The Hawks’ defensive scheme has some problems

Eric Yeboah —  February 19, 2017

Atlanta has suffered through several blowouts so far this season that should give pause to whether or not this team is capable of making a deep playoff run.

In every single one of those blowouts, they looked unequipped and unenthusiastic facing opponents with several shooters and playmakers. Washington, Detroit, and Utah all showed just that this year’s defense, allowing the most points per game under Coach Budenholzer’s tenure, does not seem to be imposing their will on teams as in seasons past.

The reason that may be? Those aggressive teams mentioned above have figured out the weaknesses of the Hawks’ defense, and they are well-equipped to attack it.

“We know that they are a team that likes to have their bigs play back in pick and roll coverage,” said Washington’s Bradley Beal. “So we took full advantage of it and were able to come off screens for jumpers or get in the lane and create for someone else.”

Beal’s teammate — star point guard John Wall — added on to that assessment.

“They are a type of team that closes out the paint first, then closes out on shooters, so with me and Bradley being aggressive in pick and rolls, guys just have to be ready to shoot.” said Wall. “More teams are just going to give me the shot in pick and rolls by allowing me and Gortat to play two-on-tow or take us away and let the weak side score.”

In Washington and Atlanta’s Jan. 27 meeting that the Wizards won 112-86, the box score said the Wizards posted a 42% 3-point field goal percentage, but witnessing it felt more like 52%, as many of them were taken without much contest from defenders. More alarming than some of those other blowouts was that the Hawks were fully aware stepping onto this court that they were facing a Top 10 3-point shooting squad in Washington and apparently made no adjustments from their usual scheme.

The pick and roll scheme, along with electing to pack the paint, seems works well when you face teams like the Bulls or Nets that lack floor spacers. Honestly, it was very apparent last season when Cleveland swept Atlanta for a second straight time that eventually talents trumps scheme; we see that every year during march Madness when a Cinderella run ends once they face an overwhelming gifted roster.

Some believed heading into the season that Dwight Howard could take this Hawks defense to a level that Al Horford could not. Although Howard thrives in rim protection, teams have steadily tried to force him into defending the pick and rolls more frequently, an area he may not be completely comfortable in. Combined with that, the farther Howard is away from the rim, the less of a rebounding presence he becomes. This then results in more offensive opportunities for opponents, as evidence by the Hawks’ currently ranking 26th in opponent second chance points and 23rd in opponent offensive rebounds. While many put a lot of stock in Howard’s pure rebounding numbers, replacing Horford — who excelled in reading coverages and moving his feet well enough to disrupt ballhandlers — is not a skill you can find just anywhere in this league.

The focus in this series of clips is to watch how Howard and Mike Muscala have been instructed to sag back into the paint.

Now when Budenholzer chooses to blitz the ballhandler off the pick and roll by forcing him to one side of the floor, there are only two reactions from opponents: panic or patience. Teams like Washington and Cleveland play with a certain level of patience because they have multiple sources of offense. Those secondary options can make the right pass or drift to the right spot on the backside of the defense for higher percentage looks from downtown. Utah is another team this season who has proven that with length, shooting and playmaking, this Top 5 ranked defense can look discombobulated.

While the Hawks often excel at trapping, this series shows just how vulnerable the weakside is whenever the Hawks trap one side. Not every team can take advantage of that, but Utah’s Gordon Hayward explains why some of the top teams in the league are able to do so.

“They do a good job of coming over, shifting early and shutting down rolls,” said Hayward. “We are unique because we have a lot of playmakers and taller guys so we can see over the defense, which helps make that extra skip pass.”

Hayward’s teammate and point guard George Hill echoed similar sentiments.

“You have to be fundamentally sound when you play these guys,” said George Hill. “Coach Bud is a great coach and they have a lot of great players that are active. So you have to strategically pick them apart as far as attacking the bigs getting them in two-on-one options, where we can get the ball out of the trap and try to play two-on-one on the backside.”

For the last couple seasons, it always felt as though no matter how poorly the Hawks struggled to score the ball that the defense would always be there to keep the game close. They could buckle down in any moment and jumpstart some type of offense, but not so much this season. Yes, the defense enabled them to comeback from 20-point deficits in Milwaukee and Houston, but in order to think like a champion, you must think pessimistically. In the Hawks’ case, it’s not just about blown leads and lost games, but wins too; even in victories in which they had a substantial lead, they closed out the game rather poorly from a defensive standpoint.

Playoff time is just around the corner and no considerable changes to the roster seem forthcoming. The scheme can be and has been very effective obviously, but its weaknesses could very well be the reason they won’t make it very far in this year’s postseason.

Eric Yeboah

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4 responses to The Hawks’ defensive scheme has some problems

  1. I’m finally getting around to reading this.

    This is a REALLY good read, Eric.

    Well done. Great use of quotes and visual aides.

    Your hard work is appreciated by the fandom. (All 11 of us.) 🙂

    • thank you a ton man! I’ll have another interesting read coming out next week! hope you enjoy it

  2. This is a good article, but it doesn’t show why guys are wide open for 3s. What it shows, is that the sagging bigs will give up midrange jumpers. Honestly, I’d rather give up an open 18 footer, than an open 3 pointer.

    A lot of the 3s the Hawks give up, are because the wings are too busy “ball watching” and sagging in the lane when guys get beat off the dribble. At some point, they’re going to have to trust that Dwight can be enough to not only deter drives toward the rim, but also not leave shooters open under ANY circumstance.

    This is the same issue the Hawks had back in 2010, under Mike Woodson’s “switching defense”. When the switching worked, it was a thing of beauty. But teams eventually figured out that if they could isolate Mike Bibby, the Hawks would be forced to help him. And if the wing tried to help him, the ball handler found an open man out on the 3 point line.

    That situation was made worse when we played Orlando, with a then dominant Dwight Howard. Woody was so concerned about Dwight dominating on the inside, that he’d send the wing down to double, and all Dwight had to do is kick it out to the open man. When the Hawks scrambled back to the perimeter, the Magic simply made a few extra passes to get the open look.

    The same thing is happening under Budenholzer’s scheme. For some reason, the wings always collapse in the paint, trying to shut off drives, no matter who is going toward the basket ( just as Bradley Beal said ). When that happens, people are open out on the perimeter.

    The 3 point breakdowns on defense are disturbing as hell, because the coach can correct that. But if he doesn’t change his scheme, those shots will continue to be available.

    • Really appreciate your take on this and breakdown! i completely agree with your take on dwight and what he needs to do to make a bigger impact. I think another issue is loading up on one side far too much allowing teams to use the skip pass over the top of a hawks defense that does not have enough length to cover ground quickly.

      Thabo said after the raptors game last week that they are focusing more on the 3 point defense in film sessions and making adjustments.