2019-20 Previews: Atlanta Hawks

Losses: Kent Bazemore, Dewayne Dedmon, Miles Plumlee, Taurean Prince, Justin Anderson, Omari Spellman.

Additions: Chandler Parsons, Allen Crabbe, Jabari Parker, Damian Jones, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Bruno Fernando, Evan Turner. (Side note: While many folks are criticizing the Hawks for going into the season with Evan Turner as their backup point guard, I think it is a great decision. Evan Turner is going to be really good this year; you’ll see.)

Likely Starters
Guard: Trae Young
Wing: Kevin Huerter, De'Andre Hunter
Big: John Collins, Alex Len (my guess is that Collins ends up moving up and that Allen Crabbe or Jabari Parker ends up in the starting lineup)

Predicted Record: 33–49 | 23rd in NBA | 10th in East

Before we start, I swear to God this is going to end up being an essay about the 2019-20 Atlanta Hawks. With that in mind:

Gorman Hall, UMass Amherst

My freshman year of college at UMass Amherst was somehow both seismically life-altering and profoundly uneventful. I spent close to every waking moment in one of two places: the dining commons (at UMass, you call this “The DC”) and my dorm room. I lived with Ian, my best friend from high school. The fact that we already knew each other made our dorm a natural hangout for any friends we made. Ian and I had been friends since kindergarten, and another friend from that kindergarten class, Jake, ended up in the same dorm as us.

Ian, Jake, and I spent a lot of time in that disgusting dorm room drinking Red Dog and doing one of two things: playing cribbage and playing Mario Kart on Nintendo 64. We would listen to one of two albums: Neil Young’s Harvest and The Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead. Life became an endless fog of cribbage hands and time trials. In the context of these activities, it felt like we had begun to speak a new language.

I remember that sometimes when I left the room the world seemed incredibly bright to me—too bright, really. Just going to hang out in my friend Marisa’s dorm room with another group of friends felt wild and astonishing. I barely remember going to class, though I did, and my grades were good. I did no work whatsoever, but somehow became a research assistant for an English professor, and I made photocopies for him of what felt to me at the time like obscure articles about connections between science and literature. I read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I drank so much beer—just endless beer. I skated by in my weird fog, wasting the privilege of being young.

Though, come to think of it, I’ve never really felt young. For as far back as I can remember, I’ve felt like I was operating my life from a distant kind of mission control, watching my existence on a small screen. I remember, in particular, this one day during that first year of college when I decided to spend the entire day in the dining hall, and I remember feeling like, “Okay, I think I am living; I am here in the dining hall now, and now, and now.” Life was pathetic and meaningless. I look back on this period of time so fondly I can hardly breathe when I think about it. I would go back there in a second.

At some point, Mario Kart 64 became the main thing. The more we played, the better we got at it. The game had already been out for years, but I remembered having seen some contest in a friend’s copy of a Nintendo Power magazine where you could win some sort of special, golden controller if you got under a certain time on Mario Raceway. I knew the contest had been over for years already, but it seemed like a good goal. I’m sure I have these details wrong, and that I had them wrong at the time. What I remember is that Ian, Jake, and I would try to complete the course in less than 90 seconds.

And for a while, this seemed impossible. You couldn’t do it. I looked on the internet; people had done it. How had they done it? Somehow, in the year 2000, it did not occur to me to look for video. There was no YouTube; the internet was young; the only thing on the internet was a download of an mp3 of shitty bluegrass cover of “Gin and Juice.” Nevertheless, there were records of better Mario Raceway times.

Eventually, I remember my competitors falling away. I was spending more time on this activity than anyone else. Ian became interested in activism, and started going to meetings and making new friends. Jake started dating another friend of ours. More and more, I was alone. I kept playing Mario Kart. I kept racing the same course, shaving off seconds, perfecting turns and power slides, warping my sense of the physical world to imagine new pathways. The course itself was a field you could manipulate, and it began to make sense to me in pixels, as parcels of data. Everything was mostly nothing.

I shaved seconds off my time. I’d work on one thing for hours and gain, like, a tenth of a second. A hundredth. Eventually, I was under 90 seconds. Eventually, after months of this, I was under 80. I think at some point I got down to around 75. I’ll mention here that there are far better times out there; on YouTube there are videos of secrets and shortcuts I never discovered and patterns of power sliding I never considered.

