Hawks look to continue defensive upgrades with recent coaching moves

Hawks coach Nate McMillan has been busy filling out his coaching staff. (Alyssa Pointer/ AJC file)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Hawks coach Nate McMillan has been busy filling out his coaching staff. (Alyssa Pointer/ AJC file)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The Hawks lost one of their top assistant coaches this offseason, so they made their moves to replace him.

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On Monday, the Hawks promoted assistant coach Joe Prunty to the top chair and hired Mike Longabardi. With the rounding out of the team’s coaching staff, the Hawks look to continue moving forward as they improve on last season’s performance.

Prunty and Longabardi bring years of experience that the Hawks aim to lean on.

Prunty boasts more than 20 years of NBA coaching experience and has been the top assistant before, as well as being the interim head coach for the Bucks in 2018. He led them to the playoffs before losing to the Celtics 4-3 in the first round. So that experience is something Hawks coach Nate McMillan is ready to use to his advantage.

McMillan said Prunty will have a little more responsibility as far as helping to manage game plans and practices.

The Hawks also want to tap into the experience that Longabardi will bring to the team. The 49-year-old longtime assistant brings roughly 19 years of NBA coaching experience to the Hawks and will bring a defensive mind to the team.

Longabardi has two NBA championships under his belt, one with the Celtics and another with the Cavaliers. McMillan said Longabardi had what McMillan was looking to bring to the staff.

“Just my conversation when I interviewed him, really all the things that he talked about, I believe that defense should be played the same way,” McMillan told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “So I really got excited when I had the opportunity to interview him and talk with him about his thoughts, his ideas, his philosophy on the defensive end of the floor. Basically, we were aligned with each other on most of the things that we’d like for our teams to do on the floor.”

A Frostburg State grad, Longabardi has a reputation as a coach who can help teams turn around their defenses. In his first 10 seasons, the teams he coached regularly ranked in the top-10 defenses in the league. Since then, each of his teams, except one, have ranked in the bottom-15 defenses in the NBA. The Wizards and Kings ranked among the bottom-10 defenses.

“I just look at his all of his coaching. You’re going to have good and bad seasons,” McMillan said. “I don’t think any coach that has spent time in the league has had great seasons every year. But he does have two championships up under his belt. He has coached some elite players, and they’ve had really good defenses. He’s worked with some of the best players in this game in Kevin Garnett and LeBron James of the worlds.

“So yeah, I mean, you’re going to have years where it’s not as good as, as it was, but he has the ability. He has the know-how. He has the experience of coaching a young team, as well as a veteran team. I think the big thing was, he was excited to come to Atlanta to work with us. He had a couple other offers that he could have taken, and he liked our roster, and our plans, our vision for the future, and he wanted to be a part of that.”

So the Hawks will adapt and utilize the strength of the roster. McMillan mentioned the two agreed that there would be some flexibility as they figured out how to take advantage of what the players were best equipped to handle.

In addition to that, McMillan added that Longabardi was a fan of getting back to the basics. He added that Longabardi believes in mastering man defense in order to play good zone defense.

The Hawks, though, have added a strong two-way player in Dejounte Murray, and they’ll look to continue developing their recent draft picks into strong players on defense. Plus, they’ve added a couple of other free agents who have reputations as strong defenders.

“We want the team to be physical,” McMillan said. “We want them to be able to pressure, guard their man, be able to play one-on-one defense, with a strong weakside, off-the-ball defense. Rebounding is the key to winning. So we want them to be connected on the defensive end of the floor.”

The Hawks had the fourth-worst defense by the end of the regular season last season. While Longabardi will bring his defensive acumen to the team, all of the strategizing on defense won’t fall squarely on his shoulders. McMillan said he will take on some of that work and that there is an expectation of improvement.

“That’s something that we as a staff will do,” McMillan said. “Everything’s not gonna be on just coach Mike. That’s gonna be on me. I’m going to be helping with the defense, but we expect to improve. I think we started that with our free agency and in our drafting players, you know, trying to bring in those style of players that are two-way players, and we want to build on that starting with summer league and going into a veterans camp.”