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What do recent moves mean for John Collins’ future in Atlanta?

Could the Hawks do the unthinkable?

Houston Rockets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

By now, fans of the Atlanta Hawks have likely seen and heard the news that the team bolstered its frontcourt in one fell swoop. First came the drafting of freshman USC big man Onyeka Okongwu on Wednesday night, then the news broke Friday night that the Hawks are finalizing the signing of veteran forward Danilo Gallinari to a lucrative deal.

Certainly, moves to better the team in the near term were always expected with frustrations reportedly growing inside the organization over three consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance and a poor 20-47 showing this past season. But both the major moves so far this offseason come with the backdrop of John Collins being eligible for an extension, and his asking price is that of a max-level deal for a player with his talents and production.

It’s an eerie coincidence that Gallinari, Okongwu and Clint Capela have all been acquired in the span of months and occupy the frontcourt — with the former two thought to be able to play at Collins’ power forward position — a fact that might be surprising to some who see Gallinari’s perimeter-oriented game. But teams increasingly ask their fours to stretch the floor and Basketball-Reference estimates he spent 98% of the time last season as a PF.

This has led some around the league wondering if Collins’ days in Atlanta could be numbered.

It may come as a blow that the organization would move on from a player possibly on the brink of stardom. Collins is coming off a season when he averaged 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds while shooting 58.3% from the floor and 40.1% from three.

But look beyond the numbers and see that there are some redundancies created with the additions that have been made. Collins is an elite pick-and-roll man and an exceptionally good rim runner in addition to being a fluid and explosive athlete. But it begins to pose some questions if it’s necessary to have him in the frontcourt with another rim running specialist in either Capela or Okongwu.

In Okongwu’s lone season in college, he finished at the rim in dominant fashion, logging a 1.39 PPP (points per possession) in 149 attempts per Synergy. He also managed similar efficiency as a roll man in screen opportunities, albeit on a lower volume, shooting 58.7% in these situations after receiving a feed.

Capela’s history as a rim runner and lob threat is more extensive at the NBA level with similar efficiency, which ironically forced Houston to move him off the team after the Rockets acquired one of the best lead guard finishers at the rim in Russell Westbrook. This dried up opportunities for Capela in the paint in 2019-20 even before an untimely foot injury, but in the previous year, Capela shot 58.7% per Synergy as a roller off the pick-and-roll.

But isn’t Collins also one of the best young shooting big men in the game?

Well, yes but it generally takes someone, often Trae Young, to create the space for him to shoot. Per NBA’s tracking data, Collins knocked down 42.5% of his threes off no dribbles — well over 90% of his total volume from there — and under 10% when he had to take at least one dribble in 2019-20. This trend hasn’t been as stark in the two previous seasons — right at 35% off a standstill but near 10% when pulling up in 2017-18 and 2018-19 combined — but it still tracks that he is unwilling and unable to use his handle to pull up from deep.

Gallinari was signed, in part, for his ability to play make and create space for his step back jumper from long range. “Il Gallo” shot over 35% from three on 1.4 attempts per game when putting the ball on the deck. Gallinari even bested Collins’ impressive overall mark from three by shooting 40.5% this past season with the Thunder.

This much is clear: Gallinari adds as a secondary playmaker to Young, the ability to relieve some of the load on the young guard, and removes the constant need for Young to create space for his forwards to shoot from three.

The final piece of the puzzle is the Collins camp angling for a max extension, well within their rights of course. But two items that must give the Hawks pause are the 25-game suspension for a positive PED test, which helped torpedo Atlanta’s most recent season, as well as continuing defensive concerns. The suspension was the result of an honest mistake according to Collins — one that he owned up to — and in a rebuilding year, Collins still returned down the stretch of the shortened season and put up big numbers.

The picture defensively is a bit murkier. No one is counting on the 6’10” Gallinari to be a defensive stopper, but Collins has yet to show much positive impact on that side either. The presence of Capela and Okongwu should provide significant resistance at the rim that the team didn’t offer a season ago, so the other big on the floor may be able to focus their efforts more at contesting in space.

I won’t get into what Collins could net on the trade market just yet, as it would most certainly take a haul in return to unload a burgeoning offensive star that could start on a lot of needy teams. Still, the picture is clear that with each recent move, Collins becomes more and more expendable, at least in theory.

Collins’ extension could end up running anywhere from roughly $28 million to $30 million and the front office may very well balk at the price considering Trae Young extension talks are right around the corner as well. Of course, Collins was the first draft pick of a new regime and he has significantly outplayed his No. 19 draft slot, and both sides publicly acknowledge the wish to get a deal done.

The Hawks can choose to extend him this offseason or choose to wait an offseason before making a decision, but it will leave them a more than $12 million cap hold on the books in 2021.

So is Collins truly moveable? Do the sum of the recent parts added in addition to the assets brought back in a trade net a favorable deal?

If there is true doubt about Collins’ defensive potential and fit on a team that ranked 27th in defensive efficiency a year ago, it may be time to let some other team figure out the mystery of how best to mitigate that negative impact. If the Hawks’ main objective is to first make the playoffs and then soon after contend, then they may not have the luxury of sinking a ton of cap space into Collins and hoping he can develop better defensive instincts.

Nothing is imminent of course, but the recent transactions tell one story: the Hawks could cope in life without Collins. It’s surely not ideal to swap an improving 23-year-old forward for a declining 32-year-old one, but the circumstances may make that an realistic option.