Why the Hawks should trade Trae Young in the offseason

The Atlanta Hawks are getting used to life without Trae Young due to a finger injury. Here's why they should consider making the separation permanent.

Houston Rockets v Atlanta Hawks
Houston Rockets v Atlanta Hawks / Kevin C. Cox/GettyImages

Trae Young is one of the most polarizing players in the league. He has become a living, breathing top-10 offense but is also a straggling zombie on defense, condemning you to the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency. The net result is a team that concedes points almost as well as they create them, which explains the Atlanta Hawks’ 171-143 record over the past four seasons. 

Trae Young is an elite offensive engine

Building around Young was an easy choice. He was selected fifth overall via the Dallas Mavericks in the 2018 NBA draft, and as soon as his second season, he was an elite offensive player, averaging 29.6 points and 9.8 assists per game. The track record for players who are that productive that early is practically unassailable, and Young has largely lived up to it. 

Since his sophomore season, he has averaged 27.2 points, 9.9 assists, and 4.3 turnovers per game on 58.9 percent true shooting. The sum of his offensive production has led to an offensive box plus-minus (OBPM) of 5.8, which has seen him finish as high as fourth in the metric (2021-22) and only as low as 15th (2023-24). 

The bread and butter of Young’s offense is playmaking and free throw generation. Since 1969-70, there have been 11 individual seasons where a player has averaged over eight free throw attempts and nine assists per game, and Trae Young has three of them. Only James Harden and Kevin Johnson have done it more than once. 

Young’s impact on offense hasn’t been limited to his box score either. The Hawks have ranked in the top 10 in offensive efficiency every season since 2020-21 and have faired far better on offense with Young on the court compared to when he sits. The positives of building around Young are as plain as day, but so are the negatives. 

Trae Young’s defensive limitations

There’s no beating around the bush on this one. Trae Young is in the argument for the worst defensive player in the NBA. He’s incredibly small in height, weight, and length and has graded out as one of the worst defenders in the league by defensive box plus-minus (DBPM) every season of his career. In the best defensive season of his career, 2022-23, he finished seventh to last in DBPM, and in the worst, he finished second to last, 2018-19. While all-in-one defensive metrics should be taken with a grain of salt, the level of consistency he has shown, combined with all the physical limitations, make it very clear that Young is about as bad a defender as there is. 

Similarly to his offense, Young’s defensive contributions also bleed into his team’s success on that end. The Hawks have never finished outside of the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency since Young arrived, and their defensive rating has increased, on average, by 5.17 points per 100 possessions with Young on the court compared to when he sits, which is the opposite direction you want your defensive rating to go. 

The Hawks have yet to crack the Trae Young code, and the time is coming for the franchise to decide if he’s the right man to lead them into the future. They’ve already failed once to build a contender around him, and doing so appears to be one of the more difficult challenges in the NBA. 

The difficulty of building around Trae Young goes beyond defense

Trae Young is a misunderstood player. He routinely garners Stephen Curry comparisons, but he is actually a watered-down version of 2016-17 James Harden. Young’s value is derived from his playmaking prowess and free-throw generation. He has below-average 3-point shooting and 2-point shooting efficiency for his career, but he makes up for it by getting to the line 7.7 times per game and setting up teammates. Unlike Curry, but like Harden, he is a player who requires heavy on-ball usage to be effective, which dramatically limits the crop of co-stars who can co-exist next to him. 

The best players in the league are, generally speaking, excellent with the ball in their hands. It’s fundamentally why players are stars. There are a few who are so excellent off the ball and on defense that they can be a secondary or third option on offense, but they’re incredibly rare and always expensive. Pairing the standard ball-dominant star next to Young is, unfortunately, a situation where you end up with the sum being less than the parts. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with Young as a player. He is one of the best playmakers in the sport and scores at around league-average efficiency on massive volume. Over half of the league would see their offense improve with him at the helm, but that comes with some serious compromises, and it’s not just on defense. 

