In the past few days, there is a stat regarding the Atlanta Hawks and their defensive output that has come into vogue. Atlanta is the only team in the NBA to have held each and every one of their opponents to a field goal percentage under 50%.
Every. Single. One.
Impressive, right? Absolutely, but let’s take a look at how the club is doing this.
The Hawks defensive resurgence this season is somewhat surprising due to the way that the roster is constructed, but also not shocking when you look at other factors. First of all, the team’s two best players (Al Horford and Josh Smith) are both significantly above-average defensively, and while they shine in different ways, both guys are versatile enough to help the other defenders into positive situations. This is unquestionably the key to the defense, and they also complement each other well with Smith’s athleticism and shot-blocking meshed with Horford’s fantastic positioning and awareness. In addition to Smith and Horford, Atlanta is also blessed with no real individual deficiency when it comes to defense. The worst defensive player in the “rotation” is probably Anthony Morrow, and because Larry Drew has made the conscious (and in my opinion, wrong) decision to play Morrow very little, his negative defensive impact isn’t there. Also, Kyle Korver’s defense has been a pleasant surprise to me this season, as he’s proved to be average defensively by the metrics, and that’s a net-positive.
There are also significant outside factors that have led the Hawks ability to keep teams under 50% shooting. First, there’s an element of luck involved. Atlanta is 6th in the league in defensive efficiency and 7th in the league in field goal percentage defense overall, and while these are pretty stellar numbers, each team ahead of them in both categories has allowed at least one opponent over the threshold. Secondly, Atlanta has played a pretty dismal schedule so far, with basketball-reference noting that the Hawks have been played just the 25th toughest schedule in the league through 16 games. Third and most importantly, Larry Drew has made a conscious effort to play to his team’s strengths defensively. Going into the campaign, there were real concerns about weakness on the wing with no real small forward on the roster and the “stopper” (Deshawn Stevenson) coming off of a horrendous season in New Jersey. Enter in a swarming defense using an ultra-quick lineup of Horford/Smith/small forward X and two quick point guards, and you have some increased pressure.
Is this sustainable? I actually believe it is. The 50% number will fall away soon enough, but this Hawks team can be a top-10 defensive unit for the duration of the season as long as Drew continues to deploy Stevenson heavily (which I don’t like, but it helps here) and has a healthy Smith/Horford duo. Kudos to Larry Drew and staff for putting them in great position, but don’t neglect the individual efforts of the rotation for putting on a defensive show thus far.