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The John Collins situation is not one the Hawks can afford to botch

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NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

There have been rumblings that Atlanta Hawks star forward John Collins could eventually land elsewhere for some time. Before Sam Amick of The Athletic’s piece that stated the Hawks were open to listening to offers on Collins, there was much speculation on whether he would be traded or sign an extension with the Hawks during the elongated offseason between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 NBA seasons.

Neither of those things happened, and the speculation ramped up even more when Collins reportedly turned down a $90 million extension offer from Atlanta before this season. The fourth-year forward feels he is worthy of a max contract, or something at least in that ballpark. The Hawks have yet to show they agree, but there was also no incentive to giving him a max contract before the season, as they retain the right to match any offer he may receive after the season in restricted free agency — if they don’t trade him.

Trading Collins is another bit of sticky situation, as the Hawks are on-record from the top down that they have playoff aspirations in 2020-21, and trading Collins for a package of picks or young players obviously hinders their ability to achieve that goal. The alternative to the asset play, would be to package Collins and picks or another young player, potentially Kevin Huerter or Cam Reddish, in an effort to get a superstar. That scenario doesn’t appear to be on the board, at least as long as Bradley Beal is committed to being a Washington Wizard.

Maybe there’s another type of a deal out there, a swap for someone like Harrison Barnes, who is under control for a couple more years and in the midst of a career season. But there aren’t very many of those guys floating around either, and it that case specifically, that would obviously require the Kings to be high enough on Collins to feel good about matching his asking price in RFA. The fact may simply be, there is no perfect deal for Collins, putting Atlanta in a tough situation.

Trade Collins for a less-than-exhilarating return, or risk losing him for nothing after the season? After all, Collins has been quite the player this season, and very well may get something close or at the maximum salary he’s eligible for. The other possibility is that Collins could play his way into convincing Atlanta he’s worth whatever he asks for in RFA, and that may be something that is unfolding right now.

Collins is making over 40% of his threes over his past 65 games (last season + this season), and averages 20.4 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks over that span. His true-shooting percentage in that span is 65.5%, and he’s made tremendous strides as a defender. No one knows this better than the Hawks, as there seems to be a narrative in national circles that Collins is still a negative on the defensive end. That is simply not the case, and hasn’t been for some time.

This season, playing alongside Clint Capela, Collins has been a positive contributor on both ends. Capela and Collins rank second in defensive rating in the Eastern Conference among two-man lineups that have played at least 350 minutes together, something Kevin Chouinard wrote about in January. To further illustrate the point, Collins and De’Andre Hunter rank as the fourth best two-man lineup in this area, while Collins and Trae Young rank fifth (yes you read that correctly).

Collins sliding back to his natural position has allowed him to be himself, someone who is capable of being anchored down low, but has the mobility to move out to the perimeter at times as well. He’s by no means lockdown in either area, but he’s provided enough versatility, and efficacy, to make the Hawks into a better defense when he’s on the floor.

Offensively, it’s no secret what he has been able to provide off of screen action, but he’s expanded in that area as well. He looks more comfortable when putting the ball on the floor, and has made better reads at times as a passer. On a roster that features Young, Huerter, Hunter, and other capable ball-handlers, passing isn’t something he has to be great at, but he’s shown an ability to throw lobs to Capela out of the short-roll, something that will be important for those two’s ability to succeed on the floor offensively.

There was a bit of an adjustment period for Collins, who was not the primary roll-man for the first time in his career this season. In the first 10 games of the season, he averaged a respectable 16.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game. Since then, however, he’s been on somewhat of a tear, averaging 21.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per in his last 12 games, converting 45.8% of his three-pointers over that stretch.

If he’s able to provide this type of value on each end of the floor, the Hawks are going to have a very hard time either trading him or letting him walk to another team for nothing after the season. Whichever way they wind up going, this is not something they can afford to squander. Paying Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic this past offseason can’t get in the way of getting the appropriate value out of a player like Collins, and Schlenk’s homerun of a No. 19 pick in his first draft as the lead decision maker will have been all for nothing, even if they’re able to to get into the postseason this year.

Whatever move they make with Collins — whether it’s paying him in RFA or trading him before Mar. 25 — they have to get it right. Losing Collins for nothing after the season would be a colossal failure and send the worst possible message to both the team and its fan base. Young will be the next player waiting in the wings to discuss his new contract, which will be a max contract or nothing, almost assured. Sending the right message to the centerpiece of your franchise and getting value out of one of your most valuable assets are essential parts of the Hawks evolving into one of the more stable and respectable franchises around the league.

After a 10-year playoff run, the Hawks elected to tear it down in 2017. Four years later, they are in a position to build something real. How they handle the Collins situation is going to be a big domino, and could have a lasting, long-term impact on franchise.