Atlanta Hawks revamped their defense and it’s just as scary

Nov 2, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks center Dwight Howard (8) reacts to a play with guard Kyle Korver (26) in the first quarter of their game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 2, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks center Dwight Howard (8) reacts to a play with guard Kyle Korver (26) in the first quarter of their game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports /

The arrival of Dwight Howard has shaken up everything about the Atlanta Hawks organization, both on and off the floor. He gets the biggest cheers in pregame introductions, jerseys bearing his name are everywhere, and he’s even showing up on the Jumbotron at Atlanta Falcons games. On the court, swapping out Al Horford for Howard has forced the Hawks to overhaul how they defend opponents, especially in the pick-and-roll, but the results are still just as solid as they were last year. Atlanta finished second in defensive efficiency in 2015-16 and they’re currently second in the early part of this season, allowing just 94.0 points per 100 possessions, slightly better than last season’s mark of 98.8.

Last year, the Hawks developed a reputation as a very aggressive defensive team, one that pushed up high on pick-and-rolls and took the ball out of the point guard’s hands. The blitzing scheme has its merits and its drawbacks; it forces players who aren’t used to playmaking to handle the ball and make decisions, but it hurt Atlanta tremendously on the glass.

This clip, from a game against Toronto last season, perfectly encapsulates everything the Hawks were doing defensively, both good and bad.

Corey Joseph sets a ram screen on Paul Millsap to throw him off before Bismack Biyombo sets the ball screen for Kyle Lowry, but Millsap gets through it and is still there to trap Lowry and force a long, looping pass across the court to Patrick Patterson. During that time, the Hawks’ weak side perimeter defenders are able to get back into position and Terrence Ross eventually forces a fading three from the corner. The Hawks excelled at creating these bad shots for opponents, but it came at a great cost; their defensive rebounding rate was in the bottom ten in the league. On the play above, Biyombo is free under the basket to grab the offensive rebound.

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This year, the scheme is much more conservative, a move necessitated by Howard’s arrival, as he doesn’t have the same quickness as Al Horford did to execute those aggressive schemes.

John Wall comes around the screen and Howard is hanging back in the paint, cutting off his driving path to the rim while simultaneously playing the passing lane to the rolling Marcin Gortat. Wall ends up with a little leaning floater that misses, leading to Dennis Schroder grabbing the defensive rebound and pushing in the other direction. Howard’s presence has already shown in the Hawks’ rebounding numbers; they’re currently 10th with a 78.5% defensive rebounding rate, up from 26th and 74.6% last year.

Of course, no defensive scheme is perfect, and Howard’s positioning in the paint may lead to open jumpers for guys who can knock those down every time.

Bradley Beal dribbles off the Gortat screen and Howard is where he’s supposed to be, leaving Beal wide open for an easy mid-range jumper. The mid-range jumper isn’t in vogue as it once was, but that doesn’t mean that giving up an in-rhythm open jumper to a shooter like Beal is a good choice for a defense. The conservative scheme puts pressure on Howard as a communicator since he’s not physically there to hold up the guard if the original defender has trouble getting through the screen. Howard’s communication has been solid in the early part of the season; you can sometimes hear him barking out calls through the television broadcast.

The change from Horford to Howard puts considerably less burden on the Hawks’ weak side defenders, as they no longer have to rotate down to the rolling big man and then get out to their guy on the perimeter.

“When we’re blitzing up and the big man rolls, it’s the perimeter’s job to cover that man a lot. That puts us in a position where we’re trying to either bump him or box him out and possibly still close out to our own man,” Kyle Korver explained after the team’s opening night win over the Washington Wizards. The wear and tear that puts on players throughout an 82-game season can’t be ignored; Korver and company should be fresher going into the playoffs this time around. However, it does require more of them when it comes to on-ball defense, as their big man isn’t there to stop the guard from driving and buy those precious fractions of a second for the on-ball defender to get back to his man.

However, Kent Bazemore doesn’t think this is an issue and even likes being behind the driving guard and altering the shot from behind.

“We can be more aggressive when he’s [Howard] back there because he slows up the guard. His presence, we can kind of play in the rearview mirror, which Coach loves us doing, contesting shots from behind the guard.”

It’s disconcerting for a shooter to be contested by a defender he can’t see, but the Hawks shouldn’t fall in love with their guards contesting from behind; a more patient point guard will use his body to keep the defender behind them and force Howard to defend in space, something with which he struggles as he gets older. However, just because Atlanta’s base scheme is more conservative doesn’t mean that they’ve forgotten their blitzing roots.

“Blitzing and being aggressive is what we are. We’ve been an aggressive team over the past few years. Tonight, we switched it up and did a little something different, but it’s going to be game to game, who we face, and what teams do,” Paul Millsap said after the Wizards game. Even with Howard on the floor, the Hawks are still blitzing in key situations.

Screens that push the ball-handler toward the baseline are still prime opportunities for Atlanta to step out and trap the ball because there’s not as much real estate for the guard to get around the blitz. On the weak side, Mike Muscala dips into the paint to contain the roll man and is able to get his hands up to intercept the cross-court pass.

Varying the defensive scheme will keep opponents guessing, which will help the Hawks, especially in the playoffs when teams will scout them more heavily. The ability to play multiple types of defenses well will create confusion for opponents and will help the Hawks be more versatile on that end of the floor.

The blitz hasn’t always been successful for the Hawks this year, especially if it’s Howard who gets beat on the perimeter. The most important thing when trapping the pick-and-roll is to make sure the ball-handler doesn’t split the two defenders, as Beal does here:

Howard can’t let this happen; there’s no chance of the weak side defenders getting there in time to contest the drive from Beal. Ideally, he wouldn’t let Beal get to the basket at all, but if he does, the bare minimum is to force Beal to go the long way around him toward the baseline. As he gets more reps in the system, those types of mistakes will be ironed out.

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The Hawks’ defense is still a work-in-progress, but the early results are promising. Whether or not it can hold up over the course of the season remains to be seen, especially when the Hawks come up against point guards like Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry. But against the vast majority of point guards, Howard’s presence in the paint and rebounding prowess will hold the Hawks in good stead as they try to retain their place as one of the best defenses in the league.