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Should the Rockets trade for John Collins?

The young combo big has been linked the Houston lately. Is he a good target?

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NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Houston Rockets
Is Collins the right target for the Rockets?
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The idiom “sitting on the fence” is an oddly appropriate one.

On a surface level, it makes sense. There are two sides to a debate and a fence dividing them. You can’t decide, so you’re on the fence. Here’s the other thing about sitting on a fence:

It’s uncomfortable.

Everyone wants you to take a side. Sometimes, you just can’t. You see both sides too clearly. So you just sit there with a fence post up your you-know-what, staring longingly at two equally comfortable-looking coaches on either side. How can you choose?

On a related note — should the Rockets trade for John Collins?

Collins is in the rumor mill — again

The Hawks have been looking to trade Collins from time immemorial. Well, for as long as his contract extension has been in place, anyway.

His role has been decreasing on an annual basis. If the Hawks had moved him two seasons ago, they could have received a bounty. Now, they'd be lucky to receive a pittance.

(Take notes, Rafael Stone).

Of course, Collins’ situation raises a lot of questions. Why is he declining? What’s he worth now, and should the Rockets pay it? Is he a good fit with this group, and as the worst team in the NBA, does that matter?

Let’s dive in.

Why is Collins declining?

Honestly, there’s nothing complicated about this. Collins plays alongside one of the most singular heliocentric hubs in the NBA in Trae Young. He’s also a roll man playing alongside another roll man in Clint Capela. If he’s not gobbling up a sizeable percentage of Atlanta’s pick-and-roll (or pop) possessions, he isn’t doing much. Now that the Hawks have added Dejounte Murray, Collins is a total afterthought.

With that context in mind, I don’t think it’s fair to judge Collins on his production this season. At the same time, isolating his best season wouldn’t exactly make for a sound scientific method, either.

Let’s look at both.

What is Collins’ on-court value?

Collins’ best season so far came in 2019-20. The basic counting stats are impressive enough: Collins averaged 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds on a blistering 65.9 True Shooting percentage (TS%).

A deeper dive suggests an even more valuable player. Per BBall Index, Collins ranked in the 97.6th percentile in the NBA in TS% that year. He ranked in the 99th percentile in Points Per Possession (PPP). Finally, he was in the 97.5th percentile in Index’s Stable P&R Roll Man PPP metric.

Collins isn’t just a roll man, either. That season, he shot 40.1 percent from long range on 3.6 attempts per game. This man was an efficiency monster, A combo big who can roll or pop out of pick-and-roll actions is a rare player. Think Christian Wood, only with decent defense (in other words, think Christian Wood after leaving the Rockets — obviously).

Of course, this season paints a much uglier picture. Collins is averaging 13.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game on a pedestrian 58.9 TS%. He’s not cracking the 65th percentile in any of the Index metrics referenced above.

What do we make of all this? Is it safe to assume that Collins will never be one of the most efficient offensive players in the NBA again? No — but it isn't safe to assume he will be, either.

What should the Rockets part with for such a confusing player?

What is Collins’ trade value?

Kelly Iko of The Athletic recently proposed a framework (subscription required) that would send Collins to Houston.

I hold Iko in high regard. He’s a Dream Shake alum and a strong writer who’s done very well for himself. I say that to say this: I do not like the trade he’s proposing in this piece.

In summary, Iko has the Rockets sending out their 2025 lottery-protected first-round pick and their unprotected 2027 Brooklyn Nets pick swap along with Eric Gordon and Kenyon Martin Jr. in exchange for Collins and a 2026 lottery-protected first-round pick from the Suns.

This would be a three-team deal that sends Jae Crowder, Dario Saric and Landry Shamet to the Hawks along with that draft capital, with Gordon and Martin heading for Phoenix.

Personally, I value that particular Brooklyn pick too highly to flip it for a player who’s averaging 13 and 8 on mediocre efficiency right now. Picks from contenders increase in value as they convey further away — the Nets could be anywhere by 2027. I’d also argue that the Hawks shouldn’t expect so much for Collins. They’ve tanked his trade value by decreasing his usage.

With all of that in mind, I think Gordon, Martin and the Rockets’ upcoming first-round pick from the Bucks ought to be the price. We’re not going to waste time asking if it’s worth sending Gordon out — moving him is an overwhelmingly obvious benefit here. The Bucks’ pick is going to convey somewhere between 25 and 30 — it’s an asset, but the Rockets can live without it.

So the question becomes whether the Rockets should flip Martin for Collins. Superficially, they’re comparable players. Both are hyper-athletic forwards that provide at least some floor spacing. At the same time, they use different means to achieve similar ends. Where Collins is more of a pick-and-roll finisher, Martin is more inclined to cut for his ferocious dunks.

Using BBall Index again, Martin is in the 92nd percentile in Rim Shot Quality this season, but only the 58th percentile in Rim Shot Creation. In other words, he’s great at getting to the bucket, but he’s not so good once he actually gets there.

Let’s get a bit less granular. Martin is averaging 11.2 points on a 62 TS% this year. That’s great. It doesn’t necessarily indicate that he’ll ever match Collins’ combination of volume and efficiency from 2019-20 either.

Of course, we’re not just comparing these players in a vacuum. It’s worth asking whether Collins fits with this current Rockets roster.

That’s not to say it necessarily matters. One could argue that it doesn't — this is the worst team in the NBA. Still, there’s the framework of a fun group here. It probably starts with Alperen Sengun.

Martin is probably a better fit with him, too. A cutter compliments a low-post passing hub more than a roll man: surely, the Rockets won’t be using Sengun as a pick-and-roll ball-handler very often, right?

I know. This is one play. It’s not ironclad proof that Sengun should be on the giving end of pick-and-rolls routinely.

On the other hand — why not? Moreover, is there anything in Collins’ athletic profile that suggests he can’t be an elite cutter? There is not. Collins fits with Sengun.

I think he fits with Jabari Smith Jr. as well. Smith is an interchangeable forward — someday, he might be an interchangeable frontcourt player, period. No worries there.

More broadly, the Rockets probably shouldn’t be worrying about fit anyway. If they draft Scoot Henderson, they could get freaky with Collins as the full-time five. It may be most rational to (ducks incoming throwing knife) trade Sengun if they’re drafting an offensive engine.

If that’s true, the last consideration is Collins’ contract. He’s making $23 to $26 million through 2025-26. That’s a pretty penny.

Isn’t it? Well, with the cap ready to spike, it’s not as much as it looks like. More broadly, there’s no such thing as a bad sub-max contract anymore. Free agency is dead. Star players today just sign any old max and demand a trade when they want to change teams. A team acquires them by sending out two or three contracts along with four or five draft picks.

The Rockets are going to need mid-level contracts like this one moving forward. Sure, they could just give one to Martin, but the point holds — this isn't a reason to avoid Collins.

Should the Rockets pull the trigger here?

Should the Rockets trade for Collins?

What a large number of words to culminate in a big fat “I don’t know”.

Well, that’s a little reductive. Here’s where I land:

Gordon, Martin, and the Bucks pick for Collins = good.

Gordon, Martin, a protected first, and an unprotected swap for Collins, and a protected first = bad.

Anything else? I’m not sure. Comfortable or not, I’m on the fence.