One of the best things about sports is that you can always talk and discuss and argue about sports. Each week, I talk about them, I read about them, I watch them and then I try and often fail to make sense of it all. All of that is OK, but, man, can it be frustrating when you disagree about a topic that involves your own team. Part of what makes being emotionally invested in a sports team worth it is relationships and interactions you have with other people who like what you like. Humans like to pretend they enjoy hearing both sides of an issue, but the same people who watch Fox News night in and night out are not also flipping over to catch the latest Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, too. People like listening and hanging out with people who share their worldview. That’s why you tailgate before football games, that’s why you join meet up groups only for fans of the team you like, etc. We would prefer not to be challenged and will reflexively choose comfortability.
So when the Luka Doncic Trade happened on draft night in 2018, you immediately knew it would splinter the Atlanta Hawks fan base into two subgroups: 1) Those who thought the Hawks traded away a future Hall Of Famer and 2) Those who thought Trae Young could be a star. Had the Hawks just taken Doncic, still the right move, the option to splinter the fanbase wouldn’t have existed. Now, fans of the Hawks will be arguing for or against Trae for the next 10 years. Everybody loves Ronald Acuna. Everybody loves Julio Jones. Every loves Josef Martinez. Not everybody loves Trae Young.
This conversation will not go away anytime soon, especially with NBA league executives, both current and former, collectively salivating over the Dallas Mavericks’ future in an interview with The Athletic a few weeks back. If you’re a member of subgroup No. 1 mentioned above, you read this quote and pondered about walking into oncoming traffic during rush hour on 285.
“I feel like they have two pieces in Doncic and Porzingis that you can possibly build a championship team around. Most of the other non-playoff teams have some good players, but I’m not sure anyone has two with that kind of potential. Plus, it’s not the worst free-agent destination.” - Former General Manager.
It got worse.
When asked about the Hawks’ future, one former NBA executive said:
“They have a decent amount of young talent and I think Lloyd has done a great job with them, but they need to find that No. 1 guy or they’re gonna get stuck.”
My subgroup No. 1 family saw this and nodded their head into oblivion. This was the biggest fear for those of us on Don’t You Dare Trade Luka Doncic island. He had the potential to be the best player on a championship contender, while Young had the potential to be the best player on a pretty good team. We have seen this movie before. It happened with the 60-win Hawks team from a few years ago, it happened with the Joe Johnson-y Hawks. It will happen again with a Young, Kevin Huerter, and John Collins core.
On the flipside, I feel guilty about being so cynical towards this team. Lloyd Pierce is awesome and I want him to thrive. Young started hitting floaters late last year that were absolutely bonkers and just incredible to watch. Huerter is going to hit 40 percent of his threes for 17 years, and when Collins is motivated on the offensive glass you wonder if there will be a night he winds up with 40 boards. Pierce got this team to buy-in, he took it slow with Young and Huerter, and he even managed reducing Kent Bazemore’s role on the team flawlessly. The Hawks are in a great spot, have a great coach, have a lot of fun pieces, but they have nobody on this roster who has top-10 player in the NBA upside.
Can a team still have a bright future and also have no shot at winning an NBA title? If you ask Portland fans, the answer is probably yes. The Damian Lillard/CJ McCollum duo is fun, but it isn’t enough to win 16 playoff games. There is a ceiling to that group, but if you remove yourself from the championship-or-bust mindset, you look at this team fondly and glowingly. It is fun as hell to watch McCollum make circus shots where is almost always falling over. It is fun as hell to watch Dame pull up from 37-feet and end Russell Westbrook’s season while waving to the bench right after. Not everybody can win a title, there are only a handful of players that are good enough to carry a team there in the NBA: Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and maybe James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo. (If you want to throw these two in this group, too, that’s fine. I just need to see them in the Finals. Is that OK?)
So that is what Atlanta fans will have to collectively decide to do. You have to acknowledge -- Zion Williamson, permitting -- this core is going to be both fun as hell to watch and DOA come playoff time. This is a team that will probably make the playoffs next season. They will make the playoffs several more times. They will probably finish the regular season atop the conference a time or two. You have to adjust your expectations, you have to look away when the Mavericks are rolling with Luka and Porzingis, you have to just enjoy the fact that you have a great coach, a team that fights hard night after night, and that you could have just kept Doncic and we don’t have to hash this out.
Damn it, Travis Schlenk.