Since John Collins rejoined the Atlanta Hawks’ starting lineup in late November, the team has taken off, soaring to new heights. Sure, the heights weren’t that high to begin the season, so there really wasn’t much to do but go up, but Atlanta has looked like a solidly average team with Collins in the lineup, sporting a -0.7 net rating in his 796 non-garbage time minutes this season.
Drilling down into specific lineup combinations, the numbers get better for Atlanta, as their three young stars (Collins, Trae Young, and Kevin Huerter) combine for a positive net rating. For a team with more than double as many losses and wins, it’s absolutely a good sign for the club that three players with a combined one year of NBA experience can be a positive influence for them on the court.
Offensive rebounding is one particular area which has seen massive improvement since Collins returned. The second-year big man out of Wake Forest vacuums up about 1 in 8 of Atlanta’s missed shots, generating a ton of extra offensive opportunities for the Hawks on a nightly basis.
His reputation for unreal athleticism and relentless energy in every way deserved, but those same traits were on display last year and he wasn’t able to have the same effect for Atlanta on the glass as he has this season. Through his experience last season and early on this year, he’s added the one thing that elevates big men from above-average to all-world rebounders – his recognition has improved so much over last season. He’s in position on the glass far more often than he was in his rookie year, which allows him to put that insane athleticism to use consistently throughout a game.
The downside of crashing the offensive glass as often as Collins does is the transition opportunities it creates for the Hawks’ opponents. Atlanta is dead last in that particular area – opponents get out in transition more against them than any other team in the league. Transition opportunities are significantly better than half-court plays, to the tune of more than 20 points per 100 possessions for the Hawks’ defense. Atlanta is certainly nothing special in their half-court defense, but they’re miles better in that area than they are in transition, where they give up 125.7 points per 100 possessions.
Given our discussion of the Hawks’ turnover problems last week, it’s going to be difficult for them to be particularly good in transition defense overall, but they actually do a pretty good job of getting back on defense after a turnover. They commit more live-ball turnovers than any team in the league and give up a 135 defensive rating on possessions directly following a live-ball turnover, but the volume there is actually somewhat encouraging given that they turn the ball over as much as they do. Teams across the league score so incredibly well off live-ball turnovers that anything a team can do to cut down on that volume helps tremendously.
Atlanta’s transition defense after a missed shot, however, has been poor this season, in both volume and efficiency. In some spots, they take an all-or-nothing approach to the offensive glass, though that philosophy has calmed down in recent weeks. They grab nearly a third of their misses when Collins is on the court, but that drops to less than one in four when he sits, including the first month of the season when he was injured.
If Collins is out there, the blitzkrieg to the offensive glass makes sense. He’s not just an elite rebounder on that end of the floor; he’s a great finisher inside on put-back opportunities around the rim. Atlanta scores 121.6 points per 100 possessions on put-back attempts when Collins is on the floor, but that number dips to an awful 93.3 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the bench. Combine that with a poor transition defense and it’s a wonder the Hawks ever send anybody to the offensive glass when Collins isn’t out there.
Collins is essentially a one-man wrecking crew on the offensive glass – they score so well off his offensive rebounds and he hauls in so many of them that it’s worth the trade in terms of transition opportunities for their opponents. Atlanta gives up twice as many total points in transition on twice as many possessions as they score off offensive rebounds when Collins plays, so the Hawks have decided that’s a worthwhile bargain for them, especially because of how much it helps Collins’ value and perhaps slows down opposing big men. When Collins sits, however, the calculation changes drastically.
Their transition defense gets somewhat better, but the offense tanks so much that it’s in no way worthwhile for head coach Lloyd Pierce and his staff to send anybody to the offensive glass in those spots. A lot of this has to do with their poor finishing from non-Collins big men after offensive rebounds and the fact that they play more of a 5-out system when Collins sits, rather than the 4-out, 1-in system they often utilize to ensure their star young big man is around the rim as often as possible, both for rebounds and lobs.
Changing rebounding philosophies based on personnel shouldn’t be anything new for the Hawks, or any other team, for that matter. With now more than a half-season of data to comb through, Atlanta can be confident that they’re making the right move by sending Collins to the glass on a consistent basis and that they’re much better off focusing their efforts elsewhere when he sits. There’s something to the notion that a team without their top players should play as high-variance a style as possible, which comes down to a coach’s individual philosophy, but in Atlanta’s case, they simply don’t have the capable offensive rebounders on the second unit to make it worthwhile to crash the glass.
Alex Len is massive underneath the rim and has had some big games rebounding the ball, but his finishing after picking up those rebounds is suspect and if he doesn’t get the rebound, he’s rarely able to beat his man down the floor to get back into good position defensively. The numbers don’t support sending Len to the offensive glass like they do for Collins, and though it seems unlikely to change mid-season, it would perhaps behoove the Hawks more to get Len started back in transition earlier, rather than crash into the paint for a possible rebounding chance.