How the Atlanta Hawks Regained Their Defensive Identity

The Hawks made some big lineup changes, and now, they're a defensive stalwart again.

When the Atlanta Hawks lost their seventh straight game to the Oklahoma City Thunder on December 5th, it appeared to be the proverbial “end of the road” for a Golden Age of Hawks basketball.

The rumors started circulating around All-Star Paul Millsap's future with the team, and all bets seemed to be off concerning the direction of the organization.

Would the franchise consider liquidating the few assets they had in order to build a nesting egg for the future? Or would the Hawks go the opposite direction and re-tool their team in a last ditch effort to make a run at the Cleveland Cavaliers? The answer to both of those questions is yes, and it speaks volumes to the genius and simplicity of the decisions made by management that have allowed the Hawks to emerge as perennial playoff contenders.

Just because the Hawks are temporarily pivoting from their fire sale approach of a little more than a month ago does not mean that they will not work tirelessly to build for the future. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, and with the Hawks receiving a $142.5 million investment from the city to remain in their downtown arena through 2046, it would behoove them to continue their playoff ways.

Getting Defensive

The Hawks have made the Eastern Conference playoffs each of the last nine seasons and even had a short period of legitimately considering themselves title contenders when they were able to win 60 games and reach the Conference Finals against the Cavaliers. The trademark of that great Hawks team was defense, and it has taken the current crop of Hawks players a little bit of time to approach their full defensive potential.

Atlanta ranks fourth in defensive rating this season, and a lot of that has to do with head coach Mike Budenholzer’s grasp on the playing rotation. In the aforementioned game against the Thunder, Budenholzer decided that it would be best to insert Thabo Sefolosha into the lineup, replacing Kyle Korver.

Korver was a fan-favorite during his tenure as a Hawk because, quite frankly, he has one of the most aesthetically pleasing styles of play in the NBA. Watching Korver drive wing defenders crazy with his constant motion and sweet shooting stroke was a thing of beauty.

Conversely, watching Korver having to defend more athletic-wing players became a bit of an eye-sore, and the Hawks knew that they could not defend with the same vigor with him in the lineup.

The Hawks immediately began to play better on defense, and the move to play Korver less was so successful that the Hawks realized they could take it a step further and turn a player that was hurting their defensive metrics and flip that into a future first-round pick.

With Korver on the floor this season, the Hawks allowed 110.0 points per 100 possessions. The NBA average is 108.2. With Korver on the bench or off the team, Atlanta allows just 102.4 points per possession. That's a full point better than the Golden State Warriors' 103.4 defensive rating, which leads the NBA.

Dunleavy's Impact

The loss of Korver has not had the negative impact on the current Hawks as many would have expected. They were able to acquire Mike Dunleavy from the Cavaliers in the deal and and to convince him that he was not just a “throw-in” to the deal but rather a critical piece to the Hawks' playoff push.

In Dunleavy’s six games as a Hawk, he is averaging 18.2 minutes per game, scoring 6.3 points per game and shooting a blazing 50% from beyond the three-point arc. Dunleavy is not the shooter that Korver is, but he is more than adequate as a replacement to launch from deep.

Where Dunleavy really separates himself is on the defensive end. Dunleavy has a defensive real plus-minus of 0.39, which ranks 13th among qualified shooting guards. Korver has a -2.12 defensive real plus-minus, which ranks 87th among 98 qualified shooting guards.

The opportunity cost of giving up a minor difference in offensive production for a major uptick in defensive prowess should have been very enticing for a defensive-minded team such as the Hawks, hence their firm stance on coercing Dunleavy to stay.

Atlanta's Core

Also seizing an opportunity to gain a bigger role within the Hawks has been Tim Hardaway Jr., who is having a career year heading into his pending restricted free-agency. Hardaway is averaging a career high 11.9 points per game and is shooting 44% from the field and 34.5% from three.

Hardaway has become a better basketball player in his tenure it Atlanta despite going through some growing pains in his first year, in which he spent a good majority of it getting playing time in the D-League. Hardaway used that time to hone his ball-handling which allows him some lineup flexibility for a team light on point guards.

While this team is light in terms of backcourt playmakers, it packs a lot of defensive prowess across the board. That defensive identity all starts with their defensive anchor, Paul Millsap.

That’s right: Millsap is the key defender on one of the better defensive teams in the Association -- not Dwight Howard.

Howard is still a premier defensive center in this league, but Millsap has been otherworldly this season. Millsap has a defensive real plus-minus of 3.91 (third in the NBA), which ranks him just in front of Draymond Green's 3.84.

The thing that makes Millsap special on defense is his rare combination of size and speed that allows him to defend wing players competently when switching in pick-and-roll situations and his ability to defend the the post against bigger opponents.

Millsap's hands are deceptively quick, and he averages 1.54 steals per game, an astronomical amount for a power forward. This rare defensive talent is the reason why NBA teams were salivating at the potential opportunity to rent Millsap’s services even if only for half a season.

The next highest rated defender on the Hawks is Sefolosha, who has built a very strong reputation over the course of his career of being the quintessential 3-and-D player. Sefolosha’s defensive real plus-minus is 2.98, which ranks 10th in the NBA. It would be no coincidence that the Hawks have amassed a 16-6 record since Sefolosha was inserted into the starting lineup against his former team way back in December.

His defense in the starting lineup takes pressure off of Kent Bazemore having to defend the team’s better players and allowing him to focus on playing more freely on the offensive end.

Rounding out the Hawk’s top 20 defensive players according to defensive real plus-minus is Howard, who may not be the dominant rim-protector that made him a league darling years ago but who is turning into a more efficient player and scorer.

Howard has the highest nERD ranking on the Hawks at 4.9, and he has earned that mark by shooting a career high 63% on a near career low of 8.4 field goal attempts per game. Dwight has finally figured out that he can do more with fewer offensive touches and that his activity on the offensive end in terms of screens and cutting open so many doors for his teammates.

Moving Forward

The Hawks have figured out a formula for success and have the potential to reach a lot further than many pundits are giving them credit for.

According to our algorithm, the Hawks have a 97% chance of advancing to the playoffs, which is 17 percentage points higher than the Washington Wizards (80.9%), despite the Hawks only being 2.5 games in front of the Wizards.

In reality, the Hawks are much closer to the second tier of Eastern Conference teams after the Cavaliers, which should include Toronto, Boston, and Atlanta. The rest of the Eastern Conference teams will all be vying for the four remaining playoff spots in a very competitive race.

Giving the Hawks a slight advantage in this race is the fact that the Hawks have the second-to-worst strength of schedule in the NBA and have taken complete advantage of weaker opponents on their schedule. The scheduling gods continue to look out for the Hawks because they are set to play the Los Angeles Clippers without their best players: Chris Paul, who is out after thumb surgery, and Blake Griffin, who is not expected to return from his knee injury until Tuesday.

Atlanta was already fortunate enough to miss a matchup with potential All-Star Joel Embiid, who missed the previous matchup against the Hawks because of his restrictions in playing on the second night of back-to-backs. The Hawks will more than likely avoid Embiid again this season because, when they face off on March 29th, it will be the second night of a back-to-back for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Combine those matchups with three more pending games against the frequently resting Cavaliers, and the Hawks may just find themselves coasting to the finish line of an already easy schedule.

With a little luck on their side and igniting the defensive fire that led them to the conference finals just two seasons ago, this Hawks team is poised to be reckoned with in the East, while also building for the future by converting dead defensive weight into future assets.