This space will function as a deeper dive into content that I’ve touched on via Twitter, my preferred medium. The idea here is to explore various trends and items of interest relating to the Atlanta Hawks that are more suited for extended discussion than can be allowed on Twitter. I’ll try and pick out a few things that caught my eye and leave them for you here.
Editor’s Note: All stats current as of Tuesday, Jan. 19
Without further ado …
John Collins, impact stats king
As everyone reading this knows by now, John Collins is in a contract year. What this means is that there will be attentive speculation about his future in Atlanta from all corners of the NBA discourse, chiefly centered around the topic of whether it makes sense for the Hawks to invest a significant chunk of cap space over his second deal.
For me, that remains an open question and contingent on Atlanta’s team building strategy, particularly from a resource allocation perspective, and that’s a topic for another piece. A simpler observation on the progress of Collins’ season is this: his counting stats are down.
Coming off a “20 & 10” season (or half of one, anyway) on remarkable efficiency, Collins has seen his counting stats dip below his career averages in points and rebounds this campaign. His per-36 minute stats are the lowest they’ve been since his rookie year.
A knee jerk reaction to a player experiencing a clear statistical dip in a contract year is “well, what’s up with that?” Following the acquisition of decidedly non-spacing center Clint Capela, Collins has seen his pick-and-roll usage — the bread and butter of his offensive game — decline.
In the 2019-20 season, Collins averaged 5.1 possessions per game as a P&R roll man, per Synergy; this season, he’s down to 2.2 per contest.
Of course, Collins is playing less minutes this season, but that’s a clear change. Further, he’s popping on pick-and-roll about half the time compared to around a third the season prior. For the first time in his career, he’s averaging more opportunities from spot-up than pick-and-roll, a remarkable shift in usage from when he entered the league.
This change is rather straightforwardly explained by the addition of the paint-clogging Capela, forcing Collins out wide more often, and one might expect that moving Collins out of his primary offensive role would lessen his overall impact in games. However, 13 games in, that has not been correct, at least by some measures. Instead, Collins’ advanced numbers, captured in all-in-one metrics which seek to ballpark player contributions to the team over 100 possessions, are collectively the best of his career.
At the time of writing, Collins stands near the top of some of the best known impact metrics. He’s tied for No. 8 in total RAPTOR. He’s No. 21 in Estimated Plus-Minus. And he’s No. 37 in Box Plus-Minus.
At first, this can be difficult to square with both his pronounced decline in box score numbers, as well as his shift in offensive role. It makes intuitive sense that someone would become less effective when you take away a big chunk of what they’re best at. However, his gaudy impact stats have more clarity when you look at his excellent on/off splits, namely his impact on Atlanta’s defense.
According to PBP Stats, my on/off database of choice, the Hawks have a +11.1 net rating with Collins on the floor, and a -11.3 net rating with him off. Per Cleaning the Glass, Collins’ on/off differential ranks in the 91st percentile. More eyebrow raising, Atlanta has a 104.4 defensive rating with Collins on, and opponents are attempting only 31.9% of their total shot attempts at the rim with both Collins and Capela on the floor, good for 65th percentile.
Known as mostly an offensive player, it’s curious that Collins’ defensive impact, measured by his on/off, is buttressing his impressive performance in a medley of advanced stats. While it has to be said that Collins has likely benefited from unsustainably poor opponent three-point shooting, he and Capela have done an effective job of limiting shots at the rim, the most important aspect of NBA defense.
To this point, they’ve also been superb at making opponents miss on these shots, as teams have shot just 53.5% at the rim with both Collins and Capela on the court, 97th percentile. While it’s too early to write off favorable variance as a key factor, both Collins and Capela rank top 20 in contested shots per game.
Simply having two bigs patrolling the paint and actively challenging shots seems to have made a difference in Atlanta’s defense so far.
On the offensive end, Collins has much work to do to fully integrate with Capela. But it’s likely the bulk of his offensive impact will come when Capela is off the floor. To this end, I’m hoping to see more development in his on-the-dribble game as the season progresses. Gallinari is hopefully coming back soon, and his return will unlock crunch time lineups with Collins at the 5 alongside Gallinari in the front court.
These lineups permit Atlanta the luxury of going “five out” with shooters at all positions, a desired trait in crunch time lineups because you want to create as many stress points as possible. Furthermore, it’s important not to just shoot from spot-up opportunities, but drive from them also. If Collins can develop more comfort with taking a dribble or two to beat defenders closing out to him, it becomes extremely difficult to guard the Hawks in high leverage minutes.
