We know one thing to be true about the Atlanta Hawks: They expect this roster, coaching staff and front office to reach the postseason for the first time since the 2016-17 season. Read between the lines, and head coach Lloyd Pierce characterized this as a playoffs-or-bust campaign in December.
"We should be in a position where we're a playoff team," he told SiriusXM NBA Radio. "We should be in a position where we're a top team in the East. That's the belief we have to have, or else we're in a world of trouble."
The Hawks handed out a combined $158.4 million to Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn in free agency. However, they didn't reach an agreement on an extension with fourth-year big man John Collins before the season opener.
How this year's outcome impacts Collins of course remains to be seen. Those stalled negotiations ended in uncertainty, enough that could come to a head prior to the March 25 trade deadline.
"Atlanta's not in love with him," said one front office executive.
There's a sentiment among league personnel that Atlanta didn't seriously engage Collins' representatives this offseason. These conversations are never linear; they always involve a back-and-forth between agents and teams. But this particular discussion never made much advancement, league sources said. The Hawks always preferred a shorter-term deal, including various structures of three-year agreements, while Collins' camp is said to have eyed a five-year framework.
League sources said Collins never seriously entertained the four-year deal "in excess of $90 million" that ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported Atlanta offered. Dating back to last March, the 23-year-old has consistently stated his desire for a far richer deal.
"I definitely feel like I am in max contract contention," he told Chris Kirschner of The Athletic.
Under the projected $112.4 million salary cap for 2021-22, a four-year max for Collins would be worth nearly $126 million. Atlanta never seemed keen to bridge that gap this offseason, sources said.
The numbers work in Collins' favor. While he played only 41 games last year, he and Karl-Anthony Towns were the only two players to average more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting at least 40 percent from three. Collins' production has dropped a bit this season, but his outside stroke is still hovering around that elite 40 percent mark. And he's as vaunted of a lob threat in pick-and-rolls as he is popping beyond the arc. Collins may very well be a new-age Amar'e Stoudemire with an additional outside shot.
You'll be hard-pressed to find personnel unconvinced of his offensive output. For Collins skeptics who don't believe he can play long stretches at the 5, he's become enough of an outside threat to survive long term at the 4.
"As he progresses shooting the ball and can play next to [Clint] Capela, there's a difference between 5s and guys who can play in big-big lineups," one general manager said.
Debate on Collins' position appears to have clouded Atlanta's long-term evaluation of him. With Trae Young presenting an even squeakier wheel on the perimeter, the Hawks don't seem to believe Collins is capable of anchoring a defense as a full-time center.
The off-court dynamic between Collins and Young has been overblown, league sources said. Young was disappointed that a contentious January film room interaction became public, but the two centerpieces of Atlanta's offense regularly study and critique film with one another, and they have morphed into one of the league's more dangerous pick-and-roll pairings.
"It's only natural to have a little jealousy," said one front office member. "Even between friends that happens. Even if you like someone personally, business can get in the way."
The defensive concerns are far more real. Teams can only forfeit so much on that end of the floor, and the Hawks' recent additions—both Capela and their free-agent signings—were aimed to address those shortcomings. Atlanta now sits 18th in defense after finishing 28th last year. Collins has shown flashes of rim protection, and there's a belief among many in the league that he's already made significant strides guarding across the board this year.
"I don't see why [Collins] can't be part of a good defense," the general manager added. "I just don't think he can drive a good defense."
But the Hawks also drafted to compensate for Collins and Young's defensive deficiencies. They selected Kevin Huerter with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2018 draft, hoping to grow the Maryland product into a two-way wing. They doubled down in 2019 by landing both De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish in the first 10 picks. Collins is merely the earliest of those five first-rounders to become extension-eligible, and Atlanta might be the latest to suffer from an under-discussed side effect to tanking.
"The fundamental problem of team-building is you pay your guys for numbers before they help you win," an executive said.
That seems to explain why Atlanta made Huerter available in trade conversations prior to the 2020 draft, favoring the long-term prospects of Reddish and Hunter instead. Huerter also becomes eligible for his own rookie extension this summer, and the Hawks sniffed far and wide for a return on him and the No. 6 pick, which they spent on Onyeka Okongwu. (That selection should also indicate how they feel about Collins.)
But choosing one youngster over another can be a tricky dance. Reddish is shooting only 26.2 percent from deep this season, and Atlanta briefly removed him from the starting lineup in mid-January. Hunter is expected to be sidelined for several weeks with a knee injury, while Huerter has emerged as the starting lineup's bona fide third option in his absence. Rival teams now have little sense that Huerter is available on the trade market.
"There is a certain amount of redundancy that you like," said the general manager. "You call that insurance—or shooting."
Even still, the Hawks only have so much money to go around, especially if they fall short of their postseason goal. A mere appearance in the play-in tournament probably won't suffice, either, and Atlanta currently sits 11-16, tied with the Miami Heat for 10th in the East.
Injuries have undeniably hampered the Hawks. In addition to Hunter's ongoing absence, Gallinari, Bogdanovic and Rondo have all missed significant time, while Dunn has yet to log a minute as he recovers from ankle surgery.
Winning would surely help Atlanta's developing math problem.
"If they get healthy and charge for the fifth seed, it's really easy to pay everybody," said one executive.
Even if they don't, there's an expectation that the Hawks won't look to move Collins prior to the trade deadline. But rival teams have certainly gotten the impression that Atlanta is open to trading him.
The lack of progress during his early extension talks did push the Hawks and Collins' representatives to consider trade options at that time, league sources said. However, moving Collins in December wouldn't have netted equivalent value for the Hawks.
Collins is now set to enter restricted free agency this offseason. There's a sense around the league that Atlanta won't just let Collins walk, unlike what the Sacramento Kings did when Bogdanovic signed the Hawks' offer sheet. If he does agree to terms with another team, expect the Hawks to work some form of sign-and-trade.
"They're gonna make sure they get something for him," said one executive.
Plenty of teams will have max cap space available for a market that no longer will include star free agents such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert or Paul George. Jrue Holiday appears destined to stay put in Milwaukee as well.
"Will teams feel forced to go spend, or will they be prudent and save some money and stretch it over the next year?" said another assistant general manager. "Just because you have money and you're at the dollar store doesn't mean you have to spend it."
Collins, though, is far from a knock-off. His production is inarguable. His shooting has been fully weaponized. Will that growth continue in Atlanta?
"He's made it clear he wants the max," said one league source. "And I have no reason to believe he won't get it from someone."