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Taking stock of John Collins’ defense and how it impacts the future of the Atlanta Hawks

For now, it’s ugly on that end for Atlanta’s young star.

Golden State Warriors v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Defense is difficult to measure. We have numbers for so much of what an offense does – shot attempts, free throws, assists, turnovers, etc. – that it’s easier to build out relatively strong profiles of players based on a handful of key numbers. There aren’t a lot of equivalents on the other end of the floor, where we’re more limited in the numbers we have to discuss individual players.

Steals and blocks are the primary sources of defensive prowess, but are certainly immensely flawed in evaluating a player’s impact on his team’s defense. Team-wide defensive rating can help to show how a team performs when a player is on or off the floor, giving some context to how he affects his team defensively. Going further, statistics like RPM and PIPM adjust for a player’s teammates and other factors in an attempt to publish an all-encompassing defensive statistic with which to compare players.

The biggest problem with measuring defense is that it’s the ultimate team activity. Offenses can be boosted by an individual superstar surrounded by varying degrees of role players, but defenses can’t be lifted in the same way. The closest thing to a defensive superstar who elevates an entire team is the shot-blocking center who commands the paint to such a degree that it stifles an opponent’s rim attack. We see that in Utah, where Rudy Gobert and the Jazz are routinely an elite defensive unit, but even Gobert, Joel Embiid, and other all-world rim protectors can be mitigated by spacing the floor and attacking areas where those guys are unable to cover. We’ve seen pick-and-pop big men give those guys nightmares, thwarting the defense’s biggest strength.

The same concept is much more difficult to apply to the offensive end. An opposing offense can dictate where they attack, but an opposing defense doesn’t have as much control over the game. There are things they can do to try to mitigate superstar offensive players, but short of denying them the ball altogether (which is nearly impossible to do consistently), they’re going to have to face that problem head-on.

With the backdrop of knowing that defensive numbers can be flawed and are not as definite as offensive numbers, Atlanta Hawks big man John Collins presents (very) unsightly defensive numbers at this stage.

His 0.7 percent block rate and 0.4 percent steal rate are among the worst for big men in the league. His DRPM ranks No. 91 out of 92 eligible power forwards this year, only ahead of rookie Marvin Bagley in Sacramento. His DPIPM, which adjusts for luck-based factors in a way that RPM doesn’t, paints a very similar picture – Collins ranks out as the second-worst power forward in the league in that measurement as well.

From a team perspective, the Hawks give up a whopping 114 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor and a significant reason his on/off numbers look somewhat rosy is that his backups at the power forward position are Omari Spellman and Vince Carter. Once those on/off numbers are adjusted, as they are in RPM and PIPM, the truth behind Collins’ defense rises to the forefront. All told, the Hawks might have the worst power forward rotation in the league on the defensive end of the floor.

Comparing Collins to power forwards is apt because that’s precisely what he’s been for Atlanta in his career to this point. He’s played about 10 percent of his minutes at center this year and the Hawks have gotten absolutely run out off the floor when he does so, to the tune of a 123.8 defensive rating.

For the moment, Collins plays power forward in part because he’s not good enough defensively to play the most important defensive position on the floor, which puts some limits on what the Hawks can do from a team-building and lineup construction perspective. The Hawks do have two rotation-quality NBA centers in Dewayne Demon and Alex Len, which further explains why Collins operates at the power forward spot for the vast majority of his court time. With that said, Collins currently has to be paired with a defensive center who is capable of spacing the floor offensively and, in turn, that allows the second-year big man to be the main dive threat in pick-and-roll.

It’s easiest to think of it like this: Collins plays (at least in 2019) as a power forward defensively and a center offensively, so his big man partner has to be someone who can do the reverse, protecting the rim on the defensive end and spacing out to the corners offensively. His ability to stretch the floor himself mitigates some of this team-building challenge, as there’s a world in which he can play next to a traditional rim-to-rim center and make it work, but that pairing would also mute a lot of what Collins does extremely well around the rim himself. This is a bit of a simplification of the team-building process, but the idea stands – building around Collins brings with it specific challenges with regards to his offensive and defensive strengths and weaknesses.

Collins’ two biggest problems defensively are physicality and recognition. After fouling altogether too much his rookie year, he’s flipped the script. He doesn’t foul nearly as much this season but also does very little to keep his guy from getting to the rim. As things stand, he’s not as good of a perimeter defender as he could be.

