Exits: Ready talons or idle remains
By deciding to skip the regular season the Hawks, and Trae Young, regressed.
Consider the villain. Consider all the ways that we expect our villains to grow. Fuelled by anger, a feeling that more than any other requires frequent top-ups, the villains we love best find new ways to sustain theirs or else, like the rest of us, could sleep on it and one morning find it gone.
The Hawks waited until March to play their best basketball.
When Trae Young said the regular season was “a lot more boring than the playoffs” in early November it was fine. There was a lot of time left. When the Hawks dropped six of their first seven games in the new year and GM Travis Schlenk went on the radio to say the team had no urgency or accountability it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t All-Star yet, there was still time. When John Collins sought a second opinion on his foot injury and damaged ring finger (there’s a picture, you can google it based on your own stomach, but it didn’t look like a finger anymore) it was not a far line to draw between a healthy sense of distance and his being put up in a trade deal for Ben Simmons while Collins was, likely, still playing hurt for his team.
That was late-March, dragging into April. That was all the time they had.
Trae Young is not really a villain. To play one takes a certain year-round (or season-long) dedication, revelling in all the small markers of misfortune as well as the big. In basketball that might just mean an OT win in the dregs of February, in Minnesota, something both consummate villain Kevin Garnett and now Patrick Beverley have done. Villains are also stable. Much more than heroics, villainy is a steady state. To ride the lows like the highs and respond, more or less the same, to either. Kevin Durant does that. Kawhi Leonard, though not a villain but with the perfect temperament for one, does too.
Young tried villainy on like a costume last playoffs. It stuck in New York, that caricature of him, because that is a city that loves to see itself as central in an origin story, but around the rest of the league, this season, it slipped.
In less competitive terms, what I imagine the Hawks felt in edging by a short rostered Cleveland team would’ve been like forgetting about a gift exchange and bringing, at the last minute, something from home that winds up being a passable hit. The knowledge of being ill-prepared tucked safely, if shamefully, away in the back of your head.
What the Heat did to the Hawks in the first round was like the friend or family member at the exchange that knew, said nothing at the time to be polite, to allow you some dignity in your laziness, maybe some time to atone or admit it, and dressed you all the way down the next time they saw you. Needing only the same bare effort you yourself showed.
There’s luck in the regular season, a coasting luck, perhaps Young had that part right — but luck in the playoffs is a last resort. Necessary, always, but never relied upon.
In strictly competitive terms, Atlanta regressed. Clint Capela was an anchor for what oftentimes looked like a team of lackadaisical shooters, but with no real plans to put him in the mix in all those swing out plays to Young, Collins or Kevin Huerter, his offensive capabilities took a dive. Capela can be a scoring option — last season he was the Hawks 4th leading scorer, this season he was 8th — but it became impossible when tasked with picking up all the defence this team didn’t really dig in to play. Nate McMillan found some of what was missing in Delon Wright, who will do everything he’s asked to, but the runway was clipped until Cam Reddish went to New York. If the front office is up to the Herculean task of the very dull practicality at hand — asking this team to try harder, to try beyond what’s effortful — then it will make the money work to keep Wright.
Young teams have to develop. It isn’t enough to trust that time and experience will force some kind of competitive photosynthesizing to take hold, there has to be a plan in place for it. The weird thing to me is that when I spoke with the Hawks then special assistant, Nate Babcock, about Huerter’s trajectory last spring the plan was sound: reps, gradual role expansion, broadening the asks for Huerter and his teammates on the floor. It was a team gaining ground, with a brash and backup-able momentum, and it feels like that’s all fallen away.
How does a team get back? It doesn’t have to be so hard. Build around the star without eclipsing his supports, ask the same kind of production of the star so the supports don’t feel like that’s all they are. Even better, don’t call them supports. Double-down on the fundamentals, use all that intuitive speed to get out and stay ahead, see where opponents will game-plan to collapse your star, train him to not fold.
It doesn’t have to be so hard, but if this core is the carry-over then the Hawks have to decide to get started.
Young is also young. It doesn’t make sense for him to be what he is, whether that becomes hero or villain or neither, just yet. The best players are the ones who face big and bad losses, plenty of disfavour, question and criticism, and eventually find a way to distill it all down into something workable. And while the caveat is that it can take years, Young hasn’t yet shown he can, or is willing yet, to do that. This would have been the season to start, but this also became the season to see what folly there was in thinking it possible to skip the season as a whole. The worst part for Hawks fans will be waiting until next season to see if Young has recognized it.
Birds of prey, like hawks, can be taken as talismans of Mercury, the planet and the god. Hermes (Greek), also Mercury (Roman), was a messenger of the Olympian gods, and sightings of hawks, owls, or other predators when Mercury is moving direct can mean, if you want to believe it, that it’s a good time for communication and more than that, to put your wishes or close-held hopes out in the world. That those bold enough to trust their ambitions to ready talons will have them met.
Hermes was also a noted and cruel trickster — with a fickleness that’s not so far-flung from Young’s — so temper your expectations. It’s also worth remembering where the phrase “for the birds” comes from: pecking at leavings along the road, satisfied with whatever’s left at the end of the day.
Ready talons or idle remains, hubris or a tempered humility that even the best villains have learned the hard way. Dualities the Hawks, with Young as their keen-eyed head on a swivel, had better recognize in themselves before another regular season finds them adrift, on doldrums or trade winds.