Looking at the Atlanta Hawks roster as it stands, one glaring weakness stands out to me – the defense. Atlanta lost their defensive anchor in Josh Smith to the Detroit Pistons, and replaced his starting spot with a less-than-formidable defender in Paul Millsap. As of this moment, the Hawks will have to rely on Jeff Teague’s improvements on the defensive end this summer, Kyle Korver’s sound team defense but easily-penetrable individual guarding, and hopefully a wing that will soon be signed to help Al Horford carry the starters’ defensive workload. Calling this a questionable strategy would be generous, with hopes of nabbing a viable starting wing for a playoff team looking dim when you gloss over available free agents. This is why my suggested action is to start Elton Brand.
Brand is a 34-year old vet who once averaged 24 and 10 a night before being beaten down by injury after injury. His age is but a number though, with masked but solid contributions to his Dallas Mavericks last year. Per-36 minutes, Brand put up 12 points and 10 boards a contest on 47% shooting from the field. He played in 72 games and even started in 18, where he was tasked with anchoring a 20th-ranked defense and spacing the floor with his mid-range jumpers. Dallas truly had no frontcourt defensive specialists this past year (Chris Kaman was their best bet, but he dealt with injuries and wasn’t half the defensive prowess he was in previous seasons), so Brand was brought in to do the dirty work after his career in Philadelphia ended.
Back in 2012, Brand’s defense helped the Sixers allow three fewer points per 100 possessions, the second-best leap on the team by rotation players behind stifling perimeter defender Andre Iguodala. If he can replicate this success as a starter with the Atlanta Hawks, it would be a huge help to the squad. If not, just switch up the starting five. A failed experiment doesn’t have very tremendous negative impacts on teams, and with the Hawks as far away from a contender as they’ve been in recent years, there’s no reason to fret.
Brand couldn’t make a great enough difference in Dallas last season with his defense because of the team’s poorly-built roster unable to support his play on the defensive side of the basketball. He still allowed just .74 PPP in isolations per Synergy, among the top-90 players in the league. In the Mavericks’ most-played lineup with Brand on the floor along with Brandan Wright and Shawn Marion, the team had a DRTG of 99.6, while their most-played Brand-Kaman lihttp://hawkshoop.com/wp-admin/users.phpneup had a DRTG of 97.1. Both are much better marks than the team’s 104 DRTG on the year.
One question that comes to mind with Brand as a starter is, what will be done with Millsap? Surely playing him off the bench won’t enthuse him, making the only other option starting him at the small forward position. Looking at his positional statistics on 82games, Millsap’s scoring efficiency remained the same between his playing at the 3 and 4. Although his defense took a dip, his turnovers per-48 minutes did as well. Last year’s Jazz’s Millsap at the 3, Favors at the 4 and Al Jefferson at the 5 lineup had a NetRTG of 4.3, showing potential for a potent big lineup with Millsap at the small forward.
Down low would be Horford and Brand, with Al as a center and Brand the 4. Opponents had a PER of 16.6 with Horford at the center last year, compared to 19 while he was playing the power forward position. Brand’s positional DRTG shows his defensive abilities are best used as a power forward, with a 4.2-point per 100 possessions positive difference in opponent production.
The Hawks now have to learn to defend without their premier lockdown player Josh Smith, who night in and night out defended the opposition’s best player and held down the paint. Horford’s presence on that end is definitely an edge, but no signs point to him being able to patrol the painted area like one of the NBA’s elite defensive big men and he likely never will. That said, making him play as such would do nothing but harm to him and the team. Even with Atlanta’s grand scheme clouded to the masses as a team stuck in the no man’s land between contender and rebuilding, it’s clear that Horford is a major key to their future. Forcing him to have to carry the team’s interior defense would either drain him or force him into a heap of foul trouble, meanwhile making for a pretty dismal defensive team despite his efforts. So while it may not prove to be hugely successful or a game-changer in any means, starting Elton Brand could mean Al Horford stays on the court, stays dominant, and the Hawks don’t get slaughtered near the rim.