Our 2021-22 Atlanta Hawks player review series rolls on with a look at the season of forward John Collins.
When the 2020-2021 NBA season concluded for the Atlanta Hawks, it was unclear how likely it may have been that John Collins had played his last season with Atlanta. After not having reached agreement on an extension the previous offseason, he was headed into restricted free agency after seeing his box score stats regress a bit thanks mostly to the presence of Clint Capela.
It was uncertain how the market would react to reduced scoring and rebounding numbers, specifically, even as Collins continued to function as a dynamic pick and roll partner to Trae Young.
A strong postseason performance surely helped his standing with the team and presumably had a positive impact on his marketability. Atlanta was 7.6 points per 100 possessions better in the 2021 playoffs when Collins was on the court as he put his ability to finish shots at the rim and shoot from the three-point line to use in addition to his helpful defensive play.
The financial commitment Atlanta might make as to bring him back was tough to project at the time, at least partly, due to the volume and frequency of trade rumors linked to Collins across several seasons. The noise in this area caused many to wonder how interested the Hawks front office was in owning his next contract.
But as the 2021 offseason progressed, he and the team would come to agree to a deal worth 125 million dollars across fives seasons with the final one being a player option.
Optimism surrounded the Hawks, coming off an Eastern Conference finals appearance, as the team approach the 2021-2022 season. A decent portion of the basis for the high expectations was the opportunity Capela and Collins had to integrate their play even further in their second season together.
Lineups that consisted of Collins, Capela, and Young continued to perform statistically best, especially on offense. The combined ability of Capela and Collins to consistently put pressure on the rim is a critically central component of Atlanta’s offense. Young is in the most elite tier of offensive creators especially so when delivering passes to big men diving toward the rim. Further, Collins’ ability to shoot from the three-point line provided crucial spacing to make those lineups work.
On the defensive end, these lineups performed roughly 5.5 points better per 100 possessions than when Gallo was at the power forward position in place of Collins.
As such, it seems reasonable to conclude that the trio must be kept together for the team to continue its effort to build up a roster that is increasingly capable of competing to finish at the top of the Eastern Conference standings. However, the Hawks have a record of 50-51 across the last two seasons in which both Capela and Collins played as compared to 34-19 when only one or neither played.
Collins largely replicated his numbers from last season on a per 36 minutes basis with two exceptions. His three-point shooting fell off, although that can almost completely be accounted for as he played through a finger injury since early March before missing time. Meanwhile he continued to demonstrate improved passing and ball handling.
He functioned better with the ball in the short roll and in other situations when opposing defenses forced him into acting as a decision maker. His improved ball security certainly contributed toward the Hawks having the best turnover mark in the league on offense.
It’s clear that Collins has improved overall in each of his NBA seasons.
It would be impossible to tell the story of his 2021-2022 season without addressing the frustrating series of injuries he dealt with. Collins played in just five of the Hawks final 28 regular season games and missed both play-in games.
Impressively, he played, even as he was visibly limited, in each of the five first round games versus Miami, even moving into the starting lineup after game one. He and Capela couldn’t get anything going at the rim in that series as Miami allocated significant defensive resources toward containing Young’s ability to get into the heart of the defense while also packing the paint with defensive bodies.
The Heat also frequently switched on defense encouraging Atlanta to pursue options to attack mismatches. Often getting into these actions too late in the shot clock, the Hawks couldn’t reliably generate offense this way even when they found to most favorable of opportunities.
Defensively, Collins continues to perform well as one of their best defensive communicators and as a big man that can offer competent minutes at both center and power forward. He’s helpful protecting the rim and rebounding and has been a consistently improving defender in space.
There was, at least statistically, a regression this season for Collins in the area of closing out on perimeter shooters. But that was an issue for the team collectively and reflects a change in defensive priorities during Atlanta’s first full season under head coach Nate McMillan.
As the Hawks continued to struggle defending at the point of attack, McMillan increasingly had his team dropping toward the paint in an attempt to limit opponents drives and other actions intended to generate shots at the rim.
This created longer close outs for all Atlanta defenders and required significantly more effort in “x-out” situations and the like. Often this resulted in less favorable optics related to the defensive play of Collins as he was especially counted upon to help at the rim and to rebound.
Regardless, Collins remains a reliable defensive player and one that will have an opportunity to delivery more value defensively as he is potentially included in lineups that contain more competent defensive players overall.
As the Hawks undeniably look to overhaul their roster coming off a season in which they admittedly missed their own expectations, it’s natural to wonder which players might be on the move.
While the trio of Young, Collins, and Capela has been critical to what they do on both ends of the court the last two seasons, one wonders what it’s going to take for this team to reach another level.
A good bit of that consideration, however, will come down to scheme decisions and, presumably, adjusted plans for how they will play on each end of the court.
The Hawks saw significantly less drop coverage by opposing defenses this season and a lot more switching. As a result, McMillan had his team consistently exploring mismatches that can be attacked.
If that is going to continue to be a focus, one must wonder if Capela and Collins are well suited to coexist in that setting. What does Capela do when Collins is working to attack a smaller defender with his face up game? What does Collins do when Capela is trying to take advantage of a smaller defender at the rim? These are fair questions.
Defensively, if the Hawks continue to play a generally conservative scheme with their big man anchoring to the paint and not getting to the level of ball screens for example, how does that best work for Collins from a positional standpoint? How does the continued emergence of Onyeka Okongwu impact Collins’ value to the Atlanta rotation since there may be minimal minutes for him at center apart from injury and foul trouble scenarios? These are important questions.
Still, it’s critical to recognize how uniquely suited Collins is to play with Young and another type of big man on offense. He was the single most efficient pick-and-roll finisher in the league last season (100 possessions or more) despite how opposing defenses schemed them.
If the Hawks were to decide to move on from Collins, it’s reasonably possible that they will never find an offensive player that profiles with Young as well as he does. Further, if Atlanta moves on from Danilo Gallinari, which seems likely, it’s hard to see how they replenish the power forward position in full.
The 2021-2022 season was as frustrating for Collins individually as it was for the team collectively. Still, even as Atlanta looks to make important roster changes ahead of next season, the unique value Collins offers for a team built around Young should not be underestimated.