That’s the crux of the matter for Snyder as he begins his first full season as Hawks coach Wednesday. He has to help the Hawks shake their identity as an elite offensive team that doesn’t play enough defense to be a serious championship contender.
Snyder’s predecessors couldn’t do it. He didn’t make any progress while coaching the Hawks on the fly for the final 21 games of 2022-23 and during the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Celtics. Snyder since has had a full offseason to set his expectations.
How long might it take for him to make a difference?
“It’s hard to project that,” Young said. “Sometimes, it takes teams longer when you make a coaching change and sometimes you go to the Eastern Conference finals when you make a coaching change.”
Young is, of course, referring to the 2020-21 Hawks season. They went on a deep playoff run after Nate McMillan replaced Lloyd Pierce as coach in February 2021. Over those four months, the Hawks had a great offense and a solid defense.
The results were playoff victories over the favored Knicks and 76ers. The Hawks couldn’t stop the Bucks in the conference finals, but no one could handle the NBA champs that year. The future seemed bright for the Hawks because they’d offered proof that they could get play enough defense to be a contender.
That turned out to be a very short era.
The Hawks dropped from a ranking of 16th in defensive efficiency in 2020-21 to 26th in 2021-22, per Cleaning the Glass (garbage time excluded). The Heat, a mediocre offensive team, had little trouble scoring on the Hawks while beating them in the first round of the 2022 playoffs. The Hawks ranked 21st in defensive efficiency last season. The Celtics created easy shots at the basket and in transition while eliminating the Hawks from the postseason.
Now Snyder will get his chance to do better over a full season. He coached elite defensive teams in Utah. The Jazz ranked seventh or better in defensive efficiency six times in Snyder’s nine seasons as coach. Relatedly, those teams had elite rim protector Rudy Gobert at center. They also had big guards, rugged wings and stout power forwards.
“Personnel dictates a lot of the schemes that can help make a group successful,” Snyder said.
That’s why Snyder will have a bigger challenge shaping the Hawks into a good defensive team. The Hawks have good paint protectors Capela and Onyeka Okongwu at center, but Gobert is on another level. The Hawks also have small guards and smallish power forwards.
“We’re not the biggest team, so how can we be good (defensively) as far as how we play with the personnel that we have?” Snyder said.
That’s been a difficult question to answer. Transition defense has been a persistent problem for the Hawks. In the half court, opponents have faced little resistance getting into the paint, as Capela noted. He can’t be expected to constantly challenge unimpeded drives to the basket.
Said Young: “Everybody has to do their job. It’s not just on us (perimeter players). It’s not just on Clint and our ‘bigs’ to protect us. We’ve all got to do our job. I think our defense in the (exhibition games) showed what we want to do as far as guarding the basket and making sure teams stay out of the paint as much as possible. We contest all shots and 3′s.”
There was a time when I doubted whether the Hawks ever could be good defensively with Young as lead guard. His relatively small size always will be a limiting factor. The switching schemes favored by most NBA teams against pick-and-rolls aren’t feasible for the Hawks. And Young didn’t seem interested in playing much defense early in his career.
But Young was noticeably better at that end last season. Perhaps some of that change can be attributed to the addition of Dejounte Murray, a solid defender who came from a Spurs program that emphasizes defense. Young and Murray are a small backcourt, but they can make up for that with quickness, anticipation and persistence.
The Hawks showed in the 2020-21 season that they can be at least average defensively with Young on the floor. Capela, De’Andre Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanovic were part of good defensive lineups that season. All are still with the Hawks, but some circumstances have changed.
The Hawks traded forward John Collins to the Jazz in July. He’d been a good, versatile defender for them. Bogdanovic’s defense has declined as knee injuries have seemed to affect his lateral quickness. Hunter hasn’t become the consistent, lock-down wing defender the Hawks expected when they drafted him in 2019. The Hawks didn’t re-sign one of their better perimeter defenders from last season, Aaron Holiday.
Snyder will have to figure out the lineup combinations that work best defensively. His personnel assets include Capela, Okongwu, Murray and forward Saddiq Bey. The big challenge for Snyder and his new staff is fostering a team culture that values getting stops as much as scoring points.
“I do feel like playing hard on the defensive end, that’s something that I’ve seen our guys do,” Snyder said. “There’s a will there, and that’s going to manifest itself in something like transition defense and the defensive boards. A lot of focus on schemes and things like that, which are important, but on the front end and the back end of possessions, your will defensively is really important.”
It’s Snyder’s job to get Hawks players to buy into that message. How well he does it will determine how far they go this season.