Zach Collins entered the season as an important piece of the puzzle for San Antonio and a few games into the season, he has proved to be hugely important for the Silver and Black. Arguably, too important, especially when it comes to their attack.
The center has been able to fill a big role on offense well enough, but in order to make their system work, the Spurs are asking too much of a player who is better suited for less responsibility.
On defense, what’s demanded of Collins is simple enough and his limitations are clear. It’s on the other end that Collins has always been given more responsibility than expected. The results have not been necessarily bad, but it’s becoming clear that the team has reached a point of becoming over-reliant on their starting center. Collins averages the most front court touches per game out of everyone who wears Silver and Black. He’s ways ahead of Sochan, who is often only tasked with dribbling the ball upcourt. Anyone who has watched Spurs games knows how their offense looks for a lot of possessions. Collins gets the ball in the high post or top of the arc and the rest of the team starts cutting in hopes of getting a dime from the big man, who is a good passer, or going for a handoff. Those handoffs can and often do turn into pick-and-rolls. Collins ranks near the top of the league in screen assists, which shows that he does a good job of creating some room for others with his picks.
Collins is also asked to post up often for an offense that really likes to use that setting. As a team, the Spurs rank fifth in the league in possessions finished in the post, with Victor Wembanyama and Zach Collins ranking in the top 15 individually, according to Synergy Sports. Collins ranks 10th in the league in points per possession on the block and he’s a willing passer. With opponents sometimes putting the best defending big man on Wembanyama, the center gets to feast. Playing out of the post is also one of the best ways the Spurs have of getting buckets close to the basket, since their questionable spacing makes it hard to puncture the defense by hitting the pick-and-roll dive man and their lack of ball handlers who can go downhill leads them to take a lot of mid-range jumpers.
So far, it all sounds fine. There are two problems, though. First, Collins is good enough to play a big part on offense, but he shouldn’t be the engine he’s often been asked to be. Second, relying on Collins for points and asking him to play such a big part in the Spurs’ attack is a crutch used to prop up a system that probably isn’t the best for the current roster and needs some tweaks.
There’s a case to be made for a Collins post-up as one of the more reliable ways for the Spurs to get points, which is not a good sign. Going to the post as often as the Spurs do is just not a great recipe for good offense in the modern NBA, unless you have a dominant star like Jokic or Embiid. As good as Collins has been so far, he’s not at that level. It’s a way to attempt to get the defense moving and create an open look, and there are some times when a double comes, but the Spurs have enough non-shooters that any smart defense will leave someone open who might not be a huge threat to score. But the worst part is that when the Spurs throw the ball to the post a lot, their offense can become a little stagnant and predictable, and in those situations, they need Collins to bail them out. He does often enough, but when he’s not there, like we saw late against the Grizzlies when he was out with foul trouble, no one knows what to do.
Something similar happens when Collins operates from the perimeter. A lot of handoffs or pick-and-rolls go nowhere, which means the ball gets back to Collins, who then has to transition into a different handoff or a pick-and-roll. The issue is because the spacing is bad, Collins, who is a good dive man despite not having great athleticism, has to pop instead of rolling to give the ball handler more room more often than not. Unfortunately, since Collins is an inconsistent three-point shooter, his man will often wall off the paint. The Spurs’ starting center has finished more plays in the pick-and-pop than as a dive man and the numbers are not great. Collins is averaging what is by far a career-high in three-point attempts and only hitting 30 percent of them. He’s not a good bailout option for when the opponent simply packs the paint, but he’s forced to be one by the limitations of his peers and an offense that asks him to be a shooter.
To be clear, Collins is doing well on offense in general. As mentioned, he’s good in the post, he’s finding cutters and open men from the block and while his outside shooting needs to improve, it’s possible he gets there. The problem is the reason for his outsized role. The numbers might not bear it at first glance, but the Spurs are deeply reliant on Collins to make up for the lack of a traditional lead ball handler who can put pressure on the defense and get a good shot off when needed. What makes matters worse is that when he does a good job of it, he helps mask the issues of a system and some lineups that don’t really fit Victor Wembanyama all that well. It’s understandable for Gregg Popovich to stick to last year’s offense considering the roster and the limitations of some players, but the goal should be to build around Wemby. Right now, that vision is clearer when he plays outside of the system in which Collins shines.
It’s still early in the season. Wemby is still finding his place in the NBA and he already has the usage and the long leash of a star, so there’s no need to reconfigure the entire offense yet. In all honesty, going away from Collins when he has actually been one of the more reliable pieces would be hard to justify, thinking of the short term.
It’s fair to wonder, however, if a system that relies so much on a good but not great player like Collins to keep one of the worst offenses in the league afloat is the right one going forward.