We’re just a few days into the 2023 NBA free agency period, including still within the moratorium period when the majority of moves cannot yet be finalized. But with most of the action behind us — save for an eventual Damian Lillard trade — it’s time to look back at what has transpired so far.
The Atlanta Hawks haven’t actually dipped into the free agent pool, at least not yet, but they have made two reported transactions. First, news broke prior to last Friday that the Hawks were set to send John Collins to the Utah Jazz for Rudy Gay and a second-round pick. Then on Saturday, the Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets agreed on a trade to bring in Usman Garuba, TyTy Washington Jr., two second-round picks, and cash for the rights to overseas player Alpha Kaba.
As there seem to be multifaceted motivations for trading away a locker room leader and six-year starting power forward in Collins, it’s difficult to boil down the analysis to a binary “good move” or “bad move” judgement. And yet, grading trades in a vacuum with or without proper context remains a popular way to generate immediate reactions and start a dialogue.
With that background, let’s see what sports pundits have had to say about the free agency decisions the Hawks have made to this point. First, ESPN gave Atlanta a B- with a fairly sober take about the financial motivations behind the Collins deal:
After years of rumors, the John Collins era for the Hawks ends with a whimper. This is essentially a salary dump to take Atlanta out of the luxury tax.
The Hawks were $9.6 million over the tax line with Collins and their four players with non-guaranteed 2023-24 salaries (Bruno Fernando, Vit Krejci, Tyrese Martin and Garrison Mathews), which was the product of Atlanta’s improbable (but ultimately detrimental) run to the 2021 conference finals.
In the wake of Collins capably filling a role as a floor-spacing power forward during that playoff run, making 36% of his 3s and 63.5% of his 2s while defending on the perimeter, he re-signed on a five-year deal worth $125 million that the Hawks have been trying to move almost from the second the ink dried.
Part of the issue was Collins’ rapid regression from 3-point range. He hit 40% in both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 regular seasons, necessary as Atlanta transitioned him to more of a stretch 4 with the arrival of Clint Capela as the primary partner for Trae Young in the pick-and-roll.
In 2019-20, Collins set 54 on-ball screens per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum tracking. The Hawks added Capela at that season’s trade deadline, though he did not play for the team because of injury before play stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That dropped to 39.0 in 2020-21 and 34.4 in 2021-22 before going off a cliff last season. Collins averaged just 19.4 ball screens per 100 possessions, down nearly two-thirds from his 2019-20 rate.
Simultaneously, Collins shot a career-low 29% from beyond the arc, tanking his efficiency and his trade value. He posted both the lowest usage rate (17%) and true shooting percentage (.593) of his NBA career. No wonder Atlanta found few takers.
Still, Collins started every game he played and averaged 30 minutes per game in the regular season and 27.3 in the playoffs, so the Hawks are taking an on-court hit. Coach Quin Snyder has a few options for replacing Collins. Jalen Johnson, who saw increased playing time after Snyder took over, would be the like-for-like choice: an athletic, 6-foot-9 forward with questionable shooting (28% from 3 in two NBA seasons).
Alternatively, the Hawks could go smaller and slide 6-8 De’Andre Hunter to the 4, opening a spot in the lineup for sixth man Bogdan Bogdanovic, Saddiq Bey or 2022 first-round pick AJ Griffin. Although he’s the most proven player of the group, keeping Bogdanovic in a reserve role is probably ideal. That could set up a training camp competition between Bey, Griffin and Johnson.
Gay is unlikely to factor into that competition. He shot just 38% from the field and 25% from 3-point range last season. He’ll turn 37 in August and no longer merits a rotation role. Gay, who must exercise his $6.5 million player option as part of this trade, will provide experience in Snyder’s system.
Dealing Collins will allow Atlanta to add to the roster using the non-taxpayer midlevel exception. Depending on which non-guaranteed salaries they keep, the Hawks will have $10 million to $18 million available to fill out their roster and stay below the tax line. Atlanta will want to keep an eye on unlikely incentives in the contracts of Capela, Hunter and Dejounte Murray that could take the team into the tax.
No matter whom the Hawks add, that player is unlikely to be as productive on the court as Collins. That’s the reality of building a team with a payroll in the luxury tax but not the results on the court to justify it. One of the regular themes of my trade analysis is that moves that look helpful when viewed strictly in terms of talent can be harmful financially because of the tough choices they force down the line. The Murray deal in particular had that effect here.
Grading this trade is largely a matter of perspective. Given the urgency to avoid the luxury tax in time to make moves in free agency and how Collins’ value had sunk, getting out of the remaining three years of his contract without having to add draft picks could be seen as a positive outcome for Atlanta. Still, it’s hard to feel good about how the Hawks’ entire process resulted in discarding a productive player for little on-court return.
Zach Harper of The Athletic had a much more negative take on the proceedings, as he gave the Hawks an F+ for the poor process:
I will admit I’m not the biggest believer in Collins as a difference-maker. He’s crazy athletic and has a solid skill set, but I’ve never felt like he was going to be the starting power forward for a truly great team. And it’s seemed like the Hawks have felt similarly about Collins for years because he’s always rumored to be on the trade block. Even leading up to his restricted free agency in 2021, the Hawks were trying to move him for something valuable and avoid signing him for big money.
The annual tradition of looking into trading him didn’t come to fruition, and the Hawks ended up signing him in the summer of 2021 for five years and $125 million. After two years in that contract, the best they could do for him was a 36-year old Rudy Gay and a second-round pick? That can’t possibly be proper value, whether or not you believe in Collins.
This is a terrible job of maximizing value for a player who should still be an asset. This feels like the first move of many for Atlanta because of how little return there is. The Hawks will create a trade exception with the gap in Collins’ salary ($25.3 million) and Gay’s salary number ($6.4 million). That can help them make moves at some point. It also helps ease the pain of incoming luxury-tax penalties, as the Hawks were a little over $1 million under the luxury tax last season.
This still feels like even a weak salary dump. We’ll see how much of this roster gets moved in the coming weeks. Clint Capela, De’Andre Hunter and many more not named Trae Young could all be moved. Even for a salary dump, the Collins deal is a complete miss on its own. We have to see what’s next.
Later, Harper gave a much more glowing review of the Hawks’ trade with the Rockets, handing out an A- and saying:
Houston Rockets acquire trade exception
At worst, the Hawks grabbed two more young guys to try to develop with Garuba looking like he could be an excellent defender. The Rockets needed to jettison some guys from the roster, and [sic] give up maybe far too early on recent first-round picks.
Grade: A- for Hawks, C for Rockets
I’m on record as saying the Hawks did what they had to do given their financial restraints. The return for John Collins looks a lot better with the hindsight of the second trade:
If you frame it as John Collins for three second-round picks, Garuba, Washington, and an expiring Gay, the combined trade accomplishes important goals: get younger, more financially flexible, and recoup draft picks.— Wes (@bloghawk) July 2, 2023
The team is worse now, but it's clearly a pivot to the future.
What say you, loyal readers of this site? What grade would you give the Hawks for the two reported trades?
How would you grade the two trades the Hawks made this past week?
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