I would like to ask for the internet’s help with something. I won’t be asking you intensely-online people to creepily track down the trilingual, poetry obsessed woman I chatted with during a Denver layover on a return flight from Hawaii, whom, I’m certain was charmed by my decidedly average height and intelligence. None of that. I’m sitting here today, in front of a loaned laptop from a college IT department, neurotically scratching at the dry scalp beneath my messy afro, in custom full-body face pajamas—the face being my ex-girlfriends—and asking you to work a little post-holiday magic for yours truly. I’m asking you, people of the internet, to do something you’ve already successfully done before, so it should be easy.
Before James Harden won the 2018 MVP Award, before he and Chris Paul pushed a historic Golden State Warriors team to the brink of playoff elimination, before he broke isolation and pull-up three-point records, and before he began flirting with historic scoring numbers not seen since Wilt Chamberlain, James Harden had to prove that he belonged in the upper echelon of NBA players. Harden had largely existed in the shadow of Kevin Durant and Russel Westbrook in Oklahoma City. The first order of business for Harden was to stake his claim to NBA superstardom by dominating on the offensive end and to do so with panache. Harden quickly established himself as a bona fide superstar, but his singular allegiance to the offensive end of the floor was, to put it mildly, concerning.
Harden was an all-star and made it to the playoffs in his first two seasons in Houston, but he was also eliminated in the first round of the playoffs each year. As Harden settled in to his new position as front-page daily news, he also built an endless lowlight reel of defensive lethargy. It was this backdrop of increased attention coinciding with mild playoff failure and a noxious disinterest in defense that provided the perfect platform for the internet’s only example of helpful public shaming. In a show of intense, wide-spread harmony, the NBA watching populous banded together to shame James Harden into playing defense. There’s no other way to read the situation. Fans, sportswriters, and analysts alike took to YouTube, NBA Twitter, and any other available medium to share clips of Harden’s avant-garde interpretation of defense. Harden was so comically bad, so plainly allergic to defense that a novice fan could watch 10 minutes of a Houston Rockets game and realize something was amiss. It was almost as if Harden had his brain wiped every time his team’s offensive possession ended
We’ve moved past Harden’s patented space cadet method acting, to viewers wrongly, but not completely irrationally suggesting that James Harden is a good defender. He’s not. He’s a good post-defender in 2020, which if you know anything about NBA basketball means he rarely gets the opportunity to be good. The Houston Rockets have crafted a switch everything defense in large part, so Harden never has to endure the unpleasantness of fighting over a screen. In fairness, the Rockets have the personnel to make a switch defense work and they did so to great effect in the 2018 playoffs when they befuddled the Warriors historic offense. Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and now Russell Westbrook are all capable of battling with bigger players in the post as well as defending on the perimeter.
This brings me to Trae Young. You, beautiful people, have already worked your magic once before and I beseech you to do it again. It’s time we start the shaming of Trae Young (SHAME SHAME SHAME!). It’s time we start pointing out how little effort he’s giving on the defensive end and the negative effects of that pitiful effort. It would be unfair if I didn’t point out that Trae Young has more baked in excuses; he doesn’t have the physical gifts of a James Harden who stands 6’5’’ and weighs 220 pounds. Harden’s height, weight, and strength are integral to both his offensive prowess and his solid post-defense. Trae Young doesn’t have that luxury. Young is 6’2’’ and 181 pounds, he’s neither extremely quick nor meaningful strong. He also doesn’t have the lightning quick hands and strength within those hands that James Harden possesses. Harden was second in the league behind Paul George in total steals with 158 last season. Although, some of those steals certainly come from abandoning other responsibilities, that number nonetheless demonstrates Harden’s ability to read NBA offenses and his ability to make a successful play on the ball
Let’s dive into some numbers! Adam Fromal of Bleacher Report detailed the worst defensive players in the league last season and Trae Young was the point guard of choice. Here are the numbers on Young’s defense from last season: Defensive Box Plus-Minus: -3.1, Defensive Real Plus-Minus: -4.66, and Defensive Player Impact Metric: -2.9. Here are Trae’s numbers this season: Defensive Box Plus-Minus: -2.9, Defensive Real Plus-Minus: -3.94 (last among point guards), and Defensive Player Impact Metric: -3.32. He’s taken small steps in two of the three categories, which is…something I suppose, but it’s clear the advanced numbers still don’t like Trae Young’s defense. The eye test isn’t much better. Young often loses sight of his man off-ball. He often jogs back on defense, floating to the middle of the floor instead of sticking with his assignment; and he’s easily overwhelmed by bigger players on their drives to the basket. Unless something unimaginable happens, Trae Young will always be a negative on the defensive end, but he needs to at least strive toward competency.
