Do you remember, before the season started, when I said that the Hawks defense would take a bit of a step back and they would be mainly reliant on the offense to get wins? Yeah, forget that.
Thirteen games into the season, the Hawks are first in the NBA in defensive rating (points given up per 100 possessions) at 98.5, first in forcing turnovers (by percentage), and second in opponent’s field goal percentage. Considering that the offense has been a bit below average so far, the team’s 9-4 record is largely a reflection of the team’s defensive efforts.
Last season, Atlanta was 6th in defensive rating mostly without Al Horford, so it’s not like they were supposed to fall off of a cliff with Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams (both plus defenders) leaving town. It just seemed like they would tumble a little closer to the league average.
Well, Horford, with the help of Josh Smith, said no to that theory.
Looking at the numbers, Horford and Smith have been absolutely dominate defensively when they are on the floor together. According to NBA.com, when the two are on the court, the Hawks have a D-Rtg of 93.7, which is five points better than the team’s overall, league-leading D-Rtg. Individually, Josh has been a terror upon opponents, holding opposing power forwards to a PER of 11.7, and opposing small forwards to a PER of 3.1. (!!!)
However, the two’s biggest contribution to the Hawks’ defense is their abilities to switch.
Started under Mike Woodson, and perhaps perfected by Larry Drew, the Hawks have always been a team that will constantly switch on screens. Josh and Al are probably two of the best bigs in the NBA when it comes to this, and they essentially offset the pick-and-roll threat of most teams.
Here’s a little bit of this in action. Below is the final possession from Wednesday’s Bobcats game:
Yeah, that clip isn’t the greatest, but let’s break it down.
The matchups start out like this: Devin Harris is guarding the inbounder, Ramon Sessions. DeShawn Stevenson (who has also been great on the defensive end this season) is on the red-hot Ben Gordon. You then have Jeff Teague on Kemba Walker, and Josh Smith and Al Horford watching Byron Mullens and Reggie Williams.
Here, the play is set into motion. Mullens sets a screen for Kemba at the top of the arc. Instead of Teague fighting around the pick, Smith picks up Walker to disallow a possible set-up for either Kemba to shoot a three, or for him to pass it back to Sessions for a shot. In the paint, you have Reggie William getting ready to set a screen on Stevenson as Gordon runs around to the top of the arc.
Now, you have Gordon running free from Stevenson and being picked up by Teague, and Horford switching out onto Byron Mullens. Here’s what it looked like when the Bobcats inbounded the ball:
So much for getting a open shot.
Let’s recap: the opposing team doesn’t even think of going to their point guard matched up against your power forward, your center gave absolutely no room to a shooter on the perimeter, and your 1-3 guys tag-teamed to deny Gordon, who was on freaking fire, the ball. Maybe you can try and chalk it up to the opposing team being the Bobcats, but they do currently have a better record than the LA Lakers. (I’ll take things that won’t last for 1000, Alex)
It’s one thing to be able to switch one screen effectively, but it’s a completely different game when you can switch any screen that you want to practically no detriment. And yes, that includes center-to-point guard switches.
This clip is from a couple of seasons ago, but it is still relevant.
Before that clip starts, Joe Johnson was originally guarding Derrick Rose. Boozer then set a pick on Johnson, forcing Horford to switch out onto the former MVP. I’d say that he did pretty well at keeping Rose from getting a good look. This isn’t the only time Horford has had to do this, either. If you remember, who was the guy that forced a turnover on Rajon Rondo in an isolation at the end of game 5 in the playoffs this last year? That was Mr. Horford. Guess who was guarding Rondo before the switch? That would be Josh Smith.
What? Were you expecting someone else?