What Are the Hawks Going to Do With John Collins?
Heading into the extremely-delayed 2020 NBA offseason, the Atlanta Hawks' biggest need was somebody to run the offense when Trae Young hit the bench. Last season, they tried Evan Turner and then Jeff Teague in the role, and neither worked out. It was part of the reason Atlanta was not successful in their playoff push even after acquiring Clint Capela at the trade deadline. So, naturally, when the draft rolled around, the Hawks took... a center.
Their selection of USC's Onyeka Okongwu isn't bad, per se. Draft pundits love Okongwu's potential as a switchable five that can defend everywhere on the court and earn hustle points offensively. It's just confusing. They already have Capela as their presumed center of the near future. And then there's John Collins. Collins is entering restricted free agency next week and Atlanta has been saying all the right things this year about how he's a big part of their core. He's an intriguing modern NBA forward, a bouncy athlete who showed some shooting prowess after his suspension this season.
A center/forward rotation of Collins and Capela is pretty good. But the Hawks just spent a lottery pick on another center, which makes for a crowded frontcourt. Capela is under contract for the next three years, making around $17 million per season. Atlanta presumably does not want to move on from him immediately after acquiring him in February. Collins, on the other hand, wants to get paid. He and his agent were talking about max contracts back in May. He likely wouldn't get that kind of deal on the open market, but he'll certainly find at least one team willing to give him a substantial raise.
It would be a misuse of resources for Atlanta to take Okongwu then turn around and pay Collins given how their skillsets overlap as slightly undersized, athletic big men who can theoretically defend a range of positions. The two could play together if Collins' three-point shot proves to be reliable, but then what about Capela? He's a better overall player than either right now, even if his rim-running and paint protection isn't quite as good as we all thought it was a few years ago. The Hawks want to make the playoffs this season-- that's the goal. Capela will be getting the lion's share of the minutes.
In a perfect world, Collins would accept his $4.1 million qualifying offer and form a respectable center platoon with Capela and Okongwu. But Collins knows he can get more money from someone else right now if the Hawks aren't willing to pony up. The selection of Okongwu suggests that is the case.
So what do they do with him? Finding a trade partner would be ideal. A sign-and-trade with the Boston Celtics for Gordon Hayward would work great for both teams. The Hawks get further veteran wing help and clear up the logjam at forward while the Celtics find a big man that fits their timeline and would merge seamlessly into the offense.
The Hawks don't have to move Collins. They could let him hit free agency and see what his value is, then either match whatever offer he gets (that will most likely be below the max, but still expensive) or let him play out the final year of his deal to chase the money as an unrestricted free agent next offseason. But both options come with the risk of losing a quality young talent with nothing to show for it. If Collins really is not in their long-term plans, as Atlanta's draft night actions seemed to suggest, they should move on from him while they still can.