When it comes to the fast-approaching March 25 trade deadline, one name keeps popping up: John Collins.
“He’s my dream Celtics pickup,” said podcast host and avowed Boston Celtics fan Bill Simmons in a Sunday conversation with veteran NBA insider Jackie MacMullan.
Through 34 games, the 6-foot-9, 235-pound Atlanta Hawks power forward, who will be a restricted free agent after the season, is averaging 18.1 points on 54.1% from the floor and 39.0% on 3.5 three-point attempts a game. His 7.6 rebounds may appear just average, except that he plays next to Clint Capela, the NBA’s leading rebounder. Last season, without Capela, Collins pulled down 10.1 boards a game.
“John Collins is a really good young basketball player,” said MacMullan, the former Boston Globe columnist who was a guest on Simmons’ show The Bill Simmons Podcast. “He’s 23 years old, he averages almost a double-double. He’s bouncy and he’s betting on himself.”
In December, Collins turned down a $90 million contract extension with Atlanta, preferring to take his chances on the free-agent market this offseason. In light of Atlanta’s recent moves though — they acquired Capela at last season’s trade deadline, drafted power forward Unyoke Okongwu number six in the 2020 draft, and signed Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic this offseason — not to mention Collins’ reported feud with anointed point guard Trae Young, it appears the Hawks are willing to let Collins walk.
Aside from the fact that Atlanta can’t possibly afford all those players and a big new contract for Collins, the Hawks’ willingness to wave goodbye to Collins is a decision that doesn’t make sense to MacMullan.
“I don’t either,” agreed MacMullan, responding to Simmons’ comment that he doesn’t understand why the Hawks are “lukewarm” on Collins. “I’ve interviewed him a bunch of times. He’s polite, he’s engaging. I think he’s fantastic. Doesn’t mind speaking his mind, he and Trae go at each other. I think it helps the team when they do that.”
Given Collins’ extension refusal and Atlanta’s subsequent cold shoulder, Celtic trade rumors have swirled of late. And though some have devised creative ways to bring Collins in, MacMullan is unequivocal on whether she thinks the Celtics would part with the necessary assets.
“Oh yeah, it’s never happening,” MacMullan said. “No way, no way. (Jayson) Tatum and (Jaylen) Brown are off limits.”
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TPE Pressure Mounts
For about a month now, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge, has expressed a desire to trade for “shooting with size.” And while many names, like Collins, have been floated, Ainge hasn’t shown much enthusiasm one way or the other, at least not publicly.
The Celtics are in the enviable yet pressure-packed position of owning the largest traded player exception in NBA history –– $28.5 million, the result of a sign-and-trade that sent Gordon Hayward to Charlotte this last offseason. The exception expires in November and many believe it can provide a massive boost to Boston’s flagging season.
But Ainge, who took over decision-making duties for the Celts in 2003, has indicated that he is fine to wait until after the season to use deploy Hayward’s TPE. His reluctance to make a move, even as the Celtics have struggled to stay above .500, has spurred much debate –– and anger –– in Beantown.
In fact, according to Simmons and MacMullan, not making a move, or making the wrong move, could have an effect on Ainge’s future with the organization if the Celtics continue their losing ways. That said, MacMullan doesn’t believe Celtics ownership is ready to make any earth-shattering decisions just yet.
“Ownership isn’t thrilled, they’re not happy, but I don’t think they’re ready to lop everybody’s head off,” MacMullan told Simmons.
Orlando Big Man Could Fit the Bill
Another name that has been mentioned as a possible trade target for the Celtics is Orlando’s three-point-shooting big man Nikola Vucevic.
The Swiss-born 30-year-old is having a monster year for the Magic, but at 13-22 the organization could look to shop Vucevic in return for a couple of first-round draft picks.
In one scenario laid out by Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes, the Celtics could conceivably get Vucevic without using the Hayward TPE by sending a 2023 first-round pick and 2025 first-round pick to Orlando and unloading a small, expiring contract to the Knicks in exchange for a top-40 protected second-round pick.
Vucevic, who still has two years left on his descending current contract ($26 million this season, $24 million next, and $22 million in 2022-23, according to Spotrac) would certainly fit Ainge’s “shooting with size” bill. He’s averaging 24.5 points and 11.7 rebounds this season, and spreading the floor like never before with 41.8% from three on 6.4 attempts a game.
Even so, Simmons is not so sure Vucevic (or anybody) would matter to the Celts this season. With Brooklyn flexing big-time muscles behind James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Simmons fears nothing can be done to stop them.
“The fear with the Celtics is, that whatever the move is, it’s still not gonna matter,” said Simmons. “Because Brooklyn, from a talent standpoint, is the most talented team that has been in that conference in four years. Put Vucevic on there, does it matter?”