The Atlanta Hawks have reached an uncomfortable fork in the road. On the heels of an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2021, the Hawks bowed out unceremoniously to the Miami Heat in the first round of the 2022 playoffs in noncompetitive fashion.
Their star player and offensive fulcrum, Trae Young, was virtually nowhere to be found outside of a Game 3 winning floater with time winding down. The Heat completed their suffocation of Young in just five games, and the Hawks have been left to wonder what happened ever since.
It’s clear the overreliance on Young to carry a heavy burden in the offense contributed to the playoff collapse. When Plan A failed, there was no contingency option. And as a result, the calls to acquire a second high level creator next to Young sounded ever louder.
As we know, Dejounte Murray is now a Hawk, and he brings tremendous on and off-ball value the team needs in a big way. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the Hawks sported the second best offensive rating in the league last season and one of the 10 most efficient offenses since the ABA-NBA merger.
So while the postseason offensive collapse was shocking, more predictably the Hawks didn’t exactly lock down the Miami Heat on the other end, as Atlanta’s 115.9 defensive rating that series was almost three points higher than their regular season mark and would have been 28th in the regular season.
Which brings us to the main point: the Hawks need to solve a lot more on the defense end in the approaching season than on the offensive end. The Hawks’ 114.9 defensive rating during the regular season was the worst of the 20 teams that qualified for the play-in and playoffs, and that’s just not a sustainable model for contention or even consistent winning.
In a modern NBA that values spacing, dribble drives to the rim, and spot up attempts around the arc, there are a handful of ways teams have chosen to set up their defense to combat this. The Bucks prefer to pack the paint with a big body and long, rangy athletes. The Heat prefer to switch everything. The Suns and Celtics trail screens and recover.
But even after over 100 games of Nate McMillan’s tenure, Atlanta’s defense can be best described as “try hard sometimes” and “occasionally present”.
The Hawks need to find a defensive identity and they need take ownership in it.
The playoffs showed the importance of cohesion and a clear scheme on that end. Teams cut down their rotations, pace of play slows down, a games often evolve into grinds. The two teams that met in the Finals, the Warriors and Celtics, sported identical league best defensive efficiencies at 106.9.
Of the eight teams who advanced to the second round of the playoffs, six were in the top seven in defensive rating in the regular season and a seventh, the Milwaukee Bucks, were missing their defensive anchor, Brook Lopez, for the majority of the season.
The Hawks simply didn’t have the pieces or scheme that the elite teams need to truly compete. And a refusal to commit to an identity will hold them back from contending.
As the season approaches, these are a couple of aspects that can go a long way towards defining a defensive calling card.
Communication is key
Look at the best defenses in the league and you’ll see at least one person, if not multiple, pointing and gesticulating during almost every defensive half court possession. Draymond Green, for example, dominates the game more mentally than physically in pointing out actions before they occur, and beating his man to the intended spot.
If you have a clearly tuned TV or internet feed of games, or happen to be close enough to the action in the arena, you may even pick up on verbal orders barked, especially in transition opportunities. In a fluid basketball game, your defense has to constantly adjust for different situations and all five guys on the court must be in tune to one another.
The Hawks often failed this assignment, and looked and sounded lost against even average or below average attacks.
Atlanta had the worst transition defense in the league on a per possession basis, giving up 1.20 points per possessions in those opportunities. Atlanta just simply couldn’t communicate effectively to the first line of defense in those situations.
Too many opponent fast breaks started with the Hawks in good position but failing to organize and follow necessary keys. Even when they had a number advantage, they lost the ability to organize and force a slowdown.
This was a common refrain when players and coaches debriefed performances in 2021-22 postgame press conferences: that the poor communication was a main trigger for leaky defensive efforts.
I spot a De’Andre Hunter half-hearted point but that’s the extend of the obvious communication in the above clip. You wouldn’t expect a rebound and kick ahead from Cade Cunningham to be reason to worry with most of the Hawks across the half court line. And yet the many players in the vicinity of Cory Joseph’s drive may as well have been traffic cones.
The above types of moments plagued Atlanta too frequently a season ago, and the hope is a healthy Clint Capela and the incoming leadership of Dejounte Murray among others can revitalize the transition defense.
A reshuffling of defensive duties
The Hawks had serious trouble keeping ball handlers in front of them in 2021-22 for starters. They were among the worst teams at containing ball handlers off of pick-and-roll actions. Teams could create spot up attempts by drawing in the defense and kicking to shooters around the arc, leading to the sixth worst three-point defense at 36.4% 3P% and second worst points per possession given up on off ball screen actions scoring opportunities.
Put simply, Atlanta’s defensive issues begin on-ball at the point of attack and an ineffective help defense only adds to the misery. As can be often the case, it was judged that the defensive ability in the locker room was falling short of where it needed to be. And so the pivot started with a roster shakeup.
Murray, a former All-Defensive Second Team member will play a large role with his addition. His versatility, tenacity, and long 6’10” wingspan should transform the Hawks’ perimeter defense in a big way.
Danilo Gallinari, whose rapidly declining speed and agility had become unmistakable, has departed. The athletic upside of the recently drafted Jalen Johnson will try to reprise that stretch big role while providing tangible defensive upside.
Even before the Kevin Huerter trade for two lesser but defensive minded players, it was abundantly clear that acquiring even more defensive talent was a major offseason priority for the franchise. But that trade certainly hammered the point home.
The elephant in the room, and the one that causes the most complications, is that of the star offensive engine, Trae Young. He easily projects as a top-5 offensive force in the league and top-15 player overall as evidenced by his recent All-NBA selection, but it’s likely he’ll always be a significant liability on defense for his entire career.
The Hawks need a game plan for when teams put Young in offensive actions or force him to be the adjacent help or low man along the baseline. Between the rest of the likely starting backcourt, Murray and Hunter, the Hawks should feature a premier point of attack defender for many primary matchups — although I suspect Murray will be used a majority of the time in a secondary or helper defensive role with Hunter on ball. The Murray-Hunter duo will need to use their long arms and ranginess in disrupting plans to target Young, and communicating switches, blitzes and double teams will be paramount.
Murray’s defensive instincts especially make for a reason for optimism going forward. Just one quarter of one game’s work shows the full breadth of hats Murray can wear. At the point of attack, Murray here forces the explosive Jalen Green to halt his dribble drive and pull out of the interior.
In a help situation, Murray brings a hard dig to a deeply positioned Jae’Sean Tate and eliminates his kick out attempt.
Murray often lined up against a weaker perimeter opponents due to the Spurs’ abundance of long and disruptive guards. But even in a more off ball role, he finds ways to chase cuts and sniff out the entry pass path.
And this last clip manages to combine the three above traits into one frantic defensive possession. Murray starts on Green, switches onto the much taller Christian Wood, does his best to deny the entry pass, and uses his relentlessness to pick Wood’s pocket anyway.
Hunter often faced off against the most difficult perimeter players last season, even to such a degree that he admitted to it putting a strain on the rest of his game and development. But with Murray in tow, these responsibilities can now be shared on a game-by-game basis. Regardless, surrounding Young in the backcourt with these two, the Holiday brothers off the bench, and athletic bigs everywhere should represent a big step forward.
Ultimately, with the additions and subtractions to the roster, the Hawks are signaling an attempt to be more balanced on both sides of the ball, even if that means sacrificing depth and shooting. As evidenced by the 2022 NBA Finals, consistently getting stops is still a winning formula, and a formula the Hawks want and need to find.