John Collins is a keeper for Hawks at NBA trade deadline

Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins, tries to pass while under pressure from Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, March 22, 2021, in Los Angeles. The Clippers won 119-110. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins, tries to pass while under pressure from Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, March 22, 2021, in Los Angeles. The Clippers won 119-110. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Credit: Mark J. Terrill

Credit: Mark J. Terrill

I can’t say the Hawks shouldn’t trade John Collins by Thursday’s deadline because I don’t know what offers they’ll receive. If there’s one that they truly can’t refuse, they obviously should take it. Only a few NBA players are indispensable, and Collins, a very good power forward, isn’t one of them.

Short of that kind of deal, the Hawks should keep Collins. That could mean they’ll have to pay Collins a maximum contract as a restricted free agent this summer. The question of whether Collins is worth that kind of money requires context. The better question is whether Collins, 23, is worth that kind of money to the Hawks.

Collins is averaging is 18.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game this season. Those numbers are down slightly from last season, but he’s getting fewer minutes and shots. Collins has posted a 59.1 effective field-goal percentage (accounts for value of 3-pointers). Only two players who’ve played more than 800 minutes have shot as efficiently while matching or exceeding Collins’ points and boards: Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Antetokounmpo has won the past two league MVP awards, and Jokic is favored to win the next one. Collins obviously isn’t on the same level as those two. But he’s a very good player in isolation, and a great fit for this Hawks team. That’s why they should pay what it takes to keep Collins beyond this season. I’m guessing that’s what general manager Travis Schlenk eventually will do.

ExploreJohn Collins on his future with Hawks: ‘I want to stay’

Collins and Hawks center Clint Capela form one of the better frontcourt duos in the NBA. They make it hard for opponents to score around the basket and effectively guard smaller players on switches. They put pressure on opponents by rolling to the basket and relentlessly attacking the rim. Those traits make them great running partners for Trae Young, the player who makes the Hawks go.

Trade Collins, and Capela still would be a very good anchor in the middle. Maybe a player the Hawks got back in a trade for Collins would make them better in some other way. But the Hawks have created good synergy with Capela, Collins and Young. Young thrives running pick-and-rolls with the threat of two quick-jumping big men catching his lobs. Collins’ 3-point shooting crates space for Young to operate.

Also important is that Collins and Capela help cover for Young’s defensive deficiencies. The Hawks have played great defense when Young is on the floor with both. The team’s defense is below-average when Young has been on the floor with Collins and without Capela, and not good when it’s Capela and not Collins. The defense has been awful the few times Young has played without either.

The Hawks are on a roll with those three players as part of their main core and Nate McMillan as coach. De’Andre Hunter is another essential part of the group. All other Hawks players probably could be traded away without disrupting the team’s dynamic. Sending Collins away risks messing up what the Hawks have going.

The Hawks (22-21) lost at the Clippers late Monday to end an eight-game winning streak. They still were tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference. The schedule is getting tougher, though. The Hawks need Collins, their second-leading scorer behind Young and most efficient big man.

Collins was Schlenk’s first draft pick as Hawks GM. He was an immediate hit as a springy big man around the basket. The next season Collins became a terrific pick-and-roll partner for Young. Collins since has developed into a true “stretch four” with good 3-point shooting accuracy. This year he’s improved his defense while adding some good scoring moves in the mid-post area.

If the Hawks can find a big man who can do all that for a cheaper price than Collins, fine. Even better if they can trade Collins for a power forward who can do those things plus make plays off the dribble. But why would any team trade such a player in the first place? The Hawks are unlikely to make a trade with Collins that upgrades their frontcourt.

The Hawks could use a dynamic guard to pair with Young. Reports have linked them to three good ones: Lonzo Ball, Victor Oladipo and Jaylen Brown. It would be great for the Hawks if they acquire one of those players without sending out Collins. Otherwise, better for the Hawks to take their current group to the postseason, see what they’ve got and then make moves this summer.

Collins will be the biggest decision for Schlenk to make this offseason. Schlenk has said the Hawks plan to make him a contract offer this summer. Collins will be free to sign an offer sheet that the Hawks have the right to match. The multiple teams reportedly looking to trade for Collins is the latest sign that he’s going to get a substantial offer as the top power forward on the market.

Collins has said more than once that he believes he’s earned a maximum deal. It would be weird if he said otherwise. Collins is an excellent, young player. Why sell himself short?

A comparable player, Pascal Siakam, signed a max extension with the Raptors in 2019 for four years and $130 million. Bam Adebayo, who is better than Collins, got $163 million over five years from the Heat in November. The Hawks signed Danilo Gallinari, a lesser and older power forward than Collins, for $61.5 million over three years.

ESPN reported in December that Collins turned down a $90 million extension offer from the Hawks that likely was for the standard four years. If that’s the case, the Hawks at the time viewed Collins as a $22.5 million per year player, not $30 million. That’s a big gap in opinions. What will ultimately matter for both parties is what other teams think of Collins.

If Collins doesn’t sign a max contract offer sheet, it still will be for much higher than the $22.5 million per year the Hawks reportedly offered. I’m thinking it will be, at worst, near the midpoint of Gallinari’s $20.5 million per year and Siakam’s $32.5 million. At least seven teams are projected to have enough cap space to absorb that kind of contract.

Re-signing Collins would put the Hawks over the salary cap for next season. Practically, that would mean the Hawks could offer two free-agent contracts over the minimum, one starting at about $9.5 million and another at $3.7 million. Realistically, the Hawks won’t add any contracts that put them over the luxury-tax threshold of about $136 million. They’d be about $5 million under if they signed Collins to a max deal.

That wouldn’t be a bad situation. The 10 Hawks players under contract for 2020-21 includes six who are contributing to the team’s recent good run. Hunter was playing well until knee surgery sidelined him from Feb. 1 until his return Monday night. Kris Dunn is likely to exercise his player option for 2020-21. Bring back Collins and keep the others, and the Hawks would have a nucleus of nine rotation players for next season with the ability to sign a solid free agent.

Maybe Schlenk receives an offer for Collins that’s so good that he can’t pass it up. If not, keeping Collins past the deadline leaves intact a team that’s on the come. Then the Hawks can re-sign Collins this summer and keep together a core that looks good enough to make another run at the playoffs next season.

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