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  • Writer's pictureEvan Woods

Same Price Tag, Same Value?

As entertaining as this year’s free agency has been, it hasn't been the player movement that has intrigued me the most, but the value of the new contracts. More specifically, those of Trae Young and Luka Dončić. The two young super-stars, who were traded for each other Draft Night 2018, have both signed identical 5 year, $207m super-max extension deals with their respective teams. You probably know where I’m going next; so, who’s better? This topic has been heavily debated ever since that fateful night 3 years ago, and has only picked up steam as both players continue develop and improve. But rather than asking who is the better player, how about asking who won the trade? The answer isn’t all that simple – let me explain.

Okay, first things first. Both players are great and there’s no denying it. So why argue who's better? From a statistical standpoint, ¹ Luka has the slight edge over Young in average scoring, and completely outplays him on the glass. But he's been playing professional hoops since he was a teenager, so he had been forced to develop his strength earlier in his life. Of course Luka is going to out-rebound a balding kid who he has a 6inch height advantage over. Too far? Fair. In his defense, ² Trae has averaged more assists and shot a higher 3P% than Luka over the 3 seasons they've been in the league. They’ve both been earned many accolades, including All-Stars appearances, that have earned them the respect of their NBA peers. You could go back and forth arguing until you're blue in the face about who's better, and a case could be made for either player. Obviously, the offensive numbers across the board suggest that Luka would be the better of the two players. I mean, he's a walking triple-double that could pop off any game. But Trae’s range and dead-eye shooting, coupled with his facilitation skills, always pose a threat for the opposition. Offensive statistics are an important factor in deciding how good a player is, but that doesn’t paint the entire picture. While they are both expertly skilled offensive weapons, they share a common Achilles heel: defense.

It’s a well-known fact that both Trae Young and Luka Dončić are not the best defenders. Okay, fine. They’re atrocious. Statistically, Trae has been one of the worst defenders the NBA has ever seen, ² averaging an abysmal career defensive +/- of -2.3. This means he is significantly hurting his team on every defensive possession, just by standing on the court. On the other side of the coin, ¹ Luka has averaged a slightly higher defensive +/- of .6 over his career. You don’t need any prior sports knowledge to know that those minuscule numbers are not encouraging. When compared to some of the top defensive point guards in the NBA, both pale in comparison to the likes of Chris Paul (³ career defensive +/- of 2.2) and Ben Simmons (⁴ career defensive +/- of 2). Neither Trae nor Luka get many steals or blocks, and both are seen as defensive liabilities. Improving their personal defensive skills would greatly increase their team's chances of winning a title, so this should be a huge focal point during the offseason for each. But given what we’ve seen so far, I don’t need a crystal ball to know that there are no DPOY awards in either of their futures. By the numbers, you can see that they both excel on the offensive end while struggling on the defensive end – but their similarities don’t end there.

While Trae is a scrawny dude from Oklahoma and Luka is a shy kid from Slovenia, they’re more alike than you’d think. However, the similarities I see between them may not be as positive as you may expect. There was huge buzz around both of these players before the ’18 draft, and fans everywhere were looking forward to the new kids on the block to take the NBA by storm. With Trae drawing comparisons to Steph Curry and Luka drawing comparisons to James Harden, it was easy to be excited about them. And while neither player has necessarily disappointed to this point, there’s one critical quality that they share that might make you think otherwise. One thing I’ve noticed about both of these players is that while they both have good assist numbers, their hands tend to get a little sticky in high-pressure situations. Meaning that when the game is on the line, both of these players usually abandon their facilitator roles, and become the classic ball-hog everyone grew up with on their rec basketball teams. This usually leads to them hoisting ill-advised 30-footers or turning the ball over. Of course, Sport Centerᵀᴹ is sure to show the highlights of Trae splashing one from the logo or Luka hitting a dagger between the eyes of a defender while falling away, but they will usually neglect to show how the play dissolved before that point. Usually, these heaves are a result of Trae getting trigger happy and launching a bomb five seconds into the shot clock or Luka dribbling around in circles with his head down for 20 seconds before he has no other option than to catapult one through the arms of a defender. Both tend to turn into black holes when it matters the most, and they will have to change that in order to progress. Smart players make smart plays. And while I do believe they are both smart players, they still have some work to do. Luckily, they are already good enough to pull off some of these plays, and they still have an entire career ahead of them to hone their craft.

