Trae Young can’t win his feuds with refs, so he should stop trying

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) argues a call in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) argues a call in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The Hawks have done more losing than expected early this season while carping at game officials more often than is advisable. Trae Young is central to both issues. He’s the guy who makes the Hawks go. He’s also the one alleging a referee conspiracy.

The Hawks say they aren’t playing with enough urgency or pace to begin the season. Well, Young dominates the ball so he’s in the best position to change that. Coach Nate McMillan says Hawks players get so distracted by unfavorable calls that they lose focus. Young isn’t the main culprit, but he’s the only Hawks player claiming that referees are targeting him personally.

The good thing about those problems is that they are simple to correct. It’s hard to understand how the Hawks, a team that has won nothing of note, could be bored. But if their motivation is lacking, that will take care of itself eventually. Keep losing, and the incentive will come from needing to win enough games just to make the playoffs in the tougher Eastern Conference.

Atlanta’s loss at Golden State late Monday was its fourth straight and sixth in seven games. The Hawks were set to play Tuesday night at heavily favored Utah, at West contender Denver on Friday and then against defending NBA champion Milwaukee here on Sunday. The Hawks (4-7 after Monday) can’t afford to slide too many games below break-even before figuring things out.

The solution to Young’s issues with game officials also is simple. That’s not the same thing as saying it’s easy. Young is an ultra-competitive player. He’s got a chip on his shoulder that comes from simultaneously being one of the best and smallest guys on the court. Easy for me to say he should cool it down when the competition gets heated.

But Young needs to find a way to make his complaints to game officials tactfully and strategically. Pick his spots: dead balls rather than live balls. Tone it down: more conversations, fewer taunting gestures. As McMillan has been trying to explain to his team, the Hawks have gotten no benefit from constantly complaining to refs so they need to change their approach.

Hawks guard Trae Young (11) appeals to a referee during the second half of the home opener in a NBA basketball game at State Farm Arena on Thursday, October 21, 2021. Atlanta Hawks won 113 - 87 over Dallas Mavericks. (Hyosub Shin /


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Young has made the situation worse with his public comments. More than once, he’s suggested that he’s not getting as many foul calls because officials have something personal against him. I don’t know about that. I do know what’s definitely personal: Young’s habit of gesturing at refs that they need to open their eyes or get some glasses.

That will draw sanction from referees in any sport except college basketball, where certain coaches get away with verbally abusing officials until they get the calls they like. It’s within bounds to question calls; it’s out of line to insult the people making them. Young’s recent practice of taking the argument with officials from the court to media, social or otherwise, doesn’t help his cause.

After the Hawks lost at the Suns on Saturday, a Twitter user posted a game clip of official Kevin Scott appearing to make a crying motion at Atlanta’s bench. Young shared the Tweet and added the hashtag: “WhyIsItPersonal.” It turns out that Scott, in response to a query from Hawks coaches, was demonstrating the gesture that had earned Young a technical foul.

I get why Young is frustrated. The NBA made an “interpretive change” to the rules this season. The goal is to cut down on fouls awarded for “non-basketball moves” by ballhandlers and shooters. Young is one of the league’s best at drawing fouls because he’s smart, quick, crafty and skilled. Now he’s confronted with a change that so far seems to be limiting a big part of his game.

Young’s free-throw rate has gone down (5.8 per 36 minutes through Monday vs. 9.2 last season) at the same time his shot rate has increased (20.8 vs. 18.8). His rate of technical fouls is on the rise: 10 over 63 games last season, four through 11 games this season. The league also fined Young for bumping into a game official at Washington because he was miffed about not getting a foul call that he thought he deserved.

The thing is, subjectively speaking, Young has been getting some of the calls that are supposed to be limited this season. He’s even said that players with the ball shouldn’t be rewarded for launching themselves into defenders. Young’s gripes are more about a lack of foul calls on drives to the basket and, from what I’ve seen, he has a case.

He’s not the only one. James Harden and Luka Doncic are among the other foul-drawing stars who’ve gotten short shrift on whistles. It seems to me that game officials have taken the league edict to stop rewarding foul-hunting and turned it into calling fewer fouls of any kind for players with a reputation for doing it.

Young is right to raise objections on bad or borderline calls. But it becomes counterproductive when Young and his teammates are fixated on officials and not the game, especially at winning time. That was a factor when the Hawks came from ahead to lose to the Wizards, Suns and Warriors.

Beyond that, it’s self-destructive for Young to make it personal with referees. What’s to gain from questioning their integrity? Why invite increased scrutiny? And as shown by Young’s response to official Scott’s gesture players sometimes get it wrong, too.

Bad calls don’t have to be motivated by animosity. It’s possible referees are making mistakes while working through the “interpretive change” on fouls this season. This always happens when the league makes major changes to the rules. Eventually, game officials and players adjust and find an equilibrium.

Young will figure this out. He always does. That’s why he’s one of the best players in the world.

As a rookie Young couldn’t score at the rim, so he developed one of the finest floaters in the league. Last season opponents sent multiple defenders at him to make him surrender the ball, so he started manipulating space and angles to make them pay. Critics said Young couldn’t win and he had one of the best first-time playoff runs ever while taking the Hawks the furthest they’ve been since coming to Atlanta.

Now Young must learn how to deal with games that are called differently, and the officials who make those calls. That will help the Hawks win more games, assuming they don’t get bored with them.