The questions surrounding the Hawks’ offseason moves are not going to stop until the Hawks take the floor on October 27th for their opening game against the Washington Wizards. The acquiring of Dwight Howard may have been a surprise to some, but the acquisition really shows the direction this organization has been heading for the last year or so.
Atlanta put together a memorable 60-win season two years ago. It was highlighted by fluid passing, numerous three-point makes and teamwork that would make any basketball fan smile. Executives, players and experts were all in awe of the seemingly effortless system that was working to perfection. The Hawks’ offense was the talk of the league. Even with all that talk, offense was never the main priority for Coach Mike Budenholzer. He breaks every huddle with the simple phrase “defense”. The Hawks offense was a spectacle to watch, but Budenholzer knows no team wins an NBA championship without top flight defense.
Contrary to popular belief, the Hawks were not a terrific offensive team last season. They were actually below average, ranking 18th in the league in offensive efficiency. The reason Atlanta was able to remain so successful was their defense. The Hawks ranked second behind the Spurs in defensive efficiency. The versatality of the Hawks frontcourt made Atlanta one of the most tenacious defenses in the NBA, but when it came playoff time things looked a little different.
After pulverizing a mediocre Celtics team, the Hawks began their real test against the Caviliers. It was here that every defensive weakness began to stick out like a sore thumb. Al Horford was an athletic power forward playing the center position. Horford is an all-around terrific and versatile defender, but Atlanta could never rely on him to be the anchor in the middle of the defense. He is far from a true rim protector or an effective defensive rebounder, and Cleveland was able to feast on his inabilities.
One Cleveland player said the main reason they were able to have so much success on offense against the Hawks was because of their lack of a true rim-protector. The player felt it was much harder to score on the Pistons, because of Andre Drummond holding down the paint, than it was to score on the Hawks. With that being said, the Cavs shot a dreadful percentage in the paint against Atlanta. They actually managed to shoot better on their three-point shots than their two-point shots. So how could the lack of a paint presence be the reason for the Hawks defensive woes?
Take a look at this video of the Cavs record-setting preformance in Game 2 where they sunk 25 three-pointers.
Not all of these are wide-open looks. J.R. Smith was unconscious and was hitting no matter how many hands were in his face. However, there was some really poor defense being played, and it started with how the Hawks handled Cleveland in the paint. Nearly every time the Cavs had the ball in the paint there were multiple Hawks surrounding him, and the Cavaliers continually found the open man for and easy jump shot. This type of defense might work against lesser teams, but against top-flight basketball teams that can shoot the ball, it is going to get shredded every time.
The Hawks did not bring in Dwight Howard to be an offensive superstar. They brought him in here to anchor the defense and clean up the glass. While there have been questions about his declining offensive game, Howard has remained a stout defensive presence and an elite rebounder. Hawks center Tiago Splitter also believes the defense will be much better with Howard at center and has this to say about the former three-time defensive player of the year, “(Howard) is a little bit more of a defensive player than Al, more rebounds, more physical presence on the court.” Dwight’s physicality is going to make it easier for all the other players on the court on defense, and that is what Mike Budenholzer and the Hawks brass had in mind when they signed him.
Bringing in Howard to solidify the defense needed to happen, but that is not the only adjustments that Atlanta needed to make. They had to get bigger and more athletic on the wing. With Kent Bazemore playing the small forward position, the Hawks are severely undersized on the wing. A Kyle Korver jump shot is a thing of beauty, but his defense can make anyone cringe at times. Atlanta addressed this by surprising everyone at the draft and drafting Taurean Prince out of Baylor with their 12th overall pick.
Prince is not exactly an offensive prospect. He has an effective three-point jump shot and a decent game around the basket, but his upside is on the defensive side of the ball. His 6’8″, 220 pound frame with a wingspan of nearly 7 feet is prototypical for a lockdown NBA defender. Kyle Korver had a nightmare of a time attempting guard even the likes of J.R Smith, and nobody on the team could slow down Lebron James at his size. Prince might be raw at the moment, but he immediatley adds physicality and an extra body that the Hawks desperately needed on the defensive end.
The rights to Prince were acquired in the trade that sent Jeff Teague to the Pacers. This allows for Dennis Schröder to become the starting point guard. While the loss of Jeff Teague is not at all exciting, the future of the young German point guard is. His speed and quickness make him one of the toughest players to play against not just on offense, but on defense as well. Schröder is that quick and annoying defender who plays opponents from baseline to baseline. He is a pure competitor with an ample amount of aggressiveness. It is yet to be determined whether he can become a star offensive player, but he is already a terrific defensive point guard. With Schröder starting, the Hawks get a nice upgrade on defense from Teague.
Two years ago, the Hawks were labeled as an offensive juggernaut and rightfully so. However, since then they have began to transition into more of a defensive powerhouse. After coming second in the league in defensive efficiency, Atlanta continued that transition with their offseason moves. The offense might not be as pretty, but the Hawks are going to be as tough as they come on defense.