Bradford Doolittle was at Hawks-Bulls and writes a thoughtful piece at Basketball Prospectus about his observations of the Hawks’ (so far) improved defense (ranked third in efficiency before tonight’s games). It’s worth a read.
In the post, Doolittle says the Hawks made “no major personnel additions to explain the defensive improvement.” But I think they have and it (possibly) does.
(All of the following comes with the necessary Small Sample Size Qualifier.)
The Hawks have more defensive talent and depth than last season (and probably more versatility, too). It’s now more Jeff Teague (not new, but new to getting most of the point guard minutes) and Jannero Pargo, no Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford. It’s more Tracy McGrady (size, rebounds) and Vladimir Radmonovic (steals, blocks), no Mo Evans and Damien Wilkins. It’s (eventually, I’m assuming) more Zaza Pachulia, no Josh Powell.
Look at Atlanta’s on-court, off-court numbers at basketballvalue.com. Notice that all of the bench guys have better defensive ratings than all of the starters. There are likely factors at play here beyond the Small Sample Size Qualifier–for instance, the Hawks have yet to face a team with much scoring depth–but so far there’s a striking difference in the distribution of those numbers as compared to last season.
Doolitttle also writes: “There was nothing schematically that I saw to explain Atlanta’s defensive success. We’ve seen in the past that Atlanta is capable of putting the screws to teams defensively as they did during last year’s playoffs and perhaps Drew’s insistence on that approach has simply gotten through.”
I think this, in combination with better defensive players playing move minutes, might help to explain the improvement (so far).
Other than the occasional trapping and ball pressure and the zone alignments used at times against Miami and Chicago, the Hawks haven’t noticeably altered their schemes. But, subjectively, they are playing defense with more vigor and they have the long, athletic players to make things happen when they commit to it. With the exception of their game against Heat, whom the Hawks wisely wanted to slow down, I think they so far are meeting Larry Drew’s goal of “being a little more of the aggressor.”
There are some numbers that may support that subjective view.
Before last night’s games, the Hawks ranked eighth in opponent turnover rate. They ranked 29th in that category last season. Atlanta so far has the eighth-best opponent assist rate this season; last season its opponent assist rate was ninth-worst.
With the Small Sample Size Qualifier in mind, perhaps those numbers mean the Hawks are making opponents play faster and sloppier. According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Hawks rank fifth in the league in points per play allowed (0.81). They are No. 1 against post-ups and–surprise!–No. 4 defending in transition. Plus, Atlanta is holding opponents to 60.8 percent shooting at the rim, ninth-best in the league.
Some individual players also are making more box score defensive plays.
Teague has so far maintained his career steals rate while playing more minutes (literally–at this moment his steals per 36 minutes is exactly the same as during his first two seasons). Horford has seen a spike in his blocks and steals rates. Marvin Williams’ steals rate is up.
The other day at shootaround I asked Jerry Stackhouse which team in his career he considered to be the best defensively. He picked his Dallas teams from 2004-05 to 2008-09. Those units’ defensive efficiency ranks, in order: 9th, 11th, 5th, 9th, and 17th. Avery Johnson was the coach for 18 games of Stackhouse’s first season in Dallas and the all of the next three, while Rick Carlisle was coach for the fifth year.
So what were the characteristics of those teams? Stackhouse:
Everybody was just looking to help each other. We assumed that–even though we had good individual defenders–we assumed everybody was a bad defender and all four guys had to help. Like, if a guy was isolated on the wing and even though we knew his guy was guarding him, everybody leaned to help. You had to stick to the principles. We always said, ‘We are not allowing middle.’ If you allowed middle, you knew and everybody knew that you were the breakdown on the play whether they scored or not. They got into the paint and they put us under more stress than they had to because you allowed middle. A good defensive team has got to hold each other accountable. They know when and where they make mistakes. It don’t have to be pointed out to you that you made a mistake. You were the first one to know, ‘Damn, I made a mistake.
And what is the defensive potential of this Hawks team?
“It’s there, man,” Stackhouse said. “We have just got to harp on it a little bit more. In training camp, that’s all you are focused on. Then when it gets into the crux of the season, you revert back to bad habits. The system is built up, and if you do something against it, there is nothing built in to help. That’s what I see this group has got to get.”
Stackhouse added that the Hawks have the physical tools to be an elite defensive team: “That’s half the battle. It’s one thing if you can’t do it. We can do it.”
If the Hawks can keep up this defensive effort once the The Small Sample Size Qualifier no longer applies, they could be on their way to improving as a team with the same core.
Michael Cunningham, Hawks beat