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The Whiteboard: What if the Luka Doncic, Trae Young trade was a lose-lose?

Fansided 3/27/2023 Ian Levy

For years, we've been debating who won the Luka Doncic, Trae Young trade. Lately, it looks like both teams may have lost the swap.

A draft night trade that saw them swapped for each other will link Luka Doncic and Trae Young forever. There are precious few physical or aesthetic similarities but as high-volume primary creators in different conferences, it's always been fairly easy to draw clean comparisons and try to answer the eternal question of which side won the trade.

Young has run career averages of over 25 points and nearly 10 assists per game. He's made a pair of All-Star teams and earned an All-NBA third-team selection. He's taken the Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals and amassed 11-12 playoff record.

Young has also, despite averaging 25-10 for a likely playoff team, played himself into irrelevancy this season. His shooting percentages are down across the board and he remains one of the abject worst defensive players in the league. He missed the All-Star team and no one seemed to care. He's on his third permanent head coach in five seasons and continues to be dogged by persistent rumors of fostering toxicity in the Hawks' locker room.

Luka Doncic, on his side of the trade-evaluation ledger, is playing for a slumping team in serious danger of missing the Play-In Tournament. He looks visibly miserable and exhausted and can't stop arguing with the referees to the serious detriment of his own play and his team's bottom line.

Both players are under the age of 25, and playing under max contracts for the next three seasons with a player option for the fourth. And yet it wouldn't be surprising at all to see the Hawks begin quietly shopping Young at some point this offseason or to see him request a trade. For the pessimistic among us, a Doncic trade request feels more like a matter of when than if.

What if the Hawks and Mavs both lost the Luka Doncic for Trae Young trade?

Before I make the argument, let me clarify the terms. I don't think the Mavs or Hawks would be better off if they had simply kept the other player instead of making the trade. And while each team might be better off having built around Jaren Jackson Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Mikal Bridges over the past four seasons that's far from a guarantee, especially considering how much their own team-building choices have been part of the problem.

However bleak their futures might appear at this moment, both teams are appreciably closer to a title than they were heading into the night of the 2018 NBA Draft. And both teams have realized plenty of benefits over the past four years — in wins, revenue, ticket and jersey sales, fan engagement.

But I think there's a very good chance that by the end of their current contracts, both players will be on different teams. And the Hawks and Mavericks will have almost nothing to show for this trade other than the passage of time and a legacy of bad decisions and missed opportunities.

What's next for Trae Young and the Hawks?

The Hawks are, for all intents and purposes, devoid of cap space next season. John Collins seems like the one player they could afford to trade and try and upgrade but he's already a promising asset that they've completely squandered both in terms of his potential asset to them and in what they might get as a return in a trade.

The path to the Hawks becoming an Eastern Conference contender next season is basically internal development from Onyeka Okongwu and AJ Griffin plus any strategic upgrades from Quinn Snyder on the bunch plus better vibes. Maybe they hit on all three of those variables but even that doesn't seem guaranteed to lift them out of the middle of the pack.

The following season they'll have to weigh extensions for Dejounte Murray, Okongwu and Saddiq Bey against other upgrades they might be able to make with that cap space and then basically hope the same thing works. They have a 2024 first-round pick coming from the Kings, but owe their 2025 and 2027 picks to San Antonio, with a pick swap giving them the lesser pick in 2026.

Even if they were able to make the hard mental pivot to try and trade Young and try to rebuild with these parts and Dejounte Murray, they have to find a trade partner with the requisite space to take on Young's massive deal, one willing to basically cede all offensive primacy to Young and one willing to gamble that the locker room problems have been exaggerated. And in terms of what they can command in return, they'll get compensated on Young's damaged present rather than his hypothetical potential.

I mean, really, what's realistic? A straight-up swap for Bradley Beal? A pupu platter of incomplete young players from the Rockets? To me, it all looks like a funnel toward starting again from scratch.

What's next for Luka Doncic and the Mavs?

The Mavericks have no incoming picks and owe their 2023 first-round to the Knicks, and their 2029 first-rounder to the Nets. This offseason, they'll have to decide between trying to re-sign Kyrie Irving and locking themselves into a long-term circus (remember, they're 7-13 since trading for him). Or, letting Irving walk and accepting that they flushed Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, a first-round pick and a pair of seconds down the toilet.

Hindsight is 20/20 but it didn't take that much imagination to see the Irving deal being a disaster. And just as bad are the other small, short-sighted trades that added veterans at the expense of upside and growth possibility. Doncic is just 23 and there are only two other players even close to the regular rotation under the age of 25 — Jaden Hardy and Josh Green. There is no pathway for player development or internal growth to help this team, no young players who could be blossoming alongside Doncic. It's all about winning trades and free-agent signings, which they have proved comically bad at for the last few years.

Conceivably the Mavs could let Christian Wood, Dwight Powell and Irving all walk and create a big chunk of cap space for themselves. But who is out there that changes their fortunes enough to push them back towards content and keep Doncic happy? Fred VanVleet? A 33-year-old Draymond Green? And even if they can make some big roster adjustments, they still have their Jason Kidd problem — a disastrously bad tactician, far more ornery and self-aggrandizing than he has any right to be, and a coach who already had demonstrated his ability to antagonize and alienate a star young player (Giannis).

Why would Luka Doncic want to keep burning himself out for this?

I don't like playing the pessimist, dwelling on negative hypotheticals. But I also hate watching joyless basketball, with frustrated teams and players self-sabotaging at every turn. And right now, I don't see how the Hawks or Mavs escape more of the same until this Doncic for Young trade is much farther in their rearview mirrors.

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