The longest-tenured Hawk is now headed to Salt Lake City, and needless to say, the move will have huge implications for 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 when 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 who expect valuable pieces in return as a result of any trade. Instead, the Hawks were left with a 17-year veteran on his way out of the NBA and a not so valuable draft for their efforts.
Dating back to his first appearance in the Las Vegas Summer League, John Collins has been a staple of the Hawks’ highlight tape, routinely showcasing his rim-rattling dunks and his emphatic volleyball style. Since he came into the league as a no. 19 overall in the 2017 NBA Draft, Collins has added layers to his game each season and become an integral part of 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 over their five years, with Young connecting on countless alley-oops to Collins off pick-and-rolls. According to PBPstatsThe Trae Young and John Collins pairing has been the source of the most assists as a combo in the NBA over the past five seasons with 697.
So why choose now to break up that tandem? And why does so little come back from jazz? The big salary figure probably couldn’t have played to big role, could it?
Collins is still a productive NBA player, albeit with more contributions on defense versus offense lately. Just a few seasons ago, he looked like a future All-Star after recording 21 points and 10 rebounds per game. game season, with 40% shooting from three and always elite finishing at the rim to start.
How do we make sense of this trade? Let’s go over three reasons why it all means.
Dolla bills, everyone
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 signed a five-year, $125 million contract in the summer of 2021 as the Hawks wanted to avoid the player going into restricted free agency and signing a deal with another team. This came on the heels of a stellar run to the Eastern Conference Finals, and so the brass felt like the best course of action was to keep the young core together to continue pushing for contention.
But with extensions also given to the now-deceased Kevin Huerter and Clint Capela, as well as the soon-to-be-kicked-in extension for De’Andre Hunter agreed to last season, the Hawks had pushed their payroll right up to the luxury tax line. User expected $165 million as a data point, with just 11 guaranteed salaries, the Hawks were slated to blow past that mark next season.
Atlanta Hawks salaries per Spot race (2023-24):
|Bruno Fernando (youth)||$2,581,521|
|Garrison Matthews (juntd)||$2,000,000|
|Vit Krejci (youth)||$1,836,096|
|Tyrese Martin (juntd)||$1,719,864|
|Salary cap (expected)||$136,021,000|
|Luxury tax (expected)||$165,021,000|
|Tax level (without youth)||-$1,318,367|
|Tax level (with youth)||-$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 ending below the luxury tax threshold when the league’s finances are finalized.
And thus, reports on a “mandate” coming from the highest levels of the organization to enable themselves to reap the financial gains that have arisen from reputable sources. In the end, it smacks of cynical reasoning – should it turn out to be correct – for an organizational masthead who claims to want nothing more than to win the biggest prize of all.
The Atlanta Hawks haven’t finished in the luxury tax since the 2011-12 season. And then the logic follows that since ownership changed hands in 2015, the Hawks have not yet finished with the tax. This places them among the four lowest tax expenditures in the NBA since 2001, according to Forbes. General Manager Landry Fields has publicly declared that he is capable of itand there is significant organizational step back from any proposal otherwisebut in the end actions will speak louder than words.
John Collins is owed $78.5 million over the next three years — should he pick up a player option for 2025-26 — while Rudy Gay picked up a $6.479 million player option for this season to greenlight the deal. 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 spot on. The Hawks got almost nothing but pure luxury tax breathing room in return, even setting aside the more competitively prohibitive new tax aprons introduced by the new collective agreement.
A different direction on the 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 hit 38% of his 3-pointers on three-plus attempts per game. match for 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 left him wearing 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, see opportunities in the post and dives and cuts to the rim. While there has been an increase 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 frontcourt has proven to be crowded offensively — though still productive. As mentioned earlier, the Young-Collins duo has been wildly productive since Young took over 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 combinations, 452 to 415.
With Trae Young running the show, spearheading a spread pick-and-roll-based offense, the spacing gets skewed when you introduce two roll men on the field instead of one. Collins has been largely cast as a stationary floor spacer when not involved in the play. For example, his corner three-point rate has increased every year in the Capela era beginning in 2019-20. That has resulted in unfortunate results once Collins ran into his shooting woes, as teams like Miami and Boston were able to adjust their defenses against perimeter traps and pack the paint during playoff series.
The drafting of Jalen Johnson and the acquisition of Saddiq Bey both precede Quin Snyder’s arrival in Atlanta. But both bring high-level skills on the offensive end that aren’t duplicated 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 offensive finishes. Those are two traits that 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 time with the Jazz, such as Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and funnily enough Rudy Gay.
This also helps explain the reported interest in two-time All-Star Pascal Siakam, whose point guard-like development of creation and passing skills has been tremendous for a 6-foot-9 player. While acquiring him remains largely ‘pie in the sky’ wishful thinking, this 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
Frankly, Rudy Gay and a future second rounder coming back to Atlanta are negligible returns for the largely financially driven move. Gay is 17 years old and has almost 35,000 NBA minutes under his belt. He’s also coming off the worst season of his pro career, shooting just 38% from the floor. And, as noted above, the second-round pick via Memphis is of little value to 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 on out — that they owned from the outgoing Justin Holiday trade to the Dallas Mavericks at the 2023 trade deadline. That trade happened to be 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 absorb Gay. The same process for John Collins here will also create a TPE of $25.34 million for Atlanta. This will give the Hawks an opportunity to acquire a player going forward as the TPE lasts up to a full year from its creation.
This can be a useful tool for bringing in a player purely by assuming their contract. As we enter a new era of financial maneuvering by teams trying to escape the dreaded tax aprons, Atlanta could be a destination for a player who makes that figure or less — assuming, of course, that it doesn’t bring the luxury tax into play.
John Collins has been a vocal leader on and off the field for the franchise, and rarely has anyone had a bad word to say about his boisterous personality. This reputation helped him win the first Sekou Smith Award in 2021 for professionalism and integrity in his media duties.
However, it should 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 the same offensive peak in the seasons since, though the presence of Clint Capela has certainly been a complicating factor.
Still, it’s important to note that much of John Collins’ recent value on the field 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 minutes two-man defense in 2020-21 (108.5 DRtg with minutes of at least 700).
That relentless effort, hustle and numerous other intangibles shouldn’t be overlooked, even as he suffered through the worst shooting slump of his career. Collins’ contributions won’t be replaced by (still non-existent) cap space, as the team has certainly deteriorated in many different facets over the past 24 hours.
Neither the sustained predicament like the actions of the Huerter and Collins trade sagas nor short-term bandaging will make Atlanta a place of constant contention. And reports continue to swirl about who is really in charge of the top of the organization. Monday was a sobering reality check for many about the business of running an NBA franchise — one where profit and profitability can often be at odds.
The Hawks will try to pick up the pieces by elevating young players like Bey and Johnson to bigger roles. And the TPE and luxury tax cap space gives the Hawks some flexibility to move forward and make moves. But as long as dollars ultimately rule the day, it will be difficult to have complete faith in the team’s ability to reach the mountaintop.