Mavs vs. Warriors in West final is proxy for Luka vs. Trae

Mavericks forward Luka Doncic (77) and Hawks guard Trae Young will be linked forever because of their draft-night trade.

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Mavericks forward Luka Doncic (77) and Hawks guard Trae Young will be linked forever because of their draft-night trade.

The Hawks have nothing to do with the NBA Western Conference finals that begin Wednesday night. They finished their season three weeks ago. But some observers inevitably will view Mavs vs. Warriors as a proxy for Luka vs. Trae. Luka Doncic has flourished in these playoffs while Trae Young faltered. That means the Mavs fleeced the Hawks when they swapped Young for Doncic on draft night in 2018.

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That’s a silly, premature conclusion. That’s why it’s voiced mostly on NBA Twitter. In that world, prisoners of the moment deal in absolutes, and nuance is for nerds. Never mind that Doncic has led the Mavericks to a place Young already took the Hawks to a year ago.

The Hawks didn’t build a playoff-caliber roster around Young until last season and then changed coaches midseason. Young lifted them to the East finals. Doncic’s Mavs went one-and-done in the postseason two years in a row. Then they replaced coach Rick Carlisle with Jason Kidd and made a key trade for Spencer Dinwiddie. Now Doncic is playing for an NBA Finals berth.

No doubt, Doncic has been a superstar this postseason. Against the Suns, he averaged 32.6 points, 9.9 rebounds, seven assists and 2.1 steals. Doncic answered Kidd’s call to not be a total liability on defense. He’s a special talent. But then, so is Young.

I’ve been a Young booster from the start. I’ve enjoyed seeing him proving his doubters wrong. I admire him for elevating his game in each of his four seasons. I like that Young usually is the smallest guy on the court but still quite often the best. Young is a player for the Hawks to build around, which is a win for general manager Travis Schlenk.

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Yet I must concede that Doncic is the better player now (though keep in mind Doncic got a head start by playing in the world’s second-best league starting at 16 years old). That’s mostly because Doncic is, essentially, a bigger point guard. Size still matters in the NBA’s “small ball” era, especially when it’s in the form of a skilled perimeter player. Young is at least Doncic’s equal in nearly every aspect of the game, but he won’t grow 6 more inches or put on 60 pounds.

That was part of the risk for Schlenk in choosing Young over Doncic. Ultimately, the GM decided that Young plus an extra draft lottery pick was more valuable than Doncic. Schlenk ended up using that pick to draft Cam Reddish in 2019. He was to be a dynamic wing player to pair with Young, but Reddish’s career had stalled when Schlenk traded him to the Knicks in January.

Young is an elite scorer and playmaker, like Doncic, and a better 3-point shooter. It’s just that, as a smaller player, he must work harder than Doncic to create offense. The Heat took away Young’s floater and step-back 3s, and he had no counter. Doncic’s size gives him more options when plays break down or opponents force him away from his favored spots.

You can see the difference Doncic’s size makes in these playoffs. Opponents load up to stop him, just like the Heat did with Young. Doncic is better able to handle the attention because he can see over traps, bully smaller defenders and doesn’t need as much space to shoot. Doncic isn’t a good defender, but he’s too big to bully and can bother shooters with his length.

Send early defensive help, and Doncic scans the floor and moves the ball. Wait until Doncic is closer to the basket to help, and he’ll spin into a fadeaway jumper or whip a pinpoint pass to a spot-up shooter at the last possible moment. Defend Doncic in isolation, and he’ll methodically force his way to the basket. Once there, Doncic scores or gets fouled at a high rate.

Young doesn’t have all those tools in his bag because he’s much smaller than Doncic. Young has said he gets tired of the comparisons but understands it will always be a topic because their fates are linked by the draft-night trade. The two young stars seem to share a mutual respect. As Doncic was working over the Suns in Game 6, Young expressed his admiration in a tweet.

“Luka backing that Talk up!!! He cookin these dudes.”

Doncic did to the Suns what Young couldn’t do to Miami, the East’s top seed. Young owned up to his poor performance in that series and vowed to learn from it. Many great players had to take their lumps before breaking through. I’m betting Young will do it, too.

Schlenk and coach Nate McMillan must do their parts to help make that happen. After the Hawks were eliminated by Miami, Young pointedly said McMillan must tweak his scheme for Young to work off the ball more often. The series also made it obvious that the Hawks need more perimeter players who can consistently score, create offense off the dribble and defend.

Schlenk struck out with Reddish. De’Andre Hunter regressed in Year 3. Kevin Huerter isn’t the answer. Jalen Johnson hardly played as a rookie. Player development goes only so far. This summer Schlenk will go looking for outside help for Young.

The Mavs found the right mix of players for Doncic in his fourth season. They had to move on from former All-Star Kristaps Porzingis to do it. The Mavs got back Dinwiddie in that trade. He takes some of the scoring and playmaking burden off Doncic. Dinwiddie helped keep the Mavs afloat when Doncic missed three games against Utah, then scored 30 points in Game 7 against the Suns.

Contrast that to the Hawks’ offense coming to a halt when Miami sold out to stop Young. Maybe things go differently for the Hawks if Young had more help. That’s one reason to hold off on declaring a “winner” in the Young-Doncic trade. Let’s see what Schlenk does in the second phase of assembling a contending roster.

Schlenk tried twice with the current group. Last season the Hawks got closer to the NBA Finals than they ever have in Atlanta. This season they were dominated by a Heat team that is uniquely equipped to stop Young. That doesn’t mean Schlenk already “lost” the trade for Young, even if Doncic is the better player.

It does mean that Schlenk has work to do if he doesn’t want the Doncic-for-Young trade to one day go down as a huge mistake.