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“Arrgh! How are we letting Damian Jones cherry pick us to death?”
Alright, here it is, your definitive answer on the “Who Better?” question, so we don’t have to put up with a debate that has dragged on 19 months too long.
The debate was settled, long ago. Luka Doncic is better than Trae Young. One person already made the decision, so we wouldn’t have to. He’s the only person on the planet whose opinion matters on the question. And that man is Sir Travis Schlenk.
Best player available is best player available. If Trae Young was the better of the two, then on Draft Night 2018, with both players at your disposal at Pick #3, you select the kid rocking the suit shorts, genuflect, and say, “Thank you all, and good night.” But that is not what the Atlanta Hawks GM did.
He had the presence of mind to consider the long-term interests of his team, about the value of what having the best player available could mean to your franchise, versus the value of having the right to draft that player as a bargaining chip for something more. Luka Doncic was the best player available. He, by his lonesome, simply wasn’t Travis Schlenk’s guy.
With the Memphis Grizzlies having no earthly idea what was going on, he got on the horn and told Dallas Mavericks management, “I’ll secure your kid if he falls to us. You secure my kid, because he WILL fall to you. And give me your first-rounder next year for the trouble.” Done.
Every highlight play, every highlight reel, every stat-monster game from Doncic elicits, somewhere out there on the Interwebs or in pundit-world, the same tired reaction: “Oh, Phoenix, Sacramento, Atlanta have all got to be kicking themselves.” Take our name out your mouths, you mindless twits!
The Suns ran out and hired a coach before that Draft, by all accounts a person of sound mind and strategy, ɯho nΩ ‘Mµrican pla¥ers ©an understαnd βecause h€ tålks £ike thi∑. You know what language he does speak? He speaks Luka. Fluently. And then they don’t draft the kid! No, they wanted a Tito Horford upgrade with their first dibs, because size. Congratulations, as DJ Khaled would say. The GM from that day is gone, canned before the season could even start, as is the coach.
That’s about all that ought to be said. But let’s delve further.
If there is a human alive who ought to know the value of a well-timed draft move, it’s Vlade Divac. The man should also know his Euro-prospects inside and out, at least a little better than Dave Joerger, his head coach at the time. But Vlade perhaps knew too much about some acrimonious relationship he reportedly had, or felt the need to ward off, with Doncic’s father.
Divac has since maneuvered a “phone call” to “Sasa Doncic” to get their radio guy, Grant Napear, to assert the report was unfounded, but I’m not fooled. Imagine if the Lakers had declined to deal Divac away because Jerry West had some old, tired beef with Jellybean.
No, Marvin Bagobones was the move. Talented fella, sure. But I may be out 3-to-4 weeks just from typing his name. Like Phoenix, Sacramento was in position to at least draft Doncic and trade him to a lower-drafting team for something of value, and whiffed. The GM from that day should be gone, and the coach, Joerger, is only gone because he wouldn’t quit giving the GM grief all last season over the blunder.
Oh, and how does Memphis get to run around scot-free, and not kicking themselves? They cleaned it up nicely with the do-over Draft Lottery luck of 2019. But put this on for size: “The Grizzlies! Home of the 2019 AND 2020 Rookies of the Year.” All they had to do was blow up Atlanta and Dallas’ scheme, and then maybe the Mavs are the ones trying to keep Jaren Jackson, Jr. from fouling out every other night.
Jackson, and nothing else, or Doncic? If you weren’t sure “Which Better?”, you certainly are now. The GM that was also a proofreader away from squandering Dillon Brooks, too, is gone, and the coach got the heave-ho, too. Once Vivek Ranadive regains his senses, that’s three out of four teams who picked ahead of the Mavs in 2018’s draft, three out of four whose picks from that class are or will be inherited by a new regime.
The opportunity to trade Luka Doncic down for Trae Young, and recoup additional value in the process, should never have been afforded to Atlanta. And yet, with the iron still steaming, an astute Schlenk was prepared to make a calculated strike.
What additional value, you ask? Well there’s January Rookie of the Month finalist Cam Reddish (40.3 3FG% and 82.8 FT% in January), whose confidence on the offensive end is growing by leaps and bounds, and whose defensive aptitude at the wing is pretty good fresh out the box for a team that sorely needs it.
Cam is with Atlanta and not, say, Dallas, because Luka was just good enough in 2019-20 to keep the Mavs from being among the league five worst NBA teams, a calculated risk that I trust went into negotiations about draft pick protection. Dallas negotiates Top-10 protection, instead of Top-5, and they’d likely have wound up bringing Reddish or Rui Hachimura into the fold.
Tack onto that, both teams got a 2019 All-Rookie 1st teamer and 2020 All-Star out of their 2018 lottery picks, but Atlanta keeps about $6 million in would-be rookie-scale cash spread out over the course of four years to spend elsewhere.
