Leading into the 2020-21 regular season, which begins Wednesday in Chicago for the Hawks, the team is prioritizing defense as it tries to improve from a 20-47 record last season to the playoffs this season, which would mark the franchise’s first postseason trip since 2017.
On paper, it seems offense would be this team’s forte, considering who the team returns (including Trae Young and John Collins) and who it added (including Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari). Once the Hawks find a rhythm in the regular season, which may take a little while considering they must incorporate nine new players, they have the talent to shoot well, with five players (Gallinari, 40.5%, Collins, 40.1%, Kevin Huerter, 38%, Bogdanovic, 37.2%, Young, 36.1%) who shot above league average from 3-point range last season (35.8%), and second-year players De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish looking much improved on that end.
But, if the team achieves success, it likely will heavily stem from its improvement on defense.
“Everyone’s going to talk about what we’re capable of doing offensively,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said. “Everyone needs to talk about what we are doing defensively, and that’s going to be the mindset that we have to have from start to finish. ... You’ve got three defensive stoppers and two guys that are liabilities, the liability’s going to get you beat.
“It isn’t the three stoppers that are going to help you win, so our team defense is going to be tremendous, a tremendous amount of focus will be there, a tremendous amount of effort will be there, and a tremendous amount of buy-in has to be there.”
Last season, the Hawks gave up 119.7 points per game, the most in the league, and had the third-worst defensive rating at 114.4. They gave up 15 second-chance points per game (second-to-last in the league), 53.3 paint points (last in the league), 14.8 fast-break points (25th) and had a defensive rebounding percentage of 70.8% (29th).
With a revamped roster, they’ll need to see significant improvement this season. That will become particularly important if the Hawks do reach the postseason, or are in the playoff hunt late in the season, and are playing crunch-time minutes where a crucial defensive stop can be difference between a win and a loss.
To get better on defense, the Hawks added Kris Dunn, one of the better defensive guards in the game (Dunn will miss at least the first two games as he continues to recover from a knee injury). And, even though he’s slowly getting back up to game speed after a heel injury prevented him from playing in an NBA game since Jan. 29, Clint Capela already has provided an upgrade at center as a defensive backstop, communicator and rebounder. The Hawks also expect to see more aggressive versions of their second-year, two-way wings in Reddish and Hunter, and judging from the preseason, it looks like that’s what they’ll get. At backup point guard, veteran and two-time NBA champion Rajon Rondo can provide a cerebral presence and leadership on that end.
But, they can’t rely on only a handful of guys to play defense, per Pierce. On offense, one or two players can get hot and explode for any number of points, but defense has to be more of a collective effort.
“Offensively, I think in our league, you can have a lot of guys that even when offensive isn’t crisp, we have enough guys that can make plays and basically be your bailout,” Pierce said. “If you have a guy defensively or two guys defensively that aren’t on the same page, there is no bailout. A blocked shot isn’t a bailout. You’re putting Clint and Bruno (Fernando) and John, all of those guys on the back line of your defense in a lot of bad, compromised positions.
“So if we can be on the same page and if we can get five guys on a string, we can really emphasize that, understanding who to hold accountable in what we’re doing. If we can reduce the slippage, we’ll be all right. Offensively, we have bailout guys, and sometimes you have to rely on bailout guys. We don’t have bailout guys defensively; we need everybody to do their job.”
The Hawks know they have the talent on offense, per Collins. If they feel the scoring will come, then focusing on defense is a natural progression.
“That’s my goal, or at least I have that mindset; we need to at least be a top-10 team defensively to really compete because I feel like we know what we can do, or become on the offensive end, with as much talent as we have,” Collins said.
This season, the Hawks want to have a “no-paint mentality.” The title is pretty self-explanatory; they want to prioritize limiting points given up in the paint. They’ll also focus on defending kick-out passes from the paint to the perimeter, a common inside-out approach to getting an open 3-point shot, and cleaning things up in transition.
“This has got to be our identity,” Capela said. “... Layups and dunks are the easiest baskets in the game, and we don’t want to let that, you just don’t want to let a team dominate in the paint. I think it’s a huge message that’s going to be really important for us to not let a team dictate our paint. And we have guys that are able to be in the paint and are able to go contest 3′s, also. So we have the resources for that. But our main focus should be our paint.”
In the Hawks’ two exhibition games against Memphis, when limiting Jonas Valanciunas and Ja Morant in the paint was a key part of the game plan, the Grizzlies shot 39.6% from 3-point range (19-for-48) in the Hawks’ 117-116 win Saturday and shot 38.8% from 3 (19-for-50) in the Hawks’ 128-106 loss Thursday. For context, Utah led the league in 3-point percentage last season at 38%, and Houston led in 3′s made (15.6) and attempted (45.3) per game.
Exhibition games don’t carry much weight, of course, and the Hawks viewed them as an extension of practice while adding nine new guys to the mix, but it’s something they’ll have to balance in the future.
“We have to take away something,” Hill said Friday. “Our goal is to take away the paint, but we allowed (them) to have 50-plus paint points and then they shot 50 3′s. That’s a recipe for disaster no matter who you play. And we’re still learning. ... We have to do it collectively on the defensive end, and we have to commit to something.”
The Hawks will have the depth to explore different defensive lineups as needed, said Young, who has been a weakness on defense but tallied four steals in Saturday’s win, as he was more active in passing lanes.
“I see a lot of potential, with guys and different lineups,” Young said. “We’re better with certain lineups out there defensively, for sure. I think it’s good that we have different rotations for different lineups, for certain circumstances, too. Defensively, I think we have a really high potential; it’s all about finding ways to reach that potential, though.”
The good news is, this is a team that actively wants to get better on defense, per Reddish. It’s something they constantly talk about, whether it’s in the team group chat, in practice or in games.
As far as what must go right to make that happen?
“Just being on a string, building that chemistry and that communication,” Reddish said, pointing to the new players who must adjust to a new system, and vice versa, as well as the nine-month layoff the returning players have had. “Obviously, we haven’t played together in a minute, and we have some new guys in. … Just continuing to strengthen our bond.”
First and foremost, good defense usually starts with effort.
If that can be maintained, even when shots aren’t falling, it can keep a team in the game long enough for its offense to stabilize.
“You need to be defensive to win, you need to have a defensive mentality to win,” Hunter said. “When you’re not scoring, your defense is going to have to hold it down until you can make shots and things like that. I think as a team, we realize that and we know that and we can just try to keep building and building and hopefully our defense gets better and better.”