The Hawks found a Swiss Army Knife to play alongside their Swiss Center

Collins and Capela have developed into a stingy defensive tandem
Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Story by K.L. Chouinard (@KLChouinard)

For the past two seasons, one of the most enjoyable things about the Atlanta Hawks was Trae Young and John Collins working together in the pick-and-roll.

Whether the play ended with Collins slipping behind the defense for a dunk or Trae driving to kiss a layup off the glass, the pair leveraged it to great success in the 2019-20 season. Trae made his first All-Star Game as a starter while finishing 4th in the NBA in scoring and 2nd in assists. Collins elevated to rare air by averaging 20.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game while shooting over 60 percent on twos and 40 percent on threes.

As a result, it certainly vibes weirdly that Collins is finishing fewer pick-and-rolls this season. 

Last season, Collins finished 5.2 pick-and-roll plays per game, the third-highest number in the NBA. This season, that number has been cut in half: 2.6 per game.

I am once again asking a very important question. Why?

The answer is that the Hawks needed to incorporate center Clint Capela into the offense – and the reason Capela had to be worked into the offense is because he changes the game entirely on defense.
 
Last season, the Hawks finished 28th in the NBA with a defensive rating of 114.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. For a team with playoff aspirations, a 28th-ranked defense will not suffice.

This season, the Hawks rank 8th with a defensive rating of 107.3.

And in the 211 minutes that Capela and Collins have played together, the Hawks have posted a defensive rating of 97.1, making them the stingiest two-man combo in the East with 200 or more minutes played. The Hawks also lead the NBA in offensive rebounds per game. In short, Capela and Collins have played bully ball in the paint.

On Wednesday against Detroit, Capela had 27 points, 26 rebounds and 5 blocks, becoming the ninth player in NBA history – and the first since Shaquille O'Neal in 2004 – to post a game with 25+ points, 25+ rebounds and 5+ blocks. Collins had 31 points and 11 rebounds.

For what it's worth, most of the adaptation for making things work has fallen on John Collins' shoulders.

"It's an adjustment for John. It's probably not an adjustment for Clint," Head Coach Lloyd Pierce said. "As people go small, we're going to try to find ways to go big."

Here is a play that shows a number of the adjustments that Collins has had to implement. First, you'll see Collins and Capela set successive screens on the perimeter for Trae. Then Capela rolls to the rim while Collins pops to the three-point line, a setup that happens more often than not because Capela isn't a three-point shooter and Collins is.

When Trae gets stuck, Collins helps out by taking a handoff and driving into a Eurostep finish. That last bit is necessary because Capela's offensive home base is often the baseline area and, in this instance, he is on the same side of the lane as Collins.

Pierce says that because the spacing is a delicate balance, the thorniest plays have been the impromptu ones, and a more careful scripting of the offense has helped.

"You study the film and you see that Clint ends up in a spot that you don't want him to be when you're playing random. We changed some of the spacing to some of the stuff we were running last year, and it's really why you saw Clint get three dunks (against the 76ers Jan. 11)."

As the person with the biggest responsibility for guiding pieces into place on offense, point guard Trae Young mostly just marvels at his options.

"They make my job easy," he said. "For me, it's all about making the right play. I know somebody should be open on almost every play, especially when I'm in a pick-and-roll with those guys. Their rolls draw so much attention. It's fun playing with those guys, and they make my job a lot easier. They roll hard and they've been playing really well."

Having a second big on defense helps in a number of small ways that add up to something big. When either Collins or Capela is brought into defending an opponent's pick-and-roll action, the other is usually sitting low on the opposite baseline waiting to decide whether to help or stay home. If help is needed, it's going to be a legitimate contest at the rim. If the shot is missed, that same weakside defender sits in an excellent position to rebound, preventing a high-percentage tip-in opportunity.

Having two bigs helps in transition defense as well. Again, the Hawks lead the NBA in offensive rebounds per game. Part of what makes that equation function is that when one of the duo makes multiple efforts at tipping the ball to themselves, the other retreats to function as the anchor of the transition defense.

And again, the key to making it all work has been Collins' versatility. Yes, he can certainly function as a rim protector, but one of the Collins/Capela pairing is going to end up guarding a non-center. Collins has made that arrangement work by improving his perimeter defense. Pierce said that it was most noticeable in the back-to-back games against Brooklyn where Collins did a credible job against Kevin Durant.  

The 2020-21 season is going to be one of adjustment for Collins. His game is going to look different. His numbers are going to look different. His shapeshifting role necessitates a statistical viewpoint that takes into consideration his many responsibilities and competencies. Through 14 games, his motor has been as high as any Hawk in terms of effort and high-energy consistency.

Collins himself is ready to do whatever the task requires, presenting himself as a Swiss Army knife ready to pair with his Swiss center counterpart.

"I really feel that the biggest thing is us being able to have a yin-and-yang relationship with (Capela) being able to dominate around the rim and myself obviously trying to improve on all areas of my game. I feel like for me the next step is to do what I'm doing now and space out on the perimeter, start making some plays, and be able to create that space for both of us to work together."

Of course, John Collins, Professional Roll Man, hasn't gone anywhere. After the first game against Brooklyn, Durant paid him the highest of compliments. "John Collins is probably the best in the league at slipping out of screens."

The Hawks still plan to use him in that role; it's just that Danilo Gallinari has only played two games due to injury, and Collins has spent less time at center next to a floor-spacing power forward.

"When we started the year, it was John and Gallo, and our spacing was different," Pierce said. "You could just open the floor up and put a lot of guys in different positions because we had shooting on the floor."

Collins and Gallinari have played a grand total of 16 minutes together this season. In those minutes, the Hawks have outscored their opponents by 23 points. If that is a small-statistical-sample bonanza, it is a promising one.

A lot of basketball remains to be played. John Collins is ready to roll with whatever style of play his team needs.

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