One other item. Walking out of 2018’s draft with Young as Atlanta’s point guard of the future meant never having to wonder whether the good folks of DeKalb County, Georgia were going to take the Damocles’ Sword of a recommended felony assault charge for Dennis Schröder and shelve it in a drawer, away from harm.
By hookah by crook, Schlenk had to get value for The Menace, too. Now, a rebuilding OKC team that squeaks into 2022’s playoffs would bring the Hawks yet another first-rounder to add to a still-youthful core.
Yes, Luka Doncic is a better player than Trae Young. Yes, the Atlanta Hawks Basketball Club is doing just fine. Those statements need not be matters of controversy, nor must they be mutually exclusive.
Luka is better because he was genetically built, raised, trained and marketed to be better. At age 17, Trae Young led his team to a regional high school championship, his state of Oklahoma naming him the high school sophomore of the year. At age 15, Luka Doncic was in the third year of his developmental contract with Real Madrid. By age 17, Luka was on the top-level club in the world’s second-best basketball league, already having appeared in preseason games against the NBA Celtics and Thunder.
Between high school and Big XII collegiate play, Young had his share of scrimmages with and against semi-pro competition. But he would have to join a team that had Vince Carter on it before he could play an official game against players more than five years his senior.
Doncic, now 6-foot-7 and pushing 220 pounds, has been playing well above his age weight since age 7. A 5-star recruit, Young traveled for competition across his country. Doncic performed for club and country across his continent, competing in Liga ACB and Euroleague to justify his place among men trying to bring home enough borscht to keep their families fed.
It ought to be impressive that both young performers have taken the NBA world by storm, already having left their many “draft bust” critics muttering bitterly to themselves. It ought to be amazing that both have reached the same stages in their short careers, to this point, given their disparate paths to get to the best pro league in the world. But that’s not enough for some. Somebody must be shamed for “losing” a draft deal.
If you want legitimate examples of a winner-loser draft trade, dial it back to 1998. Antawn Jamison had a mighty fine career, one that certainly worked out better than two lottery talents selected ahead of him The Kandi Man and Raef LaFrentz. About five years after making the All-Rookie team, he was the league’s Sixth Man of the Year. An efficient offensive player, ‘Tawn even got named to the All-Star Team twice, at ages 28 and 31.
Unfortunately for the Golden State Warriors, the veteran accolades came for Jamison after he was traded away, coincidentally, to Dallas. Unfortunately for G-State, Jamison was the second-best player in a two-player draft deal. Moreover, he wasn’t even the best player out of Chapel Hill in the trade.
The Raptors took Vince Carter 4th in the draft, the Dubs took Jamison 5th, and then they swapped draft caps. No draft picks changing hands, no other players, just straight cash, home. Cash not for the Warriors but for the Raptors, to go along with Carter.
Vince was the better player, Vince had the greatest impact for his team, Vince had the better career. Advantage, Raptors. But please note -- by the time the Warriors and Raptors finally met in The Finals, neither player, and none of their coaches or GMs, were anywhere around.
Jamison can take solace that his NBA fate worked out better than the guy drafted right after him. This season, the Mavericks are, for the first time in a long time if not ever, above the .500 mark as a four-decades-old franchise. While Luka has helped them get over the hump, this would be a much longer time in coming had The Worst NBA Franchise of the 90s not drafted Robert Traylor 6th in that 1998 Draft, then sent him to Milwaukee for their pick at #9.
Mark Cuban bought the Mavs from Ross Perot, Jr. in 2000 and inherited the German wunderkind, Dirk Nowitzki, who turned the team’s fortunes around and made a roadmap for European parents to seriously consider orienting their athletic kids toward a pro basketball future in North America. While it wasn’t obvious to most at draft time, Dirk proved to be better than Tractor, had the greatest impact for his team, had the better career. Advantage, Mavericks. And it wasn’t close.
Those who craved to see Doncic and Young go tête-à-tête tonight at American Airlines Center (8:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Southwest in DFW), seeking out some play that will crystallize their “Who Better” argument one way or another, will be disappointed to find Luka sitting out with an ankle sprain.
I encourage them to instead check out last season’s games where the Hawks and Mavs split their series with home wins, the latter back in December 2018 snapping Atlanta’s ten-game head-to-head winning streak. Or, last February’s Rising Stars Game, won by Trae and John Collins’ USA Team. Or, that weekend’s Skills Challenge, where Trae prevailed over Luka to reach the finals.
The flaws with the “Who’s Better?” assessments come in the inferences. One might need to see them head-to-head to determine who’s “better” in their own minds. Others might be satisfied by gazing at the standings, where Luka’s team is already a likely first-round pest in the West (29-19; 4-3 on second-night of back-to-backs incl. 133-104 loss vs. PHX on Jan. 28), while Trae’s team has been failing to gain traction for months (13-36; 5-5 in last ten games) in the East.