I’ve attached this clip to illustrate what I would like to see more of from Collins. If he can start to do this more often, this is a rare sort of big in the NBA.
I've talked recently about how I would like to see Collins improve in attacking OTD from the perimeter. Really liked this sequence at the start of the game against MIN. Imagine being able to get this from your 5 in a closing lineup if he can start to do it more consistently. pic.twitter.com/HNmp1ROuSd— AKelly (@andlankell) January 19, 2021
Kevin Huerter, secondary creator
Proficient secondary creation alongside Trae Young has been an issue for the Hawks this season, and, well, since they drafted him, really. Part of the idea of the Bogdan Bogdanovic signing was to provide a capable second creator to pair with Young, so they have another option to reset possessions with and keep the wheels turning on offense. However, Bogdanovic is now sidelined with an avulsion fracture and, even before the injury, his usage was that of mostly a spot-up shooter rather than the secondary creator role he had filled in Sacramento.
Enter: Kevin Huerter. Coming mostly off the bench this season, his role has primarily been to help non-Young units from tanking offensively. But with both the Reddish and Bogdanovic injuries, Huerter has been thrust back into the starting lineup he occupied for most of his first two seasons in Atlanta.
His role with the starters has brought his effectiveness as a secondary creator back into focus. Atlanta’s preferred starting front court consists of Capela, Collins, and De’Andre Hunter, a unit mostly bereft of playmaking. Add in a healthy Cam Reddish, who is prone to making questionable decisions offensively, and Young is left with a large creation burden.
This is where Huerter can alleviate things, making smart decisions with the ball, linking up play, and providing an outlet when defenses hone in on Young, as well as providing a second quality spacing option other than Hunter.
In Atlanta’s two big lineup featuring Collins and Capela, it makes sense to add players, like Huerter, who provide additional creation for balance.
For this reason, even when Reddish is available to return to play, I think it makes sense to leave Huerter in with the starting lineup. He ties things together.
This play shows the value of Kevin Huerter as a secondary creator next to Trae. If he's not able to make this read and zip the ball to Collins, Capela doesn't score here. Also a nice feed from JC. KH's decision making has been great this year; his <10% TOV% ranks 65%-ile. pic.twitter.com/mVPQbjPHil— AKelly (@andlankell) January 19, 2021
Consider the play above. Capela gets an and-one here following a nice pass from Collins, but this play never materializes if Huerter isn’t able to make that read and delivery. Although Huerter’s contribution isn’t recorded in the box score, his hockey assist created a great opportunity for the team. It’s decision making and execution like this that makes Huerter useful as a second creator - he’s also posting the lowest turnover rate of his career, which ranks 64th percentile among wings.
Of course, there are defensive trade-offs with swapping Huerter for a strong defender in Reddish which should not be discounted; but as mentioned above, the Collins/Capela pairing has been strong defensively as it is, so adding an extra element of creation makes Young’s job easier and makes the offense as a whole more dynamic, potentially helping them get off to stronger starts on that end.
Trae Young’s floater woes
Although his pull-up shooting from deep draws most of the attention, it’s Trae’s floater that has been his signature shot since he entered the NBA. He’s prolific on runners, as measured by Synergy, finishing no worse than top two overall on field goal attempts per game from runners each year of his career.
Last year, he actually shot better on driving floating jump shots than he did on layups on similar volume, per NBA Advanced Stats. His floater sets up his offensive game in myriad ways I won’t explore here for brevity’s sake, so if they aren’t falling, it’s a big issue for him.
And that’s been the case so far.
As you can see, he’s been extremely poor on runners this season and that’s leaked over to his diminished efficiency from the field. As for why he’s struggling, I don’t have a simple answer.
Going through his shot attempts, he’s missing in all sorts of ways: completely wide left or right, drawing back iron, or leaving them well short. Maybe his wrist injury is bothering him or having two bigs out there is cramping things a bit - I’m not sure. There’s no clear explanation (at least for me) why he’s been so poor this year.
But turn your attention again to the graphic above. There’s a wide sample at this point suggesting this is his shot. And I’m willing to bet on that continuing.
Positive regression is coming.
Sooner or later, Young is going to find the touch on those again and start posting numbers looking more like his career marks. Until I see something closer to clear evidence that this cold streak is more than just the wrong side of variance, I won’t be bothered. And nor should you, Hawks fans.
That’s all for me for now. Thanks for reading!