzingis to Washington for two buy-low but potentially impact players in Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans, which paid immediate dividends. Doncic was able to rest more and allow Dinwiddie to create for teammates while on the bench, and Dinwiddie and Bertans provided another option on the perimeter for Doncic to set up when the ball was in his hands.
It wasn’t a ground-breaking move, but it was the right move for the right price, and it saw the Mavericks able to split their games with Utah in the first round when Doncic was injured. With Doncic back in the fold, Dallas took Game 5 and now have two chances to close out the series, all while Trae Young sits at home.
I'll be interested to see how Trae Young reacts to his first round loss during the off-season, especially considered Doncic looks likely to advance and face the Suns in the second-round. Will he ask the team to again reconstruct the roster overnight, or will he lie in the bed he and the front office have made for himself?
This is where the value of organisations and front offices really shows itself. You have two players who have been compared to one another since the day they were traded for one another at the draft – one lands with Dallas, the other with Atlanta. The Mavericks have been patient and made calculated moves to get their star the help he needs at the right time and for the right price. The Hawks, on the other hand, were pressured into over-paying the wrong players in an attempt to fast-track the timeline for theirs.
In the classic tale of The Hare and the Tortoise, the hare races out to a lead before getting ahead of themselves, allowing the tortoise to ultimately catch up and over-take them.
When the tale of Doncic and Young is told decades from now, the Mavericks and Doncic will be the Tortoise, while the Hawks will be left to ponder what would’ve happened to the hare if it hadn’t gotten ahead of itself.
So, what do you think? Did I get it right? Did I mess it up? Let me know on twitter (@BMBTPodcast) or send us an email at BMBTPodcast@gmail.com!
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