Between citing the teammates he believes to be valuable, comparing himself to Martin Luther King Jr., and channeling the infinite wisdom of the invisible eye, Kyrie Irving has actually been one of the most cogent voices on the NBA’s fundamental complication. “It’s an entertainment league,” Irving told reporters this week, an echo of an idea he has expressed many times and in many ways. The best basketball league in the world is, above all, a commodity to be bought and sold. To ignore this is to miss the entire point—and with it, the tension that makes Trae Young one of the game’s most compelling figures.
By credentials alone, Young is a borderline All-Star: a dazzling creator for one of the league’s worst teams. It’s quite a feat to keep the Cavaliers and Knicks at bay in the race to the bottom of the Eastern Conference, but the Hawks have managed it by floundering on both sides of the ball. Despite this, Young makes an 11-34 Atlanta team eminently watchable—perfect for a League Pass diversion, and with enough flair to keep a viewer occupied even as a 10-point deficit builds to 20. Watch the Hawks for long enough and you’ll see Young make plays his peers wouldn’t dare: unconscionably long 3s, outlandish passes, and the spiciest of nutmegs. It’s enough to bring an entire game to a halt, or perhaps more importantly, a fan scrolling aimlessly through their phone. From a series of tightly framed clips dramatized in slow motion, one could be convinced that Young is already one of the NBA’s very best players.
The reality is more complicated. Young is wildly productive and stylistically distinct, which has allowed his stardom to outpace his actual impact. It’s easy to appreciate the 29.2 points that Young averages nightly, the most of any player beyond James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Yet how should we square that kind of scoring with what is ultimately a failing offense? Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce is unusually accommodating of his point guard’s daring style, and for good reason. Locking Young away in a regimented role would squander what makes him special. To take full advantage of his vision, Atlanta has to be prepared for bold mistakes. To make the most of his range, Young has to be empowered to take shots wild enough to incite panic in opposing defenses. The Hawks have obliged, giving Young every opportunity and freedom. He has the ball in his hands more than any other player in the league, which makes him uniquely responsible for one of its worst offenses.
The reason Harden and Luka Doncic are allowed to operate with the level of control they do is because their teams rank third and first, respectively, in offensive efficiency. Even if you were to throw out all of the minutes the Hawks have played without Young this season (thus negating some of the impact of lesser lineups and lacking creators), they would still rank in the bottom third of the league. It’s not Young’s fault that the roster around him is substandard. Due to its limitations, however, he works as the propulsive force for an offense that doesn’t actually go anywhere.
In terms of his skill level, Young is unimpeachable; no one stumbles into this level of scoring or playmaking, regardless of their opportunities. Working off of Young’s gravity and passing has done wonders for the efficiency of Kevin Huerter (whose effective field goal percentage jumps by 19 percent with Young on the floor) and John Collins (14 percent). The way he operates conveys a sophisticated understanding of timing and angles with the production to match. Young is a virtuosic creator who has brought his game to scale—so stylishly, in fact, that his production appears weightier than it is. Based on the voting returns thus far, it seems all but certain that Young will be announced Thursday as one of the East’s five starters for the 2020 All-Star game. The votes that put him there will come from a combination of fans supporting their favorite players, media members assessing the best players, and the players themselves filling out their ballots with varying levels of seriousness. The NBA’s fundamental complication is right there: an exhibition game televised for spectacle but also made to honor the league’s best players, with top spots decided along the league’s split interests. What makes for good basketball doesn’t always make for great entertainment. Many of the game’s biggest stars simply reach a space where one side doesn’t much interfere with the other—where LeBron James can put on a show as part of a megawatt franchise while still competing for the title. Sizzle meets steak. Although Young is both a bonafide sensation and a serious basketball talent, his career hasn’t quite found that equilibrium.
Young was always going to be an All-Star, one way or another; no healthy player with his scoring average has ever been passed over entirely. (The closest case: World B. Free, who in 1979 ranked second in the league in scoring for a winning Clippers team and couldn’t even crack the top 10 in voting for his position. Brutal.) But what vaults Young into the starting lineup is the will of the people, many of whom rightly just want to watch an exciting player do cool shit. The nuances of Young’s role and his truly disastrous defense don’t matter as much to the average fan as the prospect that he might pull up from halfcourt. This is an entirely valid worldview, and one that’s essential to the operations of the league. Functioning as an entertainment business means showcasing Young over better, subtler players. This isn’t some great injustice—it’s the NBA working along its inherent contradiction.