Lloyd Pierce’s plan for Hawks: Better defense via ‘elite’ offense

Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

You can see how the five young players who form the foundation for the Hawks will be a high-scoring group once the parts coalesce. All-Star Trae Young and John Collins already are very good at that end. Kevin Huerter is on his way. Rookies Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter have the potential to get there.

Before the All-Star break, the Hawks scored 116 points per 100 possessions with those five on the court. The Mavericks led the NBA with a 117.1 offensive rating. The Hawks were 27th (106.3) as a team, according to Cleaning the Glass (garbage time excluded).

The Hawks Five has played just 262 possessions together. That’s not enough to draw many conclusions yet. But their talent suggests the efficient scoring will continue as they play more together. That was a big part of coach Lloyd Pierce’s pitch to the quintet before the Hawks began their post-break schedule Thursday night against the Heat.

“No hesitation, we are going to be an explosive offensive team moving forward with that core five,” Pierce said.

The bigger questions are at the other end. The Hawks Five had a 109.3 defensive rating before the All-Star break. That’s about average for the league’s teams. As a team, the Hawks ranked 28th in defensive rating.

Recent additions Dewayne Dedmon and Clint Capela (out with a foot injury) are good defenders. They won’t suddenly make the Hawks a good defensive team. Pierce told the Hawks Five that that will require individual growth from each of them.

“It’s something they understand,” he said. “They also understand that if we are better offensively, that’s going to help our defense. We’ve got to be an elite offensive team.”

That’s a bit surprising to hear from Pierce, considering his background. Pierce ran Philadelphia’s defense as an assistant for coach Brett Brown. The 76ers ranked third in defensive rating in 2017-18. Pierce took the Hawks job the next season and Philadelphia’s defense slipped to 13th.

“People say ‘system’ and ‘style’ and ‘your defense,’” Pierce said. “It isn’t ‘my defense.’ Players tell you how you are going to play and what you are going to do.”

Unlike those Sixers, the Hawks are not a veteran team with multiple good defenders. Pierce looks at the Hawks Five and believes that, for now, playing to their strengths at one end is the best way to shore up their weaknesses at the other.

“I hate looking at our defense from an offensive perspective,” Pierce said, but it makes sense when you examine the details.

According to Cleaning the Glass, before the break the Hawks ranked 29th in fast-break chances allowed and 29th in fast-break points allowed per possession. Related: the Hawks rank 29th in opponent steals per game. The Hawks can improve their defense by limiting the giveaways that lead to easy scoring chances for opponents in the open court.

That would be just a start. The Hawks ranked 27th in half-court defensive rating before this week. Dedmon and, eventually, Capela will help with two big issues there: rim protection and rebounding. Pierce wants Collins to play with better anticipation when guarding the basket so he can use his quickness and athletic ability to offset his length disadvantage.

Pierce said part of the problem for the Hawks’ defense is having to rely heavily on rookie wings Hunter and Reddish to be the top two pieces. They “are getting exposed a little bit” when guarding elite wing players. Both have the physical attributes to do it. They need more experience.

Young is one of the NBA’s better players on offense. He’s been a weak link on defense. Young’s relatively small size will always be a challenge. Pierce wants his point guard to “get peskier, get nastier, get a little more physical.” He cited a hypothetical scenario in which Young gets switched onto a big man, stops him from scoring in the post and then talks trash about it the rest of the game.

“Taking the challenge,” Pierce said. “That’s how he has to approach it. More importantly, it tells his teammates that he’s in that fight and he wants to be in that fight and embraces that fight.”

Pierce’s plan is for easier offensive chances to help Young’s defense. The coach wants to create more catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts for Young. That’s overdue. Young was among the best at that as a rookie and is even better this season, but he hasn’t had many catch-and-shoot chances.

Creating more of them means playing Young off the ball more often while someone else runs the offense. Huerter already can do that. Pierce wants Reddish to do it more. The secondary benefit to Young getting more catch-and-shoot tries is he’ll use less energy playing offense, leaving more for the other end.

Those are the kind of tweaks that can squeeze more scoring from the Hawks. Most of the ingredients are on hand.

There’s Young’s efficient scoring and superlative passing. There’s Huerter’s 3-point shooting and playmaking. Collins is a great scorer around the basket, and Pierce would like to see him to shoot more 3’s, which he’s good at. The two rookies will have to come along, though Hunter’s 3-point shooting already shows promise.

“The excitement is there are so many things they are capable of doing because of their ability and skill set,” Pierce said. “We are going to have fun exploring some of those.”

The Hawks Five includes the parts to be a great offensive group. The defense needs work. In Pierce’s vision, they’ll become better at getting stops because they are harder to stop.

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