He’s slow to move his feet laterally and plays with very little force. Too many times, he’s content to ride his man’s hip all the way to the rim, at which point he tries to make a possession-saving play with his immense athleticism. It works every once in a while, but the downsides of that particular tactic are far more common than the upside of getting a highlight-worthy block off the backboard.

You might be thinking, “Collins is a big man, so it stands to reason that he’d be a bit slower on the perimeter.” The issue with that line of thinking is that the league has moved past the power forward being a paint-oriented position defensively.

If Collins is going to be the Hawks’ power forward of the future, he’s going to have to be able to defend on the perimeter, switch onto guards, slide his feet laterally, and cut off drivers before they get to the rim. If he can’t do those things, then perhaps he should play center (an idea that isn’t original to this space), where those skills aren’t as necessary, though there’s certainly reason to believe that 5-10 years from now, the center position will be much more perimeter-oriented than it is today.

He has his moments of strong play, such as this clip against Giannis Antetokounmpo:

As Antetokounmpo drives left, Collins cuts him off and puts his chest into Antetokounmpo’s shoulder, cutting him off from driving any further and forcing the fadeaway jumper. The shot went in anyway, but that shouldn’t be the focus – this sort of lateral movement and willingness to take a hit to his chest is what the Hawks should be seeing from Collins much more often than they have this season.

The issues with Collins at center gets back to recognition, which can be improved, but also a larger problem that can’t exactly be changed – he might just be too small to be an effective center defensively. Standing 6’10 with a plus-1 wingspan (below average for his size), all the vertical athleticism in the world might not be able to make up for the simple fact that will have some trouble deterring shots at the rim in the same way a guy with a longer wingspan or taller standing reach can.

If Collins is going to be an above-average defender, there will have to be massive improvements with how he reads the game. Far too often, Collins stands perfectly still while the offense works their way toward the rim or a big man rumbles down the paint. A lot of the time, he doesn’t realize where he’s supposed to be until the ball is already there, which is much too late.

In both of the above examples, Collins is the low man on the weak side in pick-and-roll defense, which means it’s his responsibility to “tag” Nikola Vucevic as he rolls to the rim. Both times, he’s statuesque in his defensive presence and doesn’t really get into the play until Vucevic touches the ball. On the first play, Vucevic is already at the rim and easily lays it in; on the second, Collins is able to explode quickly and block the shot attempt. He’ll be able to make up for some of these defensive mistakes with his otherworldly athleticism, but it’d be far better for the Hawks if he didn’t make those mistakes as often as he does now.

There are times when you can see Collins knows what he’s supposed to do and what his role is in the team’s defense, but when the moment comes to actually execute, he’s not there.

As Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka set up the side pick-and-roll, Collins is 2.9ing (dodging in and out of the paint to avoid a three-second violation), anticipating that he’ll need to help at the rim when one or both of the Raptors players get there. However, when VanVleet drives, Collins remains exactly where he was, barely moving a step to help at the rim, which leads to an easy two points for Toronto. His instincts as a help defender, in his second season, are nearly nonexistent on so many plays; he’s going to have to improve so much in this area if he’s ever going to be even an average defensive player.

In the big picture, it’s worth considering whether it truly matters if Collins improves — or how much he improves — defensively. Some progression will be made naturally through experience, but if he remains a below-average defender throughout his career, then he still has enough offensive and rebounding skills to be a starting-level player on a playoff team. It makes building around him a bit more difficult, as we discussed earlier, but it’s not impossible, especially in today’s day and age.

More and more centers are able to shoot 3s, as both Dedmon and Len have done this year. The archetype of a 3-and-D center is more prevalent than ever before and those players will continue to grow in number as Collins’ career progresses. Collins is also not solely in inside threat offensively; he can space the floor and has shown himself to be useful as a playmaker at the elbows as well. Those skills give the Hawks a bit more flexibility in choosing his big man partner, but his regression defensively this year could make it necessary for him to have a big man partner, at least until something changes in significant fashion.

The thought was that Collins would eventually make the move to center full-time, but he’s shown very, very little this season that would indicate that line of thinking will come to fruition anytime soon. As a result, it will be interesting to see how Travis Schlenk and the Hawks build their roster through the team’s rebuild.