Last year, the Hawks ranked 10th in defensive rating, allowing 104.4 points per 100 possessions. Of course, that was with Josh Smith, who is one of the best defensive players in the NBA. With Smith off to Detroit, how will the Hawks try to maintain a top 10 defense?
It all starts with Jeff Teague.
Last year, Teague was abysmal on the defensive end. According to MySynergySports, Teague ranked 342nd in the league in overall defensive plays. Not privy to those kind of stats? Well, here was my breakdown of how Teague’s awful pick-and-roll defense was a major factor in the Hawks giving up 42 points to Carmelo Anthony in a loss at New York.
You see, when Jeff struggled to get through screens, or if he got lost in traffic on D, he forced Smith and Horford to help too much. Teams, like New York as described in the post linked above, were able to start scheming around this, meaning the Hawks’ defense was getting exploited more and more as the season went on. (if you forgot, the Hawks had the best defense in the league for the first month of the season) And what was the difference between the Hawks and a top rated defense like the Grizzlies? Memphis had Mike Conley and Tony Allen to act as a barrier in front of Marc Gasol. Sure, the Hawks had the benefit of Smith and Horford, but they had no barrier (besides the oft-injured Devin Harris and the mixed defensive talents of Kyle Korver) to protect them. On some nights, they were essentially the team’s entire defense.
Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll, and Elton Brand, along with Horford, should be able to make up some of defensive void left by Smith, but that will again mean nothing if Teague doesn’t improve on this end of the floor. Only this year, there is a bit of a kicker: the Hawks aren’t entirely focused on winning now. There is no need for the Hawks to give Jeff Teague starter’s minutes if they feel that playing first-round draft pick Dennis Schröder will be more beneficial for the future. Sure, Teague just signed a four-year, $32 million contract, but that doesn’t exactly mean much; Jeff is still a good point guard, and that $8 million yearly salary is something that can be moved very easily and very quickly if the Hawks commit fully to Schröder. (It’s in my belief that the organization values Schröder’s future over Teague’s, but I assume that could change if Teague’s production explodes under Budenholzer)
Jeff recognized after he re-signed with the Hawks that he needed to work on his defensive struggles, which is extremely important for him. If Jeff actually improves on that end of the floor, he’s not just helping the team, but he’s raising his own value. A higher value means that, if the team decides to move him, he’ll continue to get starter’s minutes until the team is able to actually pull the trigger. Plus, there will actually be a number of teams that want him, as being traded is probably more fun when teams actually want you. However, if he continues to struggle on that end, he could be in for a very, very awkward future in the NBA.