In the summer of 2016, the rebuilding Boston Celtics snagged one of their prime free agent targets in Al Horford. The big-man from Atlanta was a fundamental factor in the Hawks impressive 2015 season, which saw four players from their roster become All-Stars while the team posted a 60-22 season.
Horford’s style of play was a perfect fit with coach Brad Stevens’ brand of basketball, where the big can operate as a functional playmaker outside the arc. Stevens likes to use a big on the outside to cause mismatches on driving opportunities, where the scoring and passing threat posed by the big man causes defensive adjustments as the wing players relocate. On defense, Horford was just as effective, using his high basketball IQ to shut down opposing teams on a nightly basis. Giannis Antetokounmpo still has nightmares about him.
Alas, this past summer Horford left for pastures new in search of the elusive NBA championship ring. The loss of Horford left a considerable void in the current Celtics roster, a void which could only be filled by a hockey-style rotation of big men. However, the fact that it took three players to replace Horford should speak volumes to the quality and versatility of Big Al’s game.
While the Celtics do have some project big men such as Robert Williams and Grant Williams, along with the steadying hand of Daniel Theis, there is currently no apparent long-term successor to Horford on the roster. Robert Williams has shown an encouraging passing ability, along with his shot-blocking and rim running that makes him a force on both ends of the floor, but his inability to stay on the floor clouds his future and how high his ceiling could be.
Grant Williams has been another name mentioned which makes sense due to Grant’s high basketball IQ and calm demeanor on the floor. However, Grant projects more as a four than a five due to his lack of height and leaping ability. It doesn’t seem feasible to expect him to play prolonged minutes at the five position throughout a season, small-ball or not. Instead, Grant would better serve as a primary four who can slide up to the five depending on matchups and rotations.
With neither of the Williamses projecting as the long term future of the Celtics five position, it’s time they began to cast their eyes around the league for someone who fits the system and culture Stevens has built. In a twisted sense of irony, their eyes should once again fall firmly at the door of the Atlanta Hawks with John Collins.
The 6’10’ big-man is in his third NBA season and has steadily progressed each year, slowly earning himself the starting role for his team. Similar to Horford, Collins is utilized as a four but has the potential to operate at the five position given the right supporting cast.
Collins would be the prototypical modern-day center the Celtics need, capable of shooting from deep, rolling hard to the basket, and being active on the defensive end. Adding Collins to the roster would provide the necessary spacing to allow the Celtics athletic wings room to drive into the teeth of opposing defenses. Collins is an elite three-point shooter, who is currently dropping 41 percent of his non-corner threes and 37 percent from the corners, ranking in the 87th percentile of sharp-shooting bigs (both fours and fives) per Cleaning the Glass.
Imagine the Celtics running dribble hand-offs with Collins as the big, the shooter’s gravity he possesses coupled with that of Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum would give defenses nightmares, as would the pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll. Offensively, John Collins would elevate this Celtics team to new heights and provide them with a real death lineup that could blow teams out of the gym with regularity.
Collins is more than just an outside shooter, though, which is why he would be such a fantastic long-term replacement for Horford. He’s an electric roll man who currently sits second among bigs for field goal percentage on 200 or more possessions, shooting 60.9 percent on 208 rolls to the rim according to Synergy.
The Celtics have become far less focused on pace this season, sitting at 17th in the league according to NBA Stats, while the Hawks are sitting at 6th. Collins is used to playing at pace, with the ball propelled at tempo on the break; adding him to the Celtics lineup could result in them pushing the speed more, which allows for easier buckets in transition.
While Collins is primarily an offensive weapon, his defense has been steadily improving with each passing season. No longer susceptible to hard drives inside, Collins now closes out on slashers with confidence and regularity, shutting down accessible opportunities at the rim. A natural increase in strength now means that Collins is no longer susceptible to being bullied down on the low block, which gives him confidence when being switched onto a more prominent opponent.
On the glass, Collins has made improvements year after year, culminating in a double-double average of 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game for him this season. For reference, the leading rebounder on the Celtics this season is Enes Kanter, with 7.7 per game, according to Fox Sports. The rebounding numbers indicate that Collins would be an upgrade on the defensive glass while looking to push the pace following an opponent’s miss, which would suit the Celtics roster as currently constructed.
Acquiring Collins wouldn’t be an easy task for Boston. Atlanta seems enamored with the “scoring from everywhere” approach, opting to draft high-level shooters across all positions over the last few years. That drafting process had a defined strategy, which is now questionable due to their decision to trade for Clint Capela. While Capela offers the Hawks a different dynamic in terms of vertical spacing and presence down-low, he directly impedes the style of basketball the front office envisioned when their rebuild started.
Capela’s presence on the roster could be a beacon of light to Boston, as Atlanta may now be more receptive to trade discussions. With Collins due to earn a salary of $4,137,302 next season, he is well within reach for the Celtics to put together an enticing trade package. With young projects such as Romeo Langford, Carsen Edwards, Grant Williams, and Robert Williams to choose from along with some current and future draft picks, the Hawks could become enticed to sitting at the negotiation table.
For Boston, an example of a trade that would be beneficial to both teams would be Romeo Langford + picks for John Collins. Langford projects as a reliable bench scorer in the league who is active and engaged on defense; unfortunately, for him, the Celtics are stacked at his position making regular minutes hard to come by. If this is not to the Hawks liking, then a more defense based trade could be centered around Robert Williams and Semi Ojeleye and picks for Collins, which would also successfully meet the cap requirements for both teams.
In terms of draft picks, this year projects to be the final year of the “treasure chest,” which Danny Ainge stocked up during the rebuild. From next season, assuming both the Milwaukee and Memphis picks convey this year, the Celtics will only control their picks for the foreseeable future. Managing the franchise’s future picks should remain paramount, which makes moving one or more of this year’s picks enticing, perhaps coupling them with a future second.
With Collins still being on his rookie-scale contract, and the Celtics having the opportunity to offer an extension should a trade materialize before the October extension deadline, this trade could be the final piece to Boston’s long-term championship puzzle. A sharp-shooting big man who can control the boards, run the floor and attack the rim, Collins can do everything Stevens looks for in a big-man. With a few more years of development the Celtics would not only have replaced Horford, they would have surpassed him.