Might be time for Trae Young to get shoved out of the Hawks’ nest

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It’s tough to know when to know when to throw in the towel on an era, but the bruised and bloodied Trae Young era Atlanta Hawks are beginning to look like they should throw in the towel. The Hawks are now six years into Young’s tenure as their cornerstone and all they have to show for the rollercoaster are those memories from their 2021 Eastern Conference Finals run to show for it. At the onset of the following campaign, Young expressed a level of apathy for the regular season that exposed an overconfidence he hadn’t earned.

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“I think guys are learning that. We’re no longer the hunters. It’s the regular season. I’m not going to lie, it’s a lot more boring than the playoffs. You got to find that motivation to play like the playoffs.” Young told The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner.

Since then, the Hawks have been to the playoffs twice, but failed to win a single series, getting eliminated both times in the first round. In fairness to Young, both of those losses were to the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics, the two most recent Eastern Conference champions. If the Hawks return this season, it will have to be by winning a play-in game as the 10-seed, where they are currently situated. Unless the Hawks pick up steam and play better without Young in their lineup.

On Friday, Young underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left pinkie finger. That timeline means Young should be reevaluated at the end of March, but given the Hawks’ current predicament, there’s a very real chance Young’s stint in Atlanta could be at its end. It’s not just that Young hasn’t won games, but his game hasn’t translated to wins. The Hawks are currently 10th in the East and falling.

They’re trending downwards at a time when Young should be cementing his superstar bonafides and his standing among young guards is plummeting. After six years, franchises begin to realize what they have or don’t have in a player. Minnesota realized Karl-Anthony Towns wasn’t an A1 star by then. Fortunately for the Timberwolves, they had Anthony Edwards fall into their lap. DeMarcus Cousins was traded in his seventh season in Sacramento.

Young has been the DeMarcus Cousins of Steph Currys. His counting stats and game will make you marvel, but there’s something missing, whether it’s a basketball IQ deficit, coasting on ability, or an affection for bad shots — or both. Years from now, Young will be on Cam Newton’s podcast sharing behind-the-scenes anecdotes about what led to Atlanta’s demise, which blames everyone but himself.

Young was in the midst of another slump when he suffered his most recent injury setback. Not many shooters are as streaky as Young. As a distributor, his influence is undeniable. However, the variance in Young’s shooting is as wide as the gap between Jordan Poole and Curry. Few shooters are as dangerous from logo range as Young is aside from Curry and Damian Lillard.

Young, however, is his own offensive system and the Hawks are thriving on that end as a top-10 offense. But he has hampered Atlanta in the postseason by clinging to his role as a volume shooting, heliocentric playmaker when he should be optimized more as an off-ball shooter racing around screens as often as he navigates pick-and-rolls. Unfortunately, Young only knows how to play one way and Atlanta’s ball movement has suffered with him on the floor.

Curry gets more touches per game than all but five other players, and ranks second in seconds per touch in the entire league behind Jalen Brunson, whose effort level is off the charts. In March, the Hawks will get a preview of what life without Young could be like and it could be a test run for next season. This offseason, Young’s name is appearing in trade rumors enough that he felt compelled to respond to them during All-Star Weekend.

“Some of the few lucky ones have been blessed to be drafted in situations where they win championships and it all be perfect for them,” Young said. “That’s what I want to do with Atlanta, but who knows.”

That last line doesn’t give the impression of a veteran who is going to be locked down with a super-max contract in a few years. This feels like Carmelo Anthony or Cousins near the end of their runs with the franchises that drafted them. That relates to what else Young said about the possibility of being traded.

“It is part of it,” Young explained about the reality of trade rumors. “The best players in the game have been traded.”

The San Antonio Spurs have been mentioned as suitors for obvious reasons throughout the season. They’re badly in need of a floor general to pair with Victor Wembanyama after the whole Josh Primo imbroglio, and have been in the market for one all season. They also would impose their motion offense on Young and get him to be more active off-ball while Wemby covers for his defensive liabilities. Even if it’s not San Antonio, a fresh start would do Young good. For all his warts, he could thrive in a system where he’s playing off of an alpha teammate.

Young could also return to the Hawks next season and spend the next two seasons vibrating on the trade block while they cling to making it work, but with every passing day, he’s looking like the next big star who should be on the move.

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