Dallas, too, once took grief for taking a slick-passing point guard from an unassuming major college program Top-3 in the Draft, in the process passing up on a global sensation. People who watched Grant Hill’s brilliance in his time at Durham, his NCAA tournament majesty, could not fathom anyone taking Jason Kidd before him. Purdue’s Glenn Robinson was maybe understandable. But Kidd?
Mavs and Pistons fans would come out of their corners swinging for twelve rounds in that 1994-95 season – somebody had to be “better!” And the dismay on both sides was palpable after the votes were tallied and Hill and Kidd wound up splitting the Rookie of the Year baby.
Kidd was a superb ballhandler, an All-Star in his second season on a Mavericks club that went 26-56 (hmm.), and even a stout defender. But Ason had no J, as they would say. Having the next mini-Magic was cute and all, but the NBA was on a search for The Next MJ. Hill, a highlight-reel All-Star during his first four seasons in Detroit, a more versatile and athletic talent than Kidd, was fitting that bill.
Detroit surged into the playoffs with Hill while Dallas continued to sputter. The consensus by the late 1990s was clear: Grant Hill is “better” than Jason Kidd, who Dallas shipped away midway through his third season, essentially for Steph Marbury. Ergo, Grant Hill WILL be the more impactful player for the team that drafted him. Grant Hill will be winning rings for the Pistons before Jason Kidd wins one with the Mavericks. Advantage, Motown. That’s how the destinies are gonna work out, because Hill is just “better.” Right? Well.
The Pistons indeed won a chip. But Hill was eating chips and dip by the time they did.
As both Hill and Kristaps Porzingis (also out tonight, knee injury recovery on a back-to-back) know, being a draft “steal”, or a beast instead of a bust, does not prevent injuries, misfortune, and bungling mismanagement from derailing your path to championship prominence.
Doncic is a better player than Young, but saying so is not enough. He was plugged into an NBA environment that was better suited for what he could bring to the table. Aside from the pervy guys in the breakroom, Dallas had a stable organization in an NBA market that was well-acclimated to embracing a European star. The coach, Rick Carlisle, that won the 2011 Finals with Nowitzki and, whaddya know, Kidd, is still here to guide Luka.
The Mavs’ brass didn’t really consider keeping Young because they thought they had their point god of the future, in Dennis Smith, Jr. As it became apparent that Luka being Luka renders point guard usage meaningless, off went Smith to New York. That allowed the Mavs to take a long-term flier on Porzingis while relieving the Knicks of their error bringing Tim Hardaway, Jr. back from Atlanta and Courtney Lee from wherever. Dallas also sent the Knicks a pair of future Top-10 protected first-rounders that, because Luka, are likely to convey.
The owner, Cuban, only believes in tanks that involve sharks. He chased around the summer streets of Houston looking to secure DeAndre Jordan, and finally got him last year, only to send him to the Knicks in that Porzingis deal. Rebuilding, shme-building. Dallas is over the salary cap, hard-capped, and committed to paying Porzingis, a 7-foot-3 unicorn shooting 40.4 FG% while settling for threes, upwards of $131 million over the next four seasons.
If he’s not enough of a frontcourt presence, Dallas went out and acquired Boban Marjanovic, and, last month, Willie Cauley-Stein to replace the season-ending-injured Dwight Powell. When Luka needs shooters to take pressure off of him, he’s got Hardaway, Seth Curry, Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith, J.J Barea, and Ryan Broekhoff, all shooting between 38 and 48 percent from deep.
Hard-capped, potentially in a tighter tax situation next season if Hardaway eats his player option, and having to keep up in a conference that has Harden and Westbrook, Kawhi and PG, and at least for now LeBron and AD.
Next year’s Eastern Conference isn’t slouching, either, if Kyrie and KD can make some noise to join Giannis and the other contenders on this side of the country. But at least Atlanta, who has Chandler Parsons turning his wreck into a check while keeping the team above the salary floor, will have the maneuverability to move up and grow into contention around Young, without giving up too much.
It’s fine to wish that Schlenk was committed to a hastier roster construction and better coaching expertise to surround his new All-Star than his 2018 Draft trade partners. But anyone concluding that Dallas already “won” the trade by looking at their team’s current places in the NBA standings is willfully as narrow as a country road.
Luka Doncic is better than Trae Young. Going any further to suggest that the Mavericks are in a better position than the Hawks to win titles in the near future would be misguided and neglectful of even Mavericks team history. Luka’s better. If all goes well for him, he will likely be better. But to get meaningfully far in the NBA West, for the Mavericks’ sake, Luka had better stay better.
Let’s Go Hawks!