Hawks aim for defensive buy-in: ‘If you want to win, you have no choice’

I’m confident that Trae Young and Dejonte Murray will make it work sharing the ball as Hawks backcourt partners. The Hawks already know how to score. Young and Murray will work out the details on the best way for them to keep the Hawks humming as co-lead guards.

I’m more interested in whether the Hawks can dramatically improve their defense in 2022-23. The Hawks always were at least solid on defense, and often great, during their run of 10 consecutive postseason appearances. They’ve been bad at getting stops since then. Murray is among the new players expected to help change that.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Hawks

Murray spent six seasons in San Antonio, where coach Gregg Popovich built a defensive machine over 20-plus years. The Spurs had a lot of good defensive players over that time. They also had an expectation that all players, even the not-so-good defenders, would do their best on that end of the floor.

That’s the kind of attitude the Hawks will be looking to develop, starting with training camp this weekend.

“Not all guys can be elite defenders,” Murray said. “But (by) showing effort and just trying, you never know what can happen. I’m going to bring what I learned and what I love, and that’s play defense and try to lead by example.

“I think everybody will buy in. if you want to win, you have no choice but to buy in.”

That’s the bottom line for the Hawks. Get serious about defense, and they’ll have a real chance to be a legitimate championship contender in the Eastern Conference. Continue to be deficient at that end and the Hawks will get what they deserve. Last season, that meant relegation to the postseason play-in tournament followed by a humbling loss to Miami in the first round.

Hawks coach Nate McMillan said the Hawks have the potential to be better on defense with the new mix of players. But the process isn’t as simple as putting better individual defenders on the floor.

“It’s more of a mindset, a commitment,” McMillan said.

The Hawks haven’t developed that with McMillan as coach. They made it to the 2021 East finals while playing only OK defense. That was good enough because Young was great as scorer and playmaker, plus the Hawks faced offensively limited opponents in the first two rounds. The Bucks had little trouble scoring against the Hawks while eliminating them from the conference finals.

In last season’s playoffs, the Heat didn’t shoot particularly well against the Hawks but dominated them by smothering Young and limiting his teammates. The Heat, like the Spurs, established a defensive identity over many years. Mike Woodson did that for the Hawks, and successors Larry Drew and Mike Budenholzer kept it going. The Hawks lost their defensive spirit when they rebuilt via the draft.

The Hawks ranked 21st, 27th, 27th, 21st and 26th in defensive efficiency over the past five seasons. The Hawks have been tough to stop with Young as lead guard. They’ll be even harder to stop with Murray alongside Young. But it’s still an open question whether a team with Young in the lead can consistently get enough stops to be a championship contender.

Young said he plans to be a more vocal leader and is “locked in on winning a championship, and nothing else.” That won’t happen so long as he’s one of the worst defenders in the NBA.

“A lot of it is just his maturation and leadership,” Hawks general manager Landry Fields said. “This is Year 5 (for Young) now. With where he’s going and where we’re at, that’s the next stage of development that we’ve got to get out of him. ... Offense, that is always be going to be there because those guys are so good, but from a defensive standpoint, we’ve got to be better.”

Teaming with Murray should help Young’s defense. Murray is a long, switchable defender who ranks among the league leaders in steals and deflections. The Hawks also traded for defensive-oriented wing players Moe Harkless and Justin Holiday. There’s a new voice on the bench, too: McMillan hired Mike Longabardi, who’s earned a reputation as a defensive coordinator over 18 years as an NBA assistant.

Longabardi and Holiday both were with the Kings last season.

“He’s going to be very, very assertive,” Holiday said of Longabardi. “We need that. We need structure. We need to know exactly what to do and how to do it.”

The Hawks will have an unusually long training camp to build the cohesiveness necessary to play better defense. They opened camp early because they are scheduled to play two exhibition games against the Bucks in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The Hawks plan to spend 10 days overseas. Once they return they’ll play just two more exhibition games, both on the road, before opening the season Oct. 19 at State Farm Arena.

The Hawks got a head start on team building during the offseason. Young and Murray worked out together in Atlanta and later teamed up with John Collins for a pro-am league in Seattle. Many Hawks players were in town by August and nearly all of them were here in early September for five-on-five scrimmages.

Fields said the veteran players new to the Hawks are talkative on the floor, which should help the team’s defense.

“We are definitely taking the steps necessary to get there,” Fields said. “To say we’ll be perfect tomorrow, I’m not saying that. It’s not (only) about injecting defensive-minded players into the rotation.”

The Hawks don’t have to be perfect on defense to be a good team. They need to be better on defense to be a great team. The buy-in starts this weekend.