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Making sense, or rather cents, of the John Collins trade

Cash rules everything around me.

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Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks - Game Three Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The longest tenured Hawk will now be heading to Salt Lake City, and needless to say the move will have huge ramifications on the franchise.

On Monday, it was reported that John Collins will be traded to the Utah Jazz for Rudy Gay and a future second-round pick once the league opens for transactions on July 6. Although Collins had been a year-round fixture in the rumor mill cycle, the news comes as a shock to those expecting valuable pieces in return as a result of any trade. Instead, the Hawks were left with a 17-year veteran on the way out of the NBA and a not so valuable draft asset for their efforts.

Dating back to his first appearance in Las Vegas Summer League, John Collins has been a main feature in Hawks highlight tapes, routinely showcasing his rim-rattling dunks and his emphatic volleyball-style swats. Since coming into the league as a no. 19 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Collins has added layers to his game in each season and become integral to a Hawks regime that has seen three straight postseason appearances and a run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2021.

The Trae Young-John Collins partnership in particular has been very fruitful during their five year run, with Young connecting on countless alley-oops to Collins off pick-and-rolls. Per PBPstats, the Trae Young to John Collins pairing has been the source of the most assists as a combo in the NBA over the last five seasons with 697.

So why pick now to break up that tandem? And why is so little coming back from the Jazz? Surely the large salary figure couldn’t have played that big a role, could it?

Collins is still a productive NBA player, albeit with more contribution on defense versus offense as of late. Just a few seasons ago, he looked like a future All-Star after registering a 21-point and 10-rebound per game season, with 40% shooting from three and always elite finishing at the rim to boot.

How do we make sense of this trade? Let’s go through three reasons for what it all means.

Dolla dolla bills, y’all

To understand the main motivation for this reported trade, let’s borrow a phrase from the movie All the President’s Men: follow the money.

John Collins inked a five-year, $125 million contract in the summer of 2021, as the Hawks wanted to avoid the player going out into restricted free agency and penning an agreement with another team. This came on the heels of a stunning run to the Eastern Conference Finals, and so the brass felt as though the best course of action was to keep the young core together to continue to push for contention.

But with extensions also given to (the now departed) Kevin Huerter and the current Hawk (for now) Clint Capela, as well handing out a soon-to-kick-in extension to De’Andre Hunter agreed upon last offseason, the Hawks had pushed their salary right up to the luxury tax line. Using the projected $165 million figure as a data point, with just 11 guaranteed salaries the Hawks were slated to blow past that mark next season.

Atlanta Hawks projected 2023-24 salaries per Spotrac (pre-Collins trade):

Player 2023-24
Player 2023-24
Trae Young $40,064,220
John Collins* $25,340,000
De'Andre Hunter $20,930,233
Clint Capela $20,192,308
Bogdan Bogdanovic $18,700,000
Dejounte Murray $17,714,000
Onyeka Okongwu $8,109,063
Saddiq Bey $4,556,983
Kobe Bufkin $4,094,280
AJ Griffin $3,712,920
Jalen Johnson $2,925,360
Bruno Fernando (ungtd) $2,581,521
Garrison Mathews (ungtd) $2,000,000
Vit Krejci (ungtd) $1,836,096
Tyrese Martin (team option) $1,719,864
Total $166,339,367
Salary Cap (projected) $136,021,000
Luxury Tax (projected) $165,021,000
Tax Level (without ungtd) -$1,318,367
Tax Level (with ungtd) -$9,455,848

With the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers among the teams contributing to historically high tax redistribution for the non-taxpaying teams this season — and most likely next season as well — the Hawks’ owners stand to make upwards of $30 million each season by finishing below the luxury tax threshold once the league’s financials are finalized.

And thus, reports of a “mandate” coming from the highest levels of the organization to put themselves in position to reap the financial rewards emerged from reputable sources. Ultimately, it reeks of cynical reasoning — should it prove to be correct — for an organizational masthead that claims to want nothing more than to win the biggest prize of all.

The Atlanta Hawks have not finished in the luxury tax since the 2011-12 season. And so, logic follows that since ownership changed hands in 2015, the Hawks have yet to finish in the tax. This places them among the four lowest tax spenders in the NBA since 2001 according to Forbes. General manager Landry Fields has publicly stated that he is able to do so, and there is significant organizational push back from any suggestion otherwise, but ultimately actions will speak louder than words.

John Collins is owed $78.5 million over the next three years — should he pick up a 2025-26 player option — whereas Rudy Gay picked up a player option of $6.479 million for this season to give the trade a green light. This means immediate and long-term salary relief, with a particular eye toward the summer of 2024 when Dejounte Murray is slated to be an unrestricted free agent.

In short, all characterizations of this trade as a salary dump are completely on target. The Hawks netted almost nothing but pure luxury tax breathing room in return, even putting aside the more competitively prohibitive new tax aprons introduced by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

A different direction at power forward

John Collins didn’t hit a single three-pointer in two full seasons at Wake Forest, but he slowly grew into his role as a more modern, stretchier NBA power forward. After hitting just 16 in his 2017-18 rookie campaign, Collins nailed 38% of his threes on over three attempts per game across the next four seasons. Of course, his struggles shooting the ball in 2022-23 are well documented, as he suffered a finger injury late in the 2021-22 season that caused him to wear a wrap on the ring finger of his shooting hand.

