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Does John Collins’s PED Suspension Signal a Larger Change in the NBA?

The Hawks forward is the third player to be given a 25-game ban this season for violating the league’s antidrug policy

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Hey, Hawks fans: I’ve got good news and bad news. Which one do you want first? The good news? OK, cool: Trae Young’s back! Yep, after missing two games with that gnarly ankle sprain he suffered against the Heat last week, the rising star point guard’s going to be in the lineup for Atlanta against the Spurs on Tuesday, according to Yahoo’s Chris Haynes. Great!

Hmm? What’s that? Oh, right. The bad news: When Young returns, he won’t have frontcourt running buddy John Collins to pass to, because the third-year forward just got popped with a 25-game suspension for violating the NBA and NBPA’s joint antidrug policy prohibiting the use of performance-enhancing drugs. He’ll be eligible to return on December 23 for Atlanta’s meeting with the Cavaliers.

According to the league’s statement, Collins tested positive for growth hormone-releasing peptide-2, a synthetic drug found to increase appetite and food intake in healthy male subjects, according to a 2005 study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. The antidrug policy included in the 2017 collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players mandates a 25-game suspension for a player’s first positive PED test and a 55-game suspension for a second positive. A third strike results in the player being “immediately dismissed and disqualified from any association with the NBA or any of its Teams.”

Collins intends to appeal the test results, claiming that the offending peptide came from a supplement which, “unbeknownst to me, had been contaminated with an illegal component.” But he still offered an apologetic statement given to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, saying that he understands “the impact this matter has on what we are trying to achieve together this season, and I am incredibly frustrated and disappointed in myself for putting all us in this position.”

If the appeal fails and the suspension stands, the “position” Collins has put the Hawks in is trying to win games without their starting power forward, no. 2 scoring threat, and leading rebounder and shot-blocker for nearly two months. It’s not a great position to be in.

Collins had gotten off to a strong start to his third season, averaging 17 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 1.6 assists, and 1.0 steals in 32.2 minutes per game. Since the start of last season, Young-to-Collins has been Atlanta’s highest-volume playmaking partnership—according to pbpstats.com, Collins has been the finisher on 172 of Young’s 682 career dimes, far and away the most of any player—and the Hawks have outscored opponents by 6.7 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with that tandem on the floor this season, according to Cleaning the Glass.

For the next seven weeks, though, that’s off the table, leaving head coach Lloyd Pierce to scramble to figure out how to fill the hole at the 4 spot. He could turn to Jabari Parker, who signed a two-year, $13 million deal this summer to come off the bench behind Collins, and has actually looked pretty good. The former no. 2 pick is averaging 13.8 points and 3.8 rebounds in 22.2 minutes per game, shooting a career-best 55.1 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from 3-point range.

If Pierce prefers to keep Parker in the second-unit role, though, he could lean harder into Atlanta’s youth movement identity, sliding rookie wing De’Andre Hunter up to power forward, Cam Reddish to small forward, and moving a reserve like DeAndre’ Bembry or Kevin Huerter (who’s still on a minutes restriction) into the starting backcourt alongside Young.

Pierce could also go in the opposite direction—tapping my Ringer colleague/42-year-old gentleman Vince Carter as a starter alongside Hunter, with the offense moving more toward pick-and-pop play with an aging jump-shooter in place of a young dive man like Collins. But neither going young nor going old seems like it would be a boon for the Hawks’ odds of making a one-year-early bid for a postseason spot in the perpetually watered-down East; FiveThirtyEight’s latest projections now give Atlanta just a 7 percent shot at making the playoffs.

Perhaps more notable than the suspension’s impact on the Hawks, though, is the fact that Collins is the third NBA player in less than three months to receive a first strike (and 25-game ban) for violating the antidrug policy. He joins Nets forward Wilson Chandler, who tested positive for the growth hormone ipamorelin in August, and Suns center Deandre Ayton, who two weeks ago tested positive for a diuretic that is often used to mask evidence of the use of other banned performance enhancers.

PED suspensions have been relatively rare in the NBA, with only a dozen or so players getting dinged since Don MacLean became the first back in 2000. In the past two seasons, the only players to get caught were Joakim Noah in March 2017 and Jodie Meeks in April 2018. Three players getting popped in three months is, in the words of NBA executive turned ESPN analyst Bobby Marks, “unprecedented.” The possibility of a new precedent in drug testing in a league that has avoided PED scandals like the ones that rocked baseball, but where there’s always been some whispering about who might be taking what, is noteworthy. Is this a random concentration of violations, a coin landing on heads three straight times? Or is it something else?

Maybe the NBA’s testing has improved; maybe a few more players than normal have been trying to gain an edge, and are paying the price for it. The key point, though, is who is paying it. Nobody notices all that much when a fringe rotation player like Meeks or Nick Calathes, or an aging player like Hedo Turkoglu or Noah, tests positive, because those players don’t occupy a significant role in the day-to-day dialogue that surrounds the NBA. Ditto for Chandler, a veteran who was rehabilitating an injury before trying to carve out a spot in the Nets’ rotation this season.

But it’s a little harder to frame PED use as the province of also-rans trying to keep up with the Joneses when the past two violators are last year’s no. 1 overall draft pick and a player tipped by some as a potential first-time All-Star this season. That’s going to arch some more eyebrows. What will the NBA—and the NBA’s fans—do if the next guilty party is a present-tense superstar with a marquee name?

We’re not there yet, and it’s possible we never will be. Chandler, Ayton, and now Collins all getting suspended in short order, though, is enough to make you wonder whether the sound you’re hearing is a blip on the radar or an alarm bell just starting to ring.