After starting out the season like gangbusters, Trae Young, and largely by extension the Atlanta Hawks, have gone in the tank, winning just two games since their 3-0 start and dropping six of their last seven. The latest was a 112-106 defeat at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night.
The Hawks, who were tied with Portland after three quarters, again stunk in the fourth quarter, where they have been a spitting mess the entire season. Through Saturday, the Hawks are scoring just 23.7 points per fourth quarter, which ranks last, as does their paltry 95.3 offensive rating in final frames. They are making 35 percent of their fourth-quarter shots, which ranks last, and 26.1 percent of their 3-pointers, which ranks second to last. All told, the Hawks are sporting a league-worst minus-4.2 fourth-quarter point differential and a league-worst minus-16.4 fourth-quarter net rating.
A major part of this problem has been the play of Young, who has been bumbling his way through the last two weeks. In a loss to the Utah Jazz on Friday, Young scored four points on 1-of-11 shooting. A week before that he had seven points on 2 of 9 from the field against the Hornets. For the season, Young is shooting under 40 percent from the field and just 26.5 percent from 3-point range. On Saturday against Portland he went 1 of 9 from deep, and the last miss was one of the worst shots you might ever see, even by modern let-it-fly standards.
As it happened, Atlanta had cut Portland's lead to two, 108-106, with under 30 seconds to play, and after forcing a Carmelo Anthony miss, Young took a long outlet pass and was ahead of seven of the other nine players on the court. Problem is, the two players between him and the basket were Blazers.
In other words, Young was in a 1-on-2 break, and he was the one. Even in today's game where basically any 3-pointer is seen as at least a relatively good shot, to pull up in this situation, down two with 23 seconds to play, with no chance for an offensive rebound should you miss because none of your guys have even crossed half court yet, is a bad decision for anyone not named Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard. To pull up from close to 30 feet, with a hand in your face no less, is a terrible decision.
Still, that's exactly what Young did:
It's not that Young isn't capable of making that shot. He is. But there's a long bridge between capable and consistent shooters, and Young, for as deeply as his reputation is tied to shooting, and for all his confidence, isn't actually anywhere near the latter. The guy plays like he's Steph Curry. In fact, he plays as though he has earned even more shot equity than Curry.
Consider that in 2015-16, Curry, the greatest shooter in history who had the single greatest shooting season ever in hitting 402 3-pointers at a 45-percent clip, attempted just 26 shots from 30-34 feet, per NBA.com. Curry made 57 percent of those shots, and despite that kind of success, he has still showed restraint in never attempting more than 47 such shots during any season of his historic career.
Meanwhile, Young fired 81 shots from 30-34 feet last season, making 33 percent of them. He fired 64 as a rookie, making 35 percent. I'm not making the Curry comparison. I'm in fact doing the exact opposite. I'm saying there is no comparison.
Tell me, in what world has Young, a 33-percent career 3-point shooter, earned the right to take three times as many 30-34 footers as the greatest shooter in history took during the greatest shooting season in history? The bottom line is Young shot 32 percent from 3 in his rookie season. He shot 36 percent last season, the same mark he tallied in his lone college campaign. He has never been a great shooter. He's just taken a lot of shots you would assume only a great shooter would take, and a false correlation was drawn.
The best part of Young's game is his passing/playmaking. Even the Hawks acknowledged that when they drafted him, and it's proven true. He's phenomenal in a lot of offensive areas. He has an almost genius feel for his surroundings and he gets into the lane with uncanny ease. He has an array of floaters. And he's not a bad shooter; he's just not close to a great one. Still, he has the potential to score 30 points a game in the NBA at some point. None of this is to suggest he's not a tremendous talent.
But the gap between the reality and perception of his shooting has always been wide. As mentioned, Young is shooting under 27 percent from 3 this season, and that number gets far worse in fourth quarters, where he's made just one of 13 3s so far. Do the math, and Young is a seven percent 3-point shooter in fourth quarters to date, and he hasn't made a single 3-pointer in the clutch (0 for 6), which the NBA defines as a five-point game with fewer than five minutes to play.
Now, obviously that's a small sample size, but again, Young has never been a particularly great shooter. If you want to talk pure shooting talent, he's clearly a gifted gunner. But his shot selection undermines his own talent, and that has long been the case. Besides that, a player has to be aware of his own current rhythm even if he is a great shooter.
You can talk all you want about how shooters shoot and they can't afford to have a conscience and all that mess, but that applies to truly great shooters with a history of consistency, and even then situation matters for anyone not named Curry or Lillard, both of whom have every right to shoot themselves out of a slump or take traditionally ill-advised shots in high-leverage situations. Young knows he's in a giant funk. There is no way he feels good shooting the ball right now. If he does, again, he needs to check his reality.
If it's the second quarter, fine, fire away. That's the game today. But If you're going to pull up from 30 feet on the final possession of a two-point game, with 23 seconds still on the clock and your teammates yet to even cross half court, you cannot be a 27 percent 3-point shooter who is 5 for his last 32 from deep. There is no justification, the statistically defensible claim that good shots tend to come earlier in the shot clock notwithstanding.
Again, situations matter. Young is an average 3-point shooter, and the Blazers aren't exactly a defense you can't get a good look against. If the Hawks were incapable of creating anything in the half court? Maybe you allow that shot, albeit through gritted teeth. If Young was on fire? Sure. But decision making, which resides at the top of a point guard's job description, is about calculating these things on the spot and proceeding accordingly, and Young is too often pushing the wrong buttons.
It speaks to a larger issue going on with Young, who has completely lost his way. His aforementioned shot selection, which was improving, has regressed. He dominates the ball, and when he's not clicking, that becomes a very frustrating style for his too-often frozen-out teammates. Sam Amick and Chris Kirschner of The Athletic reported a little more than a week ago that John Collins voiced his displeasure with the way Young was, and is, running the offense. One of the specific issues Collins raised, reportedly, was Young's "early shot-clock attempts that leave his teammates on the outside looking in."
In other words, the exact shot Young pulled on Saturday at the worst time imaginable.