Still, Collins has never been a high-level handler, passer, or versatile off the dribble shot maker. Collins knows his offensive role and largely plays to his strengths: catch-and-shoot attempts, face up opportunities in the post, and dives and cuts to the rim. Although there has been a rise in skilled big men in the NBA, Collins remains a throwback to an earlier era of power forward play.

Collins’ partnership with Clint Capela in the same front court has proven to be crowded offensively — though still productive. As mentioned earlier, the Young-Collins duo has been wildly productive since Young has taken the reins of the franchise in 2018. But over the past three seasons, Trae Young to Clint Capela has actually topped Young to Collins for the league lead in assist combos, 452 to 415.

With Trae Young running the show, spearheading a spread pick-and-roll-based offense, the spacing gets wonky when introducing two roll men on the court instead of one. Collins has largely been cast as a stationary floor spacer when not involved in the play. For example, his corner three-point frequency has increased every year during Capela era beginning in 2019-20. That has spelled unfortunate results as soon as Collins ran into his shooting issues, as teams like Miami and Boston were able to adapt their defense towards perimeter trapping and packing the paint over the course of playoff series.

The drafting of Jalen Johnson and the acquisition of Saddiq Bey both predate Quin Snyder’s arrival in Atlanta. But both bring high-level skills on the offensive end that aren’t replicated by Collins: primarily Johnson’s ability to handle in the open court and find teammates with quick passes and Bey’s shooting off the dribble and attacking closeouts. These are two qualities Snyder is known to value from his days in Utah.

Both are still young players, with less combined NBA experience than John Collins. But Snyder has always valued versatile forwards from his tenure with the Jazz, such as that of the likes of Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and, funny enough, Rudy Gay.

This also helps explain reported interest in two-time All-Star Pascal Siakam, whose point guard-like development of creation and passing skills has been meteoric for a 6-foot-9 player. While acquiring him largely remains pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, that archetype of power forward is the direction the team seems to be moving towards as they build for the future.

The hidden asset in return

To be frank, Rudy Gay and a future second round pick coming back to Atlanta is a negligible return for the largely financially driven move. Gay has 17 years and almost 35,000 NBA minutes under his belt. He’s also coming off the worst season of his professional career, having shot just 38% from the floor. And, as stated above, the second-round pick via Memphis figures to be of little value for a Grizzlies franchise that appears to be on the rise.

But Gay reportedly had his salary absorbed in a traded player exception — referred to as a ‘TPE’ from here forward — that they owned from the outgoing Justin Holiday trade to the Dallas Mavericks at the 2023 trade deadline. That trade was coincidentally a domino from another series of salary dump moves stemming from trading Kevin Huerter to the Sacramento Kings a season ago.

Sending Holiday out then opened up a $6.3 million TPE last year, which will be used to bring in Gay. The same process for John Collins here will also create a TPE of $25.34 million for Atlanta. This will give the Hawks one avenue to acquire a player going forward, as the TPE lasts for up to one full year from its creation.

This can be a useful tool to bring in a player solely by taking on their contract. As we head into a new era of financial maneuvering from teams trying to escape the dreaded tax aprons, Atlanta could be a destination for a player making that figure or less — assuming, of course, it doesn’t put the luxury tax in play.

In closing

John Collins has been a vocal leader on and off the court for the franchise, and rarely has anyone had a bad word to say about his boisterous personality. This reputation helped him earn the inaugural Sekou Smith award in 2021 for professionalism and integrity in his media duties.

However, it must be noted that in his breakout 2019-20 season, John Collins was suspended for 25 games for using performance-enhancing drugs, a tough break for a team looking to make a playoff push that was ultimately left out of the Orlando bubble after the COVID-19 league shutdown. Collins has yet to reach that same offensive peak in the seasons since, although the presence of Clint Capela has certainly been a complicating factor.

Still, it’s important to note that a lot of John Collins’ recent on-court value has come from defensive growth. Defense is hard to quantify, but many observers and advanced metrics have noted the improvement in Collins’ production on that end. The Collins-Capela front court in particular has posted strong on-off ratings, such as the second-best two-man defense on the team in 2021-22 (111 DRtg with minutes of at least 900) or the second-best minute two-man defense in 2020-21 (108.5 DRtg with minutes of at least 700).

This relentless effort, hustle, and numerous other intangible values should not be overlooked even as he suffered through the toughest shooting slump of his career. Collins’ contribution won’t be replaced by (still nonexistent) cap space, as the team has assuredly gotten worse in many different facets over the past 24 hours.

Neither the persistent penny-pinching, like the actions of the Huerter and Collins trade sagas, nor short term bandaging will get Atlanta to a place of continual contention. And reports continue to swirl about who is truly calling the shots at the top of the organization. Monday was a sober reality check for many about the business of running an NBA franchise — one where winning and profitability can often be at odds.

The Hawks will try to pick up the pieces by elevating young players like Bey and Johnson into greater roles. And the TPE and luxury tax breathing room give the Hawks some flexibility to move forward and make moves. But as long as dollars ultimately rule the day, it will be hard to have complete faith in the team’s ability to reach the mountaintop.