If it wasn’t obvious before, Trae Young made sure everyone knows now: The league is overflowing with young talent that is ready to lead their team in the playoffs. It’s exciting to see how many players still on their rookie contracts have become obvious franchise cornerstones.
The NBA seems like it’s in good hands, talent-wise, which is reassuring. It’s also shifting towards having to build around these stars immediately or face internal turmoil. It was the case last summer, when reports came out that Young was unhappy and wanted more help. We are seeing it now, as the Mavericks, have cleaned house in part because the old guard didn’t build a good enough team around Luka Doncic.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing for these young superstars to demand competency from their front office from the outset, as Atlanta’s success shows, but it is a little concerning what it could mean for small and non-glamorous market teams, including the Hawks.
For a long time, the discussion about how a franchise was going to build a championship team around a young star was always framed with the assumption that front offices had six years to do so. Rookie contracts run for four years, and no young player has ever passed up the max extension when offered. At most, they have given themselves an out after three years. Because of that, building slowly through the draft around them seemed like the best course of action, especially for small market teams. Remain bad for a while so that you can get a second cornerstone organically, wait for the two to mature together, sign them long term, and only then add the pieces around them to turn into a contender.
Things have clearly been changing for a while now — the Decision was in 2010, after all — but as mentioned we have seen an acceleration of the timeline in which players try to take control of their careers, which could make the old model obsolete. No longer do young stars patiently wait years for the team that drafted them to put the right pieces next to them when they feel like they can lead a contender immediately. As mentioned, the best example of why this might be a good thing is Young openly expressing his unhappiness and basically forcing the Hawks to spend in free agency to put together the supporting cast that has helped him make the conference finals. But will the Hawks being good now help their chances to keep Young long term and build a true contender around him? It seems unlikely.
Unless they re-sign John Collins and he takes a massive leap towards stardom, it will probably be hard for the Hawks to land another cornerstone. They’ll pick outside of the lottery for the next few years, and Atlanta has been the opposite of a free agent magnet. They might be able to overpay to get someone —it worked with Joe Johnson back in the day — but then payroll and a lack of cap flexibility could become an issue. Swinging a trade is technically possible, but nowadays stars are powerful enough to dictate where they land, and they tend to flock to the same markets over and over. We saw LeBron’s Cavaliers struggle to get that second superstar, as well as Anthony Davis’ Pelicans and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks, among others.
That is actually what makes this early empowerment from these young players a little scary to some degree: Not that they are demanding franchises to rise up to their level, but that they are asking them to do so early enough that the draft stops being a tool for finding another superstar to pair them with, which will inevitably hurt small markets more.
Had Young been drafted by the Lakers, his demand for a better roster would have been easier to answer, and it wouldn’t have really compromised the future all that much. Free agents flock to Los Angeles, and the owners will accept huge tax bills, so even if the Lakers had essentially been sentenced to pick outside of the lottery for a decade by becoming better early in Young’s career, they would have other avenues to get a second superstar. Is the same true for, say, Zion Williamson and the Pelicans? Almost certainly not. It’s either be good early or potentially great late, but not both, unless the front office bats a thousand — as the Spurs did when they landed Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to replace the aging David Robinson — or owners agree to pay huge luxury tax bills.
The obvious reaction from some fans will be to blame these players for being shortsighted, but that would simply be misguided. Some players only have short windows in which they can actually be leading players on good teams, and they don’t know when things will change. Derrick Rose was 23 when he won MVP and never reached that level again. so he’s surely happy that the Bulls got him help early. Similarly, players have no assurance that their patience will be rewarded. Kevin Garnett and, so far, Damian Lillard, are perfect examples of stars who committed to a franchise that was never able to put the right pieces around them. No one should blame this new generation for not wanting to waste any part of their prime and for not trusting that sacrifice early will inevitably be rewarded later.
So is there anything to do that could help both small market teams and this new generation of empowered young stars get what they want? It doesn’t seem like it. The NBA is restrictive enough already when it comes to player movement and making changes. For example, having max contracts count for a smaller percentage of the cap if they go to players a franchise drafted to give the team more cap flexibility could have unintended consequences. It wouldn’t make sense to make huge changes anyway, since there will always only be a handful of young players at a time that are actually good enough to lift a team by themselves early in their career. This is a problem that only concerns two or three teams.
Or maybe this isn’t a problem at all, but a paradigm shift. The new model could work, as long as front offices nail their additions and fans enjoy superstars while they are there, without developing an expectation of career-long loyalty. Hawks fans are surely loving this playoff run, and if it ends up being indirectly to blame for Young eventually leaving because it made it harder to find him another superstar to play with, they’ll still have the memories. The same goes for Mavericks fans and Pelicans fans who are getting to enjoy generational talents. The whole point of finding superstars is to have a few years of deep playoff runs, so it might not matter if they come in the first six years of a player’s career instead of the last six. After all, there’s no guarantee that picking top five for three or four years will land a team a star.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years to these precocious superstars and the teams that drafted them. Maybe enough good moves and enough early playoff appearances will give front offices the trust of their cornerstones, who will then show the patience that maybe they couldn’t afford to have at the start of their career. Maybe the concerns about what this all means will be moot, as some will stay put no matter what while others leave even if their teams are contenders. (Hello, Kawhi Leonard!)
For now, the best thing to do is enjoy these young stars. Young, Doncic and a few others are ready now, and they are insanely fun to watch. Their early rise might turn out to not be the best for the teams that drafted them, but it sure is good for the league.