Now let’s look at the numbers of some other high-usage, ball dominant stars. Trae Young is currently fourth in Usage Rate at 33.6. Luka Doncic is third at 35.8. Luka is another player blessed with size—well just about everyone has been blessed with size in the NBA—but Luka doesn’t have the otherworldly athleticism of some of the best wing players and has a reputation of having his own defensive issues. Luka has a 2.5 Defensive Box Plus-Minus, a -1.26 Defensive Real Plus-Minus, and a -0.02 Defensive Player Impact Metric. It’s pretty clear that Trae Young needs to improve his defense, however you want to evaluate it. Granted, he’s not solely to blame for the Hawks horrific defense (113.0 Defensive Rating, 28th in the league). For most of the season there wasn’t a single standout defender on the roster, even with John Collins active, you might still be able to make that argument—it’s hard to thrive in such an environment. But Isaiah Thomas managed a -1.62 DRPM in Sacramento of all places.
And that leads me to another problem for Trae Young and the Hawks. Typically, when players have the ball in their hands as much as he does, they are even better than he currently is on offensive. Real Plus-Minus doesn’t put as much distance between Young and Doncic’s offensive impact this season, but the other two advanced stats we’ve been using do. Doncic has a 11.1 OBPM, 4.31 ORPM, and a 7.39 O-PIPM. Young has a 6.9 OBPM, 4.18 ORPM, and a 3.58 O-PIPM. For some greater context, here are the numbers for James Harden—OBPM, 5.72 ORPM, and a 6.82 O-PIPM. Even Isaiah Thomas’ advanced offensive numbers in his best season outpace Trae’s from this season. In 2016-17 Isaiah Thomas had a 34 percent usage rate, a 8.7 OBPM, 5.72 ORPM, and a 6.23 O-PIPM. By the numbers, Thomas was just as bad as Young, surrounded by more capable defenders that year in Boston—he finished that season with a -3.89 DRPM.
It may be unfair to turn the heat up on Trae Young right now—he’s in only his second season, he’s on the cusp of being an all-star, John Collins missed 25 games, and the rest of the surrounding talent is pretty bad. But Young is already asking the front office for help and comporting himself like a clear superstar. Superstardom comes with outsized offensive and defensive expectations, and I think it’s safe to say Young hasn’t quite hit them on either end. Don’t mistake this article as me being down on Trae Young. I’m a Trae Young believer and want to see him reach his ceiling, which requires some commitment to the defensive end. Furthermore, there’s been a whiff of foulness in the air around the Hawks for much of the season. I can’t help but wonder if it relates to Young’s obvious lack of effort on the defensive end combined with his ball-dominant style of play. You’ve got to be MVP level good to consistently play the way Trae has this season. I think it’s clear the Hawks have arrived at a bit of a reckoning. Do they believe Trae Young is good enough to reach and sustain MVP level production (given his physical limitations), warranting this heliocentric style of play? You can think about it in this way: should the Hawks focus on finding players who fit perfectly alongside Trae, but lack major upside, as the Rockets and Mavericks have mostly done, or do they need to add playmakers and lighten Young’s scoring and playmaking load? My answer: they need to do both.