The Atlanta Hawks Are Quietly Becoming the NBA's Best Defensive Team
The Atlanta Hawks currently have a record of 36-28 and sit as the 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. It's a far cry from the 60-win season they were able to put together last season, and a repeat appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals doesn't seem all that likely with the rise of teams like the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics this year.
Still, when playoff time rolls around and regular season records are left behind, the old adage of "defense wins championships" rears its ugly head. To that point, the Atlanta Hawks have the second-best Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) in the league right now at 99.0, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs at 95.5.
Things haven't always been this way, though. The Hawks becoming an elite defensive squad has happened over the last two months or so. Just take a look at how the Hawks fared from the beginning of the season to a 108-101 overtime loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on January 15th, compared to how they've done from a 114-86 win over the Brooklyn Nets on January 16th onwards.
|Category||First 40 Games (NBA Rank)||Last 24 Games (NBA Rank)|
|Defensive Rating||101.4 (12th)||95.2 (1st)|
|Opp FG%||44.8% (16th)||41.3% (1st)|
|Opp 3P%||36.3% (22nd)||30.0% (1st)|
|Opp eFG%||49.8% (16th)||45.7% (1st)|
|Opp FTA Rate||0.255 (8th)||0.252 (5th)|
|Opp TO Ratio||17.1 (2nd)||15.7 (4th)|
|Opp Off Reb Rate||26.5% (27th)||24.4% (22nd)|
For the sake of our comparison, we are focusing on Defensive Rating, opponent field goal and three-point percentages, and Dean Oliver's Defensive Four Factors: an opponent's Effective Field Goal Percentage (weighted two and threes), Free Throw Attempt Rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempt), Turnover Ratio (turnovers per 100 possessions), and Offensive Rebound Rate (percentage of offensive rebounds a team grabs while on the court).
As you can see, the early-season Hawks and the Hawks of the last two months or so look like two completely different teams on the defensive end. They went from being middle-of-the-road to bad in various defensive metrics to being top-five in all of them since mid-January (with the exception of opponent Offensive Rebound Rate, which is at least getting better). In terms of Defensive Rating, the Hawks have been a full 3.5 points per 100 possessions stingier than the Spurs (Defensive Rating of 98.7) during this period.
Most of the Hawks' success has come from the strength of their bench. The team's go-to starting lineup of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore, Paul Millsap, and Al Horford has been fine over the last 24 games, posting a Net Rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions) of 2.5, but the 103.5 Defensive Rating doesn't jive with the team's overall mark of 95.2 during that span.
When reigning Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer has gone to his bench, though, that's when the Hawks have been an elite defensive team. Every single other lineup that has gotten more than 20 minutes of floor time together over that 24-game span (10 iterations) has a Defensive Rating under 100.0.
One lineup in particular -- Horford with the team's first four subs, Dennis Schroder, Tim Hardaway Jr., Thabo Sefolosha, and Mike Scott -- has been incredible in 108 minutes of playing time with a Defensive Rating of 84.7 and a Net Rating of 20.3. Of all lineups in the entire Association that have logged at least 100 minutes over the last two months, that one leads them all in both of those categories.
The Hawks might not be obvious favorites to make the Eastern Conference Finals with the all-but-certain Cleveland Cavaliers for the second year in a row, but they are peaking at just the right time on the defensive end. Yes, their record over the aforementioned 24-game span is only 13-11, but they are 5-1 in their last six and heading into a fairly easy part of their schedule.
If they can finish out the season strong, regain homecourt in the East, and make some noise in the playoffs, their ramped up defense of late will be a big part of the reason why.