So back to the main point – who won the trade? Trae and Luka have both done enough to prove they are worthy of a super-max extension, so in my eyes they are as equal as you can get, despite Luka having more favorable numbers. Sure, it’s a cop-out to say they're equal due to the value of their contracts, but I say that to hammer home the fact that we shouldn’t get bogged down in who is better, but think about what team is better for making the trade. ⁵ The trade sent Luka to the Mavs in exchange for Trae Young and a top-five protected pick in the 2019 draft, which ended up being Cam Reddish. Sure, Reddish has not progressed as he was thought to, but at the very least he is still a young bargaining chip with a high ceiling. If the Hawks are able to package Reddish in a deal with a few other young players or upcoming picks, they could easily get a huge return. It may be in the form of seasoned vets to surround their young and talented core, or they could try to hit a homerun and bring in a high-profile player. On the other hand, The Mavs have completely mortgaged their future on Luka. It will be up to Owner Mark Cuban to surround Luka with a stronger supporting cast, as the Kristaps Porzingas experiment has not yielded positive results. The Zinger is an attractive trade asset, although he has developed a reputation as a locker room cancer and has shown obvious signs of jealousy that Luka was given the keys to the franchise. Due to this dysfunction on the Mavs roster, they have not been able to win a playoff series during Luka’s time there. Things will only become more difficult for the Mavs with Jason Kidd coming in and trying to clean up this mess next season. As for the Hawks – they exploded in the playoffs last season and showed their true potential. With Nate McMillan, (⁶ the fourth winningest coach among active NBA Head Coaches) permanently taking the helm, the Hawks are postured to have more of the same success they experienced last year. Trae led his team to two playoff series wins last year, and took the soon-to-be champion Bucks to 6 games – more than Luka has ever done for his team. By this analysis, I think it’s clear that the future is more bright for the Hawks rather than the Mavs, and it is a direct product of that trade on Draft Night back in 2018. Everyone immediately thought Dallas got the better end of the deal, and many still do. However, when you look to each team's future, I believe greater things are ahead for Atlanta. The combination of the young talent on the roster and the experience of Nate McMillan means the sky is the limit for the Hawks (pun intended). The Mavs didn't have any picks in this year's draft, following their typical strategy of building through free agency. They have singed some young talent and brought back Tim Hardaway Jr. and Boban Marjanović, but they will need to do more if they want to make the playoffs this coming season.

Trae and Luka are more similar than they are different, and it is time to stop comparing them to one another and just appreciate their talent. This will be difficult, as the two players' careers will always be intertwined because of the trade. But it is more important to evaluate their teams' success, rather than their individual success. For the time being, I expect Atlanta to finish as a top 4 team in the east being led by Trae Young, John Collins, Clint Capela, and other exciting players. I can see the Mavs struggling to make the playoffs in the crowded Western Conference without much for Luka to work with. Only time will tell if my theory is correct, and we all know the luck of Atlanta sports teams, so this will be one to keep your eyes on. But one thing is for sure: the future of the NBA is in good hands.



¹ Luka Dončić Stats. Basketball-Reference. (n.d.).

² Trae Young Stats. Basketball-Reference. (n.d.).

³ Chris Paul Stats. Basketball-Reference. (n.d.).

Ben Simmons Stats. Basketball-Reference. (n.d.).

⁵ O'Donnell, R. (2021, June 7). We can Appreciate Luka Doncic and Trae young without comparing them.

⁶ (n.d.). Top 20 coaches in NBA wins.

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