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Peachtree Hoops: The Hawks need to answer questions of size in roster construction

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NBA: New York Knicks at Atlanta HawksJason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Hawks have a new front-court rotation, and here is a look at how this will inform their future roster construction.

With the NBA set to resume its 2019-20 season in Orlando in the coming weeks, many teams are beginning to plan for the future. Though the Atlanta Hawks are one of eight teams not living in the league’s “campus” environment at Walt Disney World, they are still working as hard as any other team when it comes to future-facing evaluation. They could also have a chance to experiment tactically in what some refer to as the ‘consolation bubble.’

As my colleague Andrew Kelly put a month ago, the mission for the Hawks is simple: acquire good basketball players. Seems simple, right? Well, many teams butcher this mission repeatedly, and the Hawks will have to hit in multiple areas to ensure this doesn’t happen.

Atlanta made a splash at the trade deadline to acquire Clint Capela. This is their most important move in some time for multiple reasons. The first reason is obviously that they acquired a high-caliber player. Capela will likely never make an All-Star Game, simply because a player of his archetype is not someone who will garner votes. In terms of impact on the court, though, it can be argued Capela has an impact on that level when healthy.

One of the other reasons this move is highly important, is it will shape their roster building in the near future. Capela’s arrival means the Hawks have a large investment at the center spot, but also a center that cannot shoot jump shots. This largely means that the Hawks cannot really afford another non-shooter as a key part of their rotation if they want to compete in the NBA in 2020, or take full advantage of the sheer gravity created by Trae Young.

One of the keys to having flexibility on the court is to be able to play tall, and to be able to play small. The Hawks did not have the ability to really experiment with ‘tall lineups’ involving Collins at the four in the 19-20 season. Outside of John Collins, the team’s big men were largely ineffective.

Advanced metrics for 2019-20 season

The bench unit was dismal, with the only really positive unit overall being Collins surrounded by Young, Huerter, Hunter and Reddish. This unit yielded a net rating of plus 6.1. Two perimeter-oriented guards with two three-and-D wings with a hyper efficient center is probably the optimal lineup you’d expect from a team in 2020. But Atlanta’s moves suggest they might be headed in a different direction.

Size is something that’s become massively undervalued across the NBA. The Warriors ‘lineup of death’ saw the majority of the NBA try to recreate this. The issue was, players like Draymond Green don’t grow on trees, few teams even got close to finding a small-ball center with the build of a power forward. With the Raptors victory last year, they showed how weaponizing size can lead to greatness.

The Raptors evolved this year and while they still do run with size, the key element of their roster is simple- versatility. If you read the tea leaves from inside the organisation, there is little to suggest that they want to move on from Collins or use him as a trade piece to acquire another star. At the minimum, they will roll with Collins for the 20-21 season unless an offer absolutely blows them away. They will have a chance to roll out one of the most versatile rosters in the NBA.

They could smother you with the size of Capela and Collins to open a game, and create immense internal gravity to complement Young’s ‘logo gravity’ that he already creates at just 21-years old. They can also hit you with a four-out, one-in lineup consisting of Capela surrounded by the core four perimeter players consisting of Young, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter. If Collins is in at the center, the Hawks can hit you with a five-out lineup.

With the arrival of Capela to supplement Collins, the Hawks have the chance to experiment greatly with versatility across the board, and Collins will need to adapt his game in multiple ways for this to work. What is comforting is that he not only knows this, but clearly believes that the move will benefit him.

Collins’ comments during his mid-June exit interview suggest he sees power forward as a natural position, and he also believes that the size that a partnership with Capela creates will give the Hawks an advantage.

“Size is just something you can’t teach,” Collins said. “I can’t be bigger than Joel Embiid, or Steven Adams or Aron Baynes. It’s almost near impossible, I do my best to guard the guys when I can or when the time comes for us to play small-ball, situational stuff. I definitely feel like having Clint (Capela) to be a true 5 puts me back in my position, allows things to run smoother and allows us to be in our true and natural (positions), so hopefully it works and flows like I’m envisioning in my mind.”

Defensively, the Hawks can throw a lot of different types of defensive strategies at you. I would imagine with Capela and Collins they run a drop coverage scheme. Collins has shown a lot of promise as a helping blocker. He struggled for the most part as the drop defender in the lineups where he was surrounded by the wings. He had solid judgement when paired with Jones or Dedmon as the inside defender, even if the other side of the ball was putrid.

With Collins at the four, it will be intriguing to see if the Hawks switch things 1-4 or keep Collins inside as a helper by instructing all their players to stay disciplined and fight through screens. The Hawks may be more aggressive and experimental if Capela is supported from the wing positions by Reddish and Hunter. Either way, the options to play more than one way are clearly there now, and Collins’ is arguably a lot better suited as a rotator as opposed to a core big man defensive role. Below is a compilation of some of his timing blocks.

The Hawks will get a good look at Collins and Capela as a pairing both in the consolation bubble and next year. If the Hawks opt to pay Collins, they are likely locking up around $40 million per year or more in two big men. It’s a big investment, but the Hawks have two highly skilled players who offer different things and most importantly, give them multiple in game options.

The Toronto Raptors have given a roster building masterclass in the last two years. Nick Nurse can throw out multiple types of lineup, and the success rates are high with most of them. The ability to do multiple things is likely what teams are going to try and emulate. The size is pivotal, as it’s smothering and exceedingly difficult to play against.

At the moment, Atlanta is set to deploy a rotation of big men that is more than solid on paper. They can still run the double drag sets with Dedmon and Collins, and there is potential for Collins to form a different type of partnership with Capela. Double drags would likely not be super effective as it’s obvious Capela isn’t going to ‘pop’ or ‘slip’ to the perimeter, so it’s easier to defend. But Collins believes he can develop his playmaking in order to fully complement Capela.

Within the same exit interview in mid-June, Collins noted his ball-handling as an area of improvement, saying he is “just trying to tighten it up and get it crisp.” He even mentioned the fact he’s going to try and throw lobs. This is potentially a key development for this pairing working at a high level.

It’s not necessarily about throwing lobs, but Collins needs to be able to consistently attack and perform a sort of instant offense role, or he will merely be reduced to being a stretch four. Collins is immensely hardworking, and knows that he will need to be a facilitator and someone who attacks downhill and provides even more room for Capela to be a lob threat.

This is important because if Collins can develop his game further, then the Hawks have a serious advantage in terms of roster construction. Most teams that have to go big often lack the floor spacing to make it work. But Collins is an excellent shooter and he is already aware of how he can develop to provide interior spacing for his team-mates on the perimeter, and Capela inside. Essentially, the Hawks can have a three-point bombing back-court led by Young and paired with two hyper-athletic big men, one of whom is improving as a shooter year-by-year. If this experiment doesn’t yield the positive results Collins expects from it, then it’s likely that for the near future, the Hawks will surround Capela with a small-ball lineup.

At a pivotal stage of their rebuild, Travis Schlenk has provided the Hawks with tools necessary for head coach Lloyd Pierce to experiment and work out the teams identity. Some, especially outside Atlanta, see Collins as potentially expendable at some point. I’m personally not going to bet against him, as his work ethic is insane, and he has improved every single year, proving doubters wrong up until now.

The Hawks, as of now, still need to add quality basketball players to the roster, but the team’s frontcourt rotation at least gives Atlanta some lineup flexibility, which can help their core group of young players continue their growth.

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