Why Luka Doncic and Trae Young are linked by more than a draft night trade
Kirk Goldsberry revisits the Luka Doncic-Trae Young trade and how it changed the landscape of the NBA. (2:51)
THE ATLANTA HAWKS were on the clock with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft when owner Mark Cuban stepped into the hallway outside the Dallas Mavericks' draft room and made a phone call.
Cuban reached out to Tony Ressler, the Hawks' principal owner. Donnie Nelson and Travis Schlenk, who ran the basketball operations departments at the time for Dallas and Atlanta, respectively, had spent much of the day discussing a potential trade that would allow the Mavericks to move up two picks. With minutes to spare, Cuban wanted to make sure the deal made it across the finish line.
The billionaires agreed to go with the framework that was in place: The Hawks would send the Mavs the No. 3 overall pick for No. 5 and a top-five-protected pick in the following year's draft.
Luka Doncic donned a Hawks cap on the Barclays Center stage, but he was headed to Dallas, whose analytics department had him "10 miles ahead of everybody else" in that draft class, Cuban recently told ESPN. Trae Young, selected with the fifth pick, wore a Mavs cap on stage but already knew he'd be a Hawk.
It turned out to be a swap of two of the NBA's most prolific playmakers, each elite as a scorer and passer. They have both earned All-NBA recognition, Doncic with three first-team selections, Young with one third-team honor. That made them eligible for their identical five-year, $212 million supermax extensions with player options for the final season.
Midway through the first season of those extensions, the Mavs and Hawks face major challenges as they attempt to construct contenders around their young franchise players. It's a goal that comes with a natural sense of urgency in the modern NBA, where examples abound of superstars going to greener pastures after their original teams fell short of championship aspirations.
Those aren't the only similarities in the career paths of the superstars who will meet Wednesday night in Dallas (7:30 ET, ESPN). They both butted heads with their first head coaches and led their teams to surprising conference finals runs after coaching changes. Both franchises have undergone major front-office overhauls.
And both teams took big swings in the trade market to acquire co-stars, deals that produced disappointing results in Dallas and (so far) in Atlanta.
That leaves the Hawks and Mavs searching for a path to title contention with their superstars, and concerned about what might come if they can't figure it out quickly enough.
IN HINDSIGHT, THE Hawks got ahead of themselves. They didn't expect to make a deep playoff run in 2020-21, especially after the midseason firing of coach Lloyd Pierce.
The Hawks, however, went 27-11 the rest of the regular season under then-interim coach Nate McMillan, cruised past the New York Knicks in the first round and shocked the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the conference semifinals. That run persuaded the Atlanta front office to keep the roster essentially intact -- a decision that led to regret after a 43-39 season and a meek first-round exit to Miami last year represented a significant step back.
"I think if you asked our front office, they would say that we thought based on last season's visit to the Eastern Conference finals that we could bring back predominantly the same team and get better and expect it to be better," Ressler told reporters in May. "I don't think that worked out the way we thought.
"So yes, I think we should have tried to get better rather than bring back what we had. That won't happen again, by the way. It was a mistake, in my opinion."
Atlanta indeed made an all-in offseason move, landing All-Star guard Dejounte Murray in a blockbuster trade with the San Antonio Spurs. The Hawks gave up three first-round picks -- a heavily protected one from Charlotte acquired via a midseason trade of Cam Reddish and Atlanta's unprotected 2025 and 2027 selections -- plus 2026 swap rights.
It was an especially risky move given that Murray, who can be a free agent in 2024, has no reason to agree to a contract extension. League rules limit extensions to a 20% raise in the first year of the deal, and Murray's $17.7 million salary in 2023-24 is considered far below his market value.
Atlanta has been pretty good with Young and Murray on the floor together, outscoring opponents by 3.8 points per 100 possessions, according to data from pbpstats.com. The Hawks have been bad when Murray plays without Young (minus-6.58 net rating) and slightly worse when Young plays without Murray (minus-6.62).
It adds up to a 22-22 record, putting the Hawks back in play-in territory midway through what has been a tumultuous season. Schlenk was ousted weeks ago, with 34-year-old general manager Landry Fields now running basketball operations with heavy influence from Ressler's 27-year-old son, Nick. Questions are swirling about McMillan's job security -- and/or his desire to stay in Atlanta -- after he clashed with Young. Power forward John Collins, as has been the case for a few years, is prominently featured in trade rumors.
An inexperienced front office is now tasked with constructing a contender around Young -- an especially difficult challenge with depleted assets.
