Hawks still stuck in the middle

They’ve been there since 2021 playoff run

Maybe you’re just now checking in on the 2023-24 Hawks. If so, you didn’t miss much. The same goes for anyone who last watched the Hawks during their run to the 2021 NBA Eastern Conference finals.

A few of the names have changed. Coach Quin Snyder has the Hawks playing a different style. Yet the team’s strengths, weaknesses and results remain the same.

The Hawks score a lot of points and give up a lot of points. They win some, and they lose some. The Hawks aren’t a bad team. They are stuck in the middle. That’s not a good place for an NBA team built around high-priced, veteran players.

The Hawks are 9-11 after losing to the Nets at State Farm Arena on Wednesday. They are 93-91 since the high mark of the 2021 playoffs while scoring 116.89 points per game and allowing 115.99. The team’s offensive efficiency rankings during those seasons: second, fifth, and ninth. The team’s defensive efficiency rankings: 26th, 21st and 25th (per Cleaning the Glass, garbage time excluded).

The Hawks have 62 games left to play. A quarter of the season usually isn’t enough time to judge a team. But the Hawks essentially are the same team we’ve seen for two-plus seasons. We already know how it ends if there are no significant changes to the roster.

The Hawks finished ninth in the East in 2021-22. They were eighth last season. They had to win play-in games to qualify for the postseason in both years. The Hawks stood 11th in the East after losing to the Nets. The ceiling looks to be in the same place after the Hawks subtracted more veteran player talent than they added after last season.

The Hawks traded starting forward John Collins for Rudy Gay, who is out of the league. Now they are thin at forward. Aaron Holiday left the Hawks to sign a minimum, partially guaranteed deal in Houston. Now the Hawks are short on guards who can hold up on defense.

The Hawks were banking on getting better with the development of young players and Snyder’s influence. The results are mixed.

Forward Jalen Johnson has been the one bright spot for the team’s player-development program. A.J. Griffin and Onyeka Okongwu have regressed. Kobe Bufkin, the No. 15 pick in the last draft, played only two games before hurting his wrist during a practice for the Hawks’ G-League affiliate.

Johnson injured his wrist Nov. 25 and could be out another month. The Hawks need him back as soon as possible. Trae Young is the team’s best player. Johnson might be the most important. He’s the only Hawks forward who’s been consistently good at both ends of the floor. Snyder has said the team’s defensive limitations are exacerbated without Johnson.

Snyder got a full offseason to build his program after the Hawks hired him in February. It seemed his influence was working when the Hawks won five of their first eight games this season. During that stretch they beat two of the league’s top teams, Milwaukee and Minnesota. The Hawks weren’t playing great defense, but it was good enough because they are hard to stop.

The Hawks have lost eight of 12 games since then. The 76ers, Celtics, Cavaliers and Bucks all scored easily in decisive victories. The rebuilding Spurs scored a season-high in points in a close loss to the Hawks. The Pacers baited the Hawks into a defense-free shootout and beat them while scoring 157 points.

The Hawks played their best defensive game in a week against the Nets and still lost, 114-113. Mikal Bridges made a tough shot for the game-winner. It happens. What shouldn’t happen: Bridges’ easy basket on Brooklyn’s penultimate possession. The Hawks allowed him to slip free for an uncontested, go-ahead layup with 32.8 seconds left.

The Hawks probably would have defeated the Nets with normal shooting nights from Young and Dejounte Murray (4-for-14 combined on 3-pointers). They will win more of those kind of games if they can become more consistent defensively.

“A lot of it is mental: knowing your assignment, knowing where to be, knowing what (opponents) like to do,” Young said. “And just thinking on the court. Not just out there just playing. Every possession has got to matter. It’s got to mean something to you. I feel like we’ll get to that point.”

It’s not as if the Hawks don’t work while on defense. The energy is noticeably better on that end from past seasons. The Hawks lead the league in steals (9.1) and deflections (17.1) per game. They don’t have so many defensive possessions in which the problems start as soon as opponents set the first ball screen.

Yet all that work hasn’t translated to enough stops because the Hawks still give up too many easy baskets. Only one team in the league allows a higher rate of the most efficient shots, corner 3-pointers and shots at the rim. Fast breaks and defensive rebounding also are big problems. The Hawks rank 25th in points allowed per possession in transition and 28th in opponent putbacks.

Said Snyder: “You can analyze a lot of different things about your defense, but if you don’t get back and you don’t rebound, you’re going to struggle to defend.”

Snyder’s predecessor, Nate McMillan, used to say the same kind of thing. He mostly got the same results, too. McMillan’s defense-first message translated to the court for only a brief period.

The Hawks were an above-average defense in the 38 games after McMillan took over from Lloyd Pierce to end the 2020-21 season. They played good-enough defense in the playoffs, too, until running up against eventual NBA champion Milwaukee. Then the Hawks went back to being a team that scored a lot of points, gave up a lot of points and lost as many games as they won.

If you don’t remember that time, then watching the current Hawks should jog the memory. Not much has changed. The Hawks are stuck in the middle.

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