For Young to be elite, he needs very specific players around him. His lack of size and vertical explosiveness means he not only needs excellent spacing provided by perimeter shooting but also a roll man so dangerous that he sucks defenders toward the basket. Provided those confines, Young can pilot the league’s best offense, but unfortunately, that’s a necessity to make up for his defensive limitations. 

The highest a Trae Young team has ever finished in defensive efficiency is 21st, and that required Clint Capela finishing sixth in Defensive Player of the Year voting, a minor miracle considering how poor the Hawks’ defense was. Outside of shot creation, Young needs a team that can do everything else well. This makes the list of co-stars who he can be amplified and who can amplify him incredibly short, and that’s not an ideal superstar to have. 

The best players in the league are not only statistically productive. They also make roster construction easier. The perfect complimentary player isn’t always available or attainable, but the best players make it work because they can paper over cracks or render deficiencies moot. However, Young is a star that needs his deficiencies attended to, which raises the question, is he even a star?

Trae Young’s offensive impact is lessening

Another issue the Hawks need to consider is the dwindling advantage of Young’s offensive contributions. In 2020-21, the Hawks had an offensive rating of 120.21 with Young on the court, but in 2021-22, it dropped to 119.12, in 2022-23, it came in at 117.95, and this season it has been 119.13. On the surface, the Hawks’ offensive excellence looks relatively stable with Young on the court, but that ignores the league-wide context. 

Since 2020-21, the league average offensive efficiency has climbed tremendously from 112.3 to 115.7. Compared to the league average, Young’s offensive impact has gone from a staggering plus-7.91 in 2020-21 to only plus-3.43 in 2023-24. When you factor in that the Hawks’ defense has been, on average, minus-3.86 points worse compared to the league average with Young on the court over that period, there’s a growing case that his offense isn’t worth the defensive limitations. 

Why the Hawks should consider trading Trae Young

The Hawks need to take a good hard look at their future and where Trae Young fits into it. He is undoubtedly an excellent player, but he has serious limitations. Even though Young has his flaws, if the Hawks were to put him on the trade market, they’d receive no shortage of massive offers. Moving Young would sting after investing so heavily in trying to build a team around his talents and shortcomings, but it would also offer the Hawks enough assets to start a rebuild on solid footing. 

Dejounte Murray is a capable lead guard, Clint Capela is on an expiring deal, Bogdan Bogdanovic is an excellent sixth man and a more than capable starting combo guard, Jalen Johnson has been a revelation, and Onyeka Okongwu and AJ Griffin are young players with significant upside. The Hawks have the right combination of veterans and young players to either retool in a post-Trae Young world or do a massive fire sale and be set up for a rebuild. 

While a James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets level return of four first-round picks and three pick swaps is unlikely, the Hawks shouldn’t have trouble finding an offer that includes at least two unprotected first-round picks and multiple swaps. Players of his offensive caliber rarely become available, and in the right situation, he could be the missing piece to contention. 

The primary concern in any Young trade is the trade kicker in his contract that nets him 15 percent of all remaining money on his deal, which the Hawks would have to pay. He is under contract for two more seasons after this at $43 million and $45.9 million, with a $48.9 million player option in 2026-27. Players can waive their trade kickers, and Young could use it to help guide his next landing spot by letting only certain teams know he’d waive it. This could make it difficult for the Hawks to land the best package possible, but players of this caliber are usually in enough demand that it’s only a minor stumbling block. 

With a massive extension looming, the Hawks are running out of time to build a suitable roster around Young before he becomes incredibly expensive. Their first attempt failed, as they’ve been mired in mediocrity, and they don’t have the cap space or picks to significantly upgrade the roster in the short term. However, another team may believe they have the defensive infrastructure and perfect co-star for Young. 

Trae Young is who he is. That’s one of the best high-volume offensive engines in the game but also one of the worst defenders in the league. He requires a very specific mix of players to be fully weaponized, but when present, the results can be impressive. The Hawks don’t need to move Trae Young, but it is certainly an idea they should broach. If mediocrity is their goal, then by all means, keep doing what you’re doing. However, if winning the first title since the franchise moved to Atlanta is the goal, then turning Young into a bushel of picks and cap space might be their best route. Sometimes, the only way to move forward is to go back. 

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