THE MAVS WENT all-in just months into Doncic's rookie season. When the Knicks decided to trade Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks pounced at the opportunity to pair Doncic with another young European-born star. But both the Mavericks and Knicks ignored Porzingis' list of preferred destinations that sources said did not include Dallas.
Nelson had been in discussions with the Knicks about taking Tim Hardaway Jr. and possibly Courtney Lee in exchange for expiring contracts as the Knicks were motivated to create salary-cap space for that summer's free agency. Dallas would have received draft compensation in such a deal.
Suddenly, Porzingis got added to the package and two first-round picks (2021 and 2023) went to New York along with point guard Dennis Smith Jr. -- a 2017 lottery pick who had fallen out of favor in Dallas. Porzingis sat out the rest of the season to continue rehabilitating from a torn ACL in his right knee suffered the previous season.
Dallas doubled down on the Porzingis bet that summer, when he was a restricted free agent, signing him to a five-year maximum contract with no injury protection before he had played a minute in a Mavs uniform.
At the time, the trade for Porzingis received rave reviews, especially locally. As Dirk Nowitzki exited, he passed the torch to a pair of young European stars.
So much for that storybook scenario.
There was a stretch when Doncic and Porzingis clicked, as the Mavs broke the NBA record for offensive efficiency in 2019-20, but their chemistry was slow to develop and quick to disintegrate. They were a brilliant duo leading into the pandemic and during the bubble restart, but that screeched to a halt when Porzingis suffered a torn meniscus in his other knee. That injury required surgery, and Porzingis never fully regained his form with the Mavs.
Porzingis struggled, especially on the defensive end. After coming back a couple of weeks into the 2020-21 season, he wasn't happy with his complementary role. The Mavs shopped Porzingis in the trade market at the time, but discovered that they'd have to part with at least one more first-round pick to move his contract.
At that point, the only common bond Porzingis had with Doncic was that neither enjoyed playing for coach Rick Carlisle, who resigned that summer rather than enter the next season on the hot seat.
The passive-aggressive tension between the two players dissipated after Carlisle's departure, both pleased to get a fresh start. After Jason Kidd was hired to replace Carlisle, he lavished praise on Porzingis, calling him a "perfect fit" as a co-star to Doncic. Kidd encouraged Porzingis to operate in the post and midrange, parts of his game Carlisle (armed with analytics evidence) tried to eliminate.
Actions, however, speak louder than words. The Mavs traded Porzingis just before the deadline that season, sending him to Washington for two contracts (Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans) the Wizards were eager to move.
Porzingis had played relatively well when healthy that season, but he didn't enhance Doncic's brilliance. The Mavs were more effective with Porzingis on the bench than the court, so they shipped him out as soon as they didn't have to attach a first-round pick, with general manager Nico Harrison citing "depth and flexibility" as the primary reasons he made the deal. It was a bonus that Dinwiddie became an essential part of the Mavs' core in their Western Conference finals run and so far this season.
The admission the Porzingis acquisition was a strikeout set the Mavs back to square one in their search for a legitimate co-star to pair with their young perennial MVP candidate. (Not to mention the saga of the Mavs completely misplaying their hand with Jalen Brunson and losing him to the Knicks in free agency last summer, fresh off him starring in their West finals run.)
Doncic has been more spectacular than ever this season, efficiently leading the league in scoring despite frequent double-teams and dragging Dallas to a 24-21 record, good enough for fifth place in the West. He's certainly not satisfied to be in the middle of the playoff pack. Doncic is a fiery competitor with a championship pedigree, having won titles with the Slovenian national team and Real Madrid, and patience isn't high on his list of virtues.
Sources said Doncic, who hasn't shown a desire to be involved in personnel matters in the past, has strongly indicated he wants the Mavs to upgrade before the Feb. 9 trade deadline.
Of course, that's easier said than done for a team that still owes the Knicks a pick to complete the Porzingis deal.
The Mavs are well aware of a modern NBA math problem: Unhappy stars who have only two guaranteed years remaining on their contracts have leverage if they're looking to leave. For reference, see Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans or James Harden and the Houston Rockets.
That doesn't necessarily mean Doncic will request a trade if the Mavs haven't put a contender-quality supporting cast in place by the summer of 2024. But the Mavs, like the Hawks with Young, surely don't want to fiddle around and find out.
For the Mavs in particular, that means having to balance trying to put the most competitive roster in place this season against diminishing the potential to deal for a co-star in the near future. The latter would likely require a bundle of first-round picks, so the Mavs must be extremely selective while considering giving up a pick now.
"It's a really tough spot," a pro personnel scout for a contending team told ESPN. "And it's the pressure great players place on the organization. You want to be good, but the balance of patience and competitiveness is a really hard line to walk."