What I learned from all of this is that you never know exactly what you are capable of in a given world. You never know the ways in which greater attention might alter what is possible. You never know what you might be missing, what you might have missed. You never know what you are taking on faith as impossible. I tend towards depression; I feel—and here I’m talking about right now, at the very moment in which I am writing this—impossibly lonely, and I feel that this feeling is intractable and endless. Life is brutally sad and disappointing, and yet, somehow, what I learned from Mario Kart provides some little bit of solace. You just have to keep trying, keep repeating the course, have a little faith you might see something you haven’t seen before.

Recently, Marcus Smart said the following in a quote from an article by Michael Lee in The Athletic: “A lot of people say doing the same thing over and ever and expecting different results is insanity. But for basketball players and athletes, we call that working.” When I read that quote, I thought about Mario Kart, and then I thought about Trae Young.

***

This iteration of the Atlanta Hawks, under the stewardship of Travis Schlenk, is being built, somewhat famously, in the image of the Steph Curry-era Warriors. Schlenk was the assistant GM in Oakland when Curry was becoming a basketball supernova, and the prevailing narrative around Trae Young is that the Hawks are hoping he is their Steph Curry. The question of what, exactly, that formulation means is a little slippery.

What is the thing about Steph? He’s the best shooter of all time. He’s able—because he’s a tremendous handler of the ball and a visionary passer—to leverage his shooting in myriad ways all over the court. He’s truly unselfish while also being alarmingly audacious; he’ll make any pass at any time, and he’ll take any shot from any spot on the court no matter who is guarding him. Basically, when Steph Curry is on the floor, the opponent is in a constant state of panic. They lose their strategic agency; they exist in a state of reaction.

Steph Curry, when you consider all of this, is without question one of the greatest basketball players ever. Entirely unique; entirely himself. It is, of course, unreasonable to expect these things of Trae Young, not because Trae Young isn’t also incredibly special, but because it is unreasonable to expect them of anyone. It was unreasonable to expect them of Steph Curry. Occasionally, someone like LeBron James comes around who is so obviously going to be great that we can pile expectations upon them and fully expect those very expectations to be summarily obliterated before our very eyes. For everyone else, greatness is a little surprising. You don’t get to see it coming.

Trae Young, for what it’s worth, might be his own thing. Last season, as a rookie, his assist percentage was over 40 and his usage percentage was over 28. No rookie in the history of the league has posted those numbers together. He also turned the ball over constantly and shot a lousy percentage on jump shots everywhere from the midrange to the far reaches of the 3-point arc. Trae Young, again, is not Steph Curry. He is a work in progress. His numbers point to the possibility of more, though. Already, at 20 years old, he was an NBA offense unto himself. Not a good one—the Hawks were 23rd in offensive efficiency last season—but not a terrible one either. The Hawks scored 107.5 points per 100 possessions with Young on the floor, but that number plummeted to a team-worst 101.9 when he sat. His team needed him. He was their engine.

I want to get back to audaciousness. During the fever dream of the pre-Kevin Durant Warriors run, I remember thinking a lot about their turnovers. They were a little careless, always. At times, it felt like a kind of Achilles’ heel, but at times, it also seemed to be their secret. They played with a kind of blind faith that made them impossible to handle. They were capable of anything, and the risk of making a few mistakes along the way was a necessary cost of their being within constant reach of transcendence.

What makes me so optimistic about Trae Young’s future—and, subsequently, the future of this version of the Hawks—is that he plays with this same sort of wild spirit. He plays basketball at the edge of basketball. What I mean is that some players are beholden to the limits of their own game moment by moment, but Trae Young is beholden to nothing but the limits of the game itself. He’s constantly pushing the boundaries, shooting from further away, slinging passes from more impossible angles, attempting to dribble through more unlikely traps. To this point in his career, there are more mistakes than you’d like. He’s fucking up a lot, wasting possessions, losing games; but he is also learning. Every mistake is a possible future success. He’s stretching his own idea of what is possible out there.

The way Trae Young plays basketball: it is a kind of insanity. In the present moment, it is often a bad idea. Even this coming season, the Hawks will lose a lot. Trae will shoot them out of games. He’ll commit too many turnovers, waste too many possessions. The Hawks will let that happen, because they are interested in what might be possible. On the Mario Raceway of the NBA, they are trying to shave off impossible seconds. They are reimagining the race itself. We can’t see from here what, exactly, they will end up being. Trae Young is in the lab, working, but he hasn’t invented